Perhaps that is because this cohort of technotopians has learned from the mistakes of his colleaguesor because they have hired more thoughtful urban planners – or, perhaps cynically, they are simply trying to appeal to rural residents who I will have to vote about the new city plan. Whatever the reason, I hope this time is different. But with so many tech investors at the helm eager to test new technologies like flying carsI’m not optimistic.
I understand. It is a challenge to transform our existing cities and test new technological solutions on our streets. Just look at the rocky launch of electric scooters around the world. Wouldn’t it be easier to test new technologies, business models, and government structures in cities free of annoying people? That is surely the goal of many technotopian plans, which call for building new cities, writing new rules, and involving new residents as guinea pigs. Palantir’s Mr. Lonsdale explains: “The idea is simple: found new cities, free of old bureaucratic and legal structures, and explore bold new visions of how government should work. Market them to people who decide to join and see what the world learns.”
But these new cities are never really built from scratch. They usually invade other people’s lands or act against local plans. Technotopians rarely acknowledge it, which often leads to their downfall, as happens with Alphabet in Toronto and the Sailors in French Polynesia. The Solano project appears to follow a similar trajectory. They have seized land under a veil of secrecy, undermining necessary political support. “If these investors plan to convince Solano residents and their elected representatives that building a new city on productive farmland is a smart plan, they are off to a terrible start in gaining the community’s trust,” said John Garamendi, a Democrat. which represents part of Solano County, testified at a recent state Senate committee hearing.
It’s a shame that technotopians continue to look for new territories. Our current cities have many problems to solve. And here they are many technologies that could help solve them. Their perpetual focus on starting from scratch is just a megalomaniac distraction.
No need to worry, you might think: many of these places will never be built. But these utopian dreams come with an opportunity cost. What if all the billions invested in venture capital and media attention were refocused on solving real-world challenges in cities today? Could we better solve the pending public transit fiscal cliff or the affordable housing crisis? I’m afraid we will never know. The appeal of starting from scratch is too great.
Molly Turner is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley and co-host of the “Technopolis” podcast.