Aug 25, 2022 - Technology

"Cities of the future," built from scratch

View of a futuristic city with residential towers and drones.
A rendering of the future city of Telosa, which will be somewhere in the American West. Image courtesy of CityofTelosa.com

Billionaire Marc Lore is fleshing out his plan to build a utopian city called Telosa for 5 million people in the American desert — and he's not the only one with such ambitions.

Why it matters: There are about a dozen projects worldwide to create sustainable, hypermodern cities-from-scratch. While they may never come to fruition, the proposals themselves hint at what the city of the future might look like.

Driving the news: Telosa is set to be built on 150,000 acres in either Nevada, Utah or Arizona, and 50,000 "diverse" people will call it home by 2030, according to newly released details from Lore — a serial entrepreneur who sold Jet.com to Walmart for $3.3 billion and the parent company of Diapers.com to Amazon for $545 million.

  • "We're not just building a new city — this is a new model for society," Lore said at a Telosa "town hall meeting" in July, adding that he wants his new city to be "sustainable and equitable to all."
  • It'll be governed by a principle he calls "equitism," which seems to be a mashup of democracy, capitalism and socialism.

In Lore's vision, vehicles will be electric and autonomous, and roads won't have curbs (which could hinder differently-abled people), or on-street parking.

  • Telosa's 36 districts will each be "15-minute cities," where everything a resident needs is a short walk away.
  • Every building will be "green," with rooftop panels producing renewable energy.
  • The design calls for fresh water to be "stored, cleaned and reused on site," creating a "diverse and efficient water system that is resistant to drought."

How it'll work: A nonprofit called the Telosa Community Foundation will purchase the land to build the city — "land that is virtually worthless," as Lore put it.

  • The hope is that development will increase the land's value, and then the foundation eventually would be able to create a market for it — investing the proceeds in an endowment-style vehicle that would fund education, job training, health care, housing and more.
  • This structure "allows us to offer these incredible social services without having to increase taxes. That is the Holy Grail," says Lore.

Among those working to make Telosa happen: Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and a childhood friend of Lore's, and Bjarke Ingels, the prominent Danish architect whose firm is designing the city.

The big picture: Telosa, a name derived from the ancient Greek word meaning "highest purpose," is one of a growing number of dewy-eyed ambitions to build centrally planned and sustainable communities on a blank landscape — despite obvious impediments, like a lack of fresh water.

  • In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is constructing a megacity named The Line, part of a larger development called Neom.
    • The Line's plan calls for a city 105 miles long but only 220 yards wide, enclosed by mirrored walls and powered entirely by renewable energy, according to newly released designs.
    • Water will be plentiful, according to the project's claims, through desalinization, wastewater and seawater processing, and smart metering.
    • "Saudi projections call for 1.5 million people to live in The Line by 2030," NPR reports, with eventual plans for 9 million residents.
    • But recent Businessweek reporting suggests the broader Neom project has been plagued by indecision at the top and other problems.
  • Floating City in the Maldives is envisioned as a large cluster of hexagonal structures that rise and fall with the sea, with room for up to 20,000 people. It's set to be completed in 2027.
  • Toyota Woven City is a company town being built in the foothills of Japan's Mount Fuji. The proposal calls for a 2,000-person city where Toyota "will test autonomous vehicles, smart technology and robot-assisted living," per CNN.
  • Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is a "master-planned eco-complex designed to show off the UAE’s commitment to sustainability," Bloomberg has reported.
  • Net City in Shenzhen, China, is another company town being built by tech giant Tencent. It'll be a Monaco-size metropolis for 80,000 workers, CNN reports.

Other billionaires with city-building aspirations include Bill Gates, who wants to build a "smart city" called Belmont in the Arizona desert, and Elon Musk.

Reality check: Some of the claims being made by the utopian planners strain credulity — like Telosa's assertion that it'll eventually be a net exporter of water and energy.

  • In the real world, the promise of smart cities — where intelligent sensors, cameras, and Big Data combine to improve everything from traffic flow to city services — has been a consistent disappointment.

The bottom line: The road to utopia is littered with shattered dreams.

  • "We still haven't figured out how to make utopian environments work for people," Professor Sylvie Albert of the University of Winnipeg writes in The Conversation.
  • She reviews the flaws in experiments like Brasília, Levittown, Celebration, Songdo, Eko Atlantic and Sidewalk Toronto.
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