Let's Build Maker Cities for Maker People Around New Resources Like Bandwidth, Compute, and Atomically-Precise Manufacturing
Monday, September 1, 2014 at 9:05AM
Todd Hoff

Update: Larry Page wants a Google 2.0 that will build cities and airports, report says

TL;DR: There’s a lot of unused space in North America. Yet cities like San Francisco are becoming ever more expensive because of a bubble created by high tech jobs that seemingly can be done anywhere. Historically cities are built around resources that provide some service to humans. The age of infrastructure rising around physical resources is declining while the age of digital resource exploitation is rising. Cities are still valuable because they are amazing idea and problem solving machines. How about we create thousands of new Maker Cities in the vast emptiness that is North America and build them around digital resources like bandwidth, compute power, Atomically-Precise Manufacturing (AMP), and all things future and bright?

Observation Number One: There’s lots of empty space out there.

This summer my wife, myself, and two dogs took a 10,000 mile road trip from our home in near Santa Cruz California, across the US to visit the great province of Nova Scotia Canada, and many points around and in-between.

Hour after countless hour on the road created an overwhelmingly vivid thought in my mind: wow, there’s not much here. Land everywhere you look, but not many people.

Stats reinforce this feeling:

America is a vast, thinly populated country, with fewer than 90 people per square mile, the average American lives in a quite densely populated neighborhood, with more than 5000 people per square mile.

Here’s a 2010 population density map backing up the stats:

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 1.21.19 PM.png


And we are seeing a depopulation with nearly two-thirds of rural U.S. counties having lost population since 2010:


Can’t at least some of that space be put to better use? Which brings us to the question of why would anyone move where there’s nothing? Which leads to...

Observation Number Two: Cities and infrastructure are built around resource reservoirs.

To understand the creation of cities, roads, bridges, ferries, railroads, canals, and other infrastructure in North America, you really need to understand the pattern of how resources have been exploited. This is a conclusion I came to while driving around playing tourist, because you actually get to learn why cities were built in the location they were built. And why they flourished sometime later after being established for another reason. And why they eventually die out.

Though it’s certainly not always the case that resources motivate city creation.

There are mystical reasons. Mexico City was founded in the location where an eagle was found perched on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak. Salt Lake City was founded because Brigham Young had a vision that told him “this is the place.”

There are political reasons. The US capital was located in Washington DC as a political compromise between the North and South. Saint Petersburg was purpose built by Tsar Peter the Great as the imperial capital of Russia. Alexander the Great founded some twenty towns, often as a means of consolidating new mergers and acquisitions.

There are social reasons. From Why Do We Build Cities?:

The informal growth of Tell Brak [a settlement in Syria dating from around 6000 BCE] seems to suggest that, at their very beginnings, cities were founded because they provided a strong social network. This undoubtedly created economic and military power as early cities grew, but the original impetus was simply for people to gather in one place in order to improve their lives in some way (the researchers acknowledge that individual motivations were likely diverse). So Tell Brak illustrates at least one compelling argument for why we build large, impressive urban centers: we just like to be around each other.

But being the practical beings we are, it’s usually about resources, which means it’s about the money.

Resources are anything useful to humans: freshwater access, river transportation, harbors, ports, access to fisheries, a strong defensive position, fertile land, a crossroads, a ferry spot located on a narrow part of a river, where a train needs to stop for water, near minerals or mineral processing plants, near a temple, near a fort, near a trading post, near a financial center, near a market town, near military bases, near a river for hydropower, near hills for wind power, traveling distance from a town (every 20 miles if traveling on foot or 40 miles by coach), on trade routes, timber, oil, gas, coal, iron, and so on.

Here’s a North America Land Use & Resources Map from HowStuffWorks:

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 1.15.44 PM.png

I couldn’t find a better map, but it does show some relationship between cities and resources. When I drive the back roads of California I’ve often thought most of the roads I was driving on are only there because trucks need access to farm products, timber, or some other resource like gold or other minerals. Otherwise who would go to the expense of building and maintaining a road?

This is an endlessly fascinating and deep topic, one we could spend a lot more time exploring, but I trust resources as a basis for city/town creation is relatively self-evident.

Observation Number Three: Programming can be done anywhere, there’s no need for everyone to move to San Francisco.

I don’t know where I heard it, I couldn’t find the quote, but it went something like:

Why is everyone moving to San Francisco and driving housing prices sky high when programmers can work anywhere?

That immediately struck me as a no duh moment. It is odd, isn’t it? Why does everyone want to work in the same place, especially when a red-hot job market has elevated rents to all-time highs in San Francisco and Oakland, and near all-time highs in San Jose? Rents were higher in San Jose during the previous tech boom and the fact that rents trail San Francisco tells you how much tech has moved away from San Jose and to San Francisco.

Many companies use distributed teams and they can work very well. InfoQ, for example, uses a completely distributed workforce, across several continents, and CEO Floyd Marinescu says they are quite happy with the results.

So why doesn’t everyone work remotely so they can live anywhere they want?

Because cities have a superpower.

Observation Number Four: Cities are idea machines in the same way that companies are idea machines.

I’m more of a country mouse than a city mouse, so admitting cities are a good idea does not come easy. I’m much more in tune with the romantic notion of programmers living free, yet connected over digital dendrites, forming part of large and multi-dimensional brain.

The fact is, cities work. William Meyer, associate professor of geography at Colgate University, makes a compelling case that:

Cities are much more efficient in the consumption of resources, notably energy, but also materials, also water, and also, of course, land, because of their higher densities.

Material efficiency is just part of the city advantage. Cities are also the best idea processing and problem solving machines ever invented. Certain network structures work better than others. You want people in a properly architected city for the same reason there’s a push to have workers colocated in the same building: increased productivity and creative output.

Someone who has done a lot of research in this area is Alex Pentland. You can read all about it in his wonderful book: Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science.

I have a hundred or so quotes from the book that range from mildly interesting to world view changing. I’ll only include a few here, but I’ll append the rest of the quotes at the end of the article for your perusal.

Money quotes from Social Physics:

We are smarter as a group. We work better together following certain rules of engagement. We work better when we interact personally with some frequency. Diversity helps prevent groupthink. The ability to constantly explore and bring in new ideas is crucial for an organization to keep innovating.

For all these reasons a properly structured city is the most innovative large scale organizational form. I know from talking to a lot of tech people who have moved to the Bay Area that the vibe here is different. There’s a vitality. Technology is all around you. Go to most any bar, restaurant, or coffee shop and you can hear people talking about technology. Meetups on all topics tech run continuously. Dozens of major corporations are headquartered here. VCs are here. Major conferences are here. When a tech person comes to Silicon Valley there's feeling that you are with your tribe. It's a true Maker City.

The Bay Area is a diverse, rich, inspirational and very productive environment. One that’s hard to duplicate, but since only so many people can live here and a city is the optimal organizational form, it makes sense to try, in the true startup spirit.

Conclusion: Create new digital resources around which new cities can be built.

So all this leads to the idea of creating new cities. Cities that are more affordable and open to settlement by digital explorers. There’s plenty of room.

These new cities would be built around digital resources. Provide oceans and fields and deposits and rivers of low cost bandwidth and processing power and they will come. Add in renewable power generation, smart recycling, smart grids, advanced green design to reduce water use, hydroponic food production, etc. and relatively low impact cities can be built.

The idea of bandwidth as an attractive resource has some legs. You hear about people and businesses considering moving to Kansas City just to have access to Google Fiber, for example, because all they need is bandwidth to work.

Nationwide it's estimated installing Google Fiber everywhere would cost a modest $11B. In comparison the US Interstate Highway System was calculated to have cost $425B in 2006 dollars. But the highway system, which was built as a way to transfer material resources across a nation, was constructed when the US could still do big things. The Manhattan Project cost $55B in today's dollars. And the failed F-35 fighter aircraft cost $7.4B.

Money isn't the problem. Leadership is the problem, so smaller regions have stepped up to fill the vision chasm. Chattanooga battled Big Cable, winning the right to install a 1 gigabit per second fiber network in their own community, and the result is driving a "driving a tech boom." So bandwidth is an attractive resource in the new digital resource economy.

What would a Maker City look like? I don't want to say, I’m leery of any top down methodologies for building cities.

William Meyer has some ideas about the organization of cities in his book Social Physics:

So not a utopia, which literally means "no place." Not a libertopia, that has some political agenda. But a real growing city that has a fresh start. Where services like Uber and Google’s robotic cars can innovate in a supportive environment. Where the city is instrumented so as to support new ways of interacting socially and being controlled smartly. Where a cheap machine-to-machine network can make IoT a reality. Where drone delivery isn’t just a fanciful idea. In short, Maker Cities populated by Maker People. High octane innovation engines.

Perhaps Maker City Starters can be used to finance the creation of different approaches to Maker Cities in different regions? All American colonies were privately financed. So it's not a completely crazy idea.

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