Will corporation-owned smart cities come to Nevada?

Some Kind of "Company Town"...

Will corporation-owned smart cities come to Nevada?

Tom Wiscombe Architecture and EYRC revealed their design for the Blockchains city in 2018, and now the project’s developer may get the power to form its own government there. (Courtesy EYRC Architects and Tom Wiscombe Architecture)

With plans reportedly still moving forward for Blockchains, LLC, to break ground on a Tom Wiscombe Architecture and Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects (EYRC)-designed smart city in Nevada in 2022, Governor Steve Sisolak is looking to give it, and similar developments across the state, the power to form their own governments.

According to documents acquired by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sisolak has floated a draft proposal to create “Innovation Zones” across the state in a bid to draw technology companies, and giving them the power to set up their own governments. In exchange for this autonomy, the Nevada state government would forgo the tax abatement or incentive packages typically used to encourage big businesses to relocate.

Sisolak first mentioned the idea during his January 19 State of the State address but later confirmed that a draft bill was in the works on February 4 via Twitter. According to the text reviewed by the Las Vegas Review-Journal (subject to change before a final bill is submitted), such an  “alternative form of local government” is needed to entice big tech companies, and that over time, the administration of those zones would gradually take over governmental duties from their respective counties. Each zone would be overseen by a three-person board of supervisors, with the company behind the development having the majority of the say in who gets appointed.

It should be noted that the governor’s proposal only extends to companies doing “innovative” work; relating to blockchains, healthcare, robotics, renewable energy research, biometrics, autonomous vehicles, and similar cutting-edge research. Any company applying to set up an Innovation Zone through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development would need to own and be intent on developing at least 50,000 acres not already part of a city or town, $250 million on hand, and a plan to invest at least $1 billion in the area over the next 10 years.

An aerial rendering of a section of Blockchains, where many different housing styles can be seen at once, smart cities in action
An aerial rendering of a section of Blockchains’ proposed smart city, where many different housing styles can be seen at once. (Courtesy EYRC Architects and Tom Wiscombe Architecture)

Sisolak specifically mentioned Blockchains’ cryptocurrency-powered smart city in his State of the State address, and the company’s millionaire owner, Jeffrey Berns, has reportedly donated $50,000 to Sisolak through Blockchains, LLC. The company also donated another $10,000 to Sisolak’s 2018 election campaign. It now seems the stars are aligning for Berns’s plans, which, as AN first reported on when the news was announced in November of 2018, would bring a 100-square-mile, ground-up city to the Nevada desert just east of Reno. The overall layout seemingly hasn’t changed since then, with plans for:

“a technology park for the advancement of artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and nanotechnology, all integrated into a blockchain-based system. Vertical manufacturing and workplace hybrid typologies have also been proposed, and from the renderings, it appears that many of the buildings might be clad in dizzying panel arrays that recall circuit boards and harken back to Wiscombe’s previous work.”

Of course, this sort of “company town” model is nothing new; throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, timber and mining companies would set up infrastructure and housing while running a town’s administrative functions then squeeze their employees into indentured servitude, usually by issuing script as payment that was only valued inside the town. In contemporary times, the massive tech campuses set up by Facebook, Google, and Amazon have all been likened to company towns, but this may be the first “give corporations the explicit power of governance” bill proposed.

(It’s worth noting that Keller Easterling’s 2014 Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space makes it clear that these sorts of extra-governmental economic zones already exist all over the world under the guise of encouraging economic development. Those, however, are usually brokered and set up by at least one, if not more, national-level governments.)

The full text of the proposed bill is available here. Governor Sisolak has thus far refused to comment on the potential move to either the Las Vegas Review-Journal or The Hill at the time of writing. No formal Innovation Zones bill has been introduced to the Nevada Senate yet, and the final wording of the proposal may change before then.