The Telegraph: The tech boss who wants to build a private city

Margi Murphy writes on an effort by Jump founder Ryan Rzepecki to build a private, self-governing city.

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A former Uber executive is considering funding a private, self-governing city in anticipation of a diaspora of tech workers from Silicon Valley as headquarters remain closed.

Ryan Rzepecki, who sold his electric bike company Jump to Uber for $200m, has taken a sabbatical after quitting the company last year and wants to develop a business plan which he will fund using the money from the sale.

“More and more people can work remotely and are not tied to existing cities, so there is demand to create new places for them to live, with new regulatory frameworks,” Mr Rzepecki said.

Although he does not have a set geographic location in mind, Mr Rzepecki is in discussions with urban planning researchers like the recently rechristened Charter City Institute to help bring his dream of a socially responsible, environmentally friendly and self-governed city to life.

Charter cities are urban areas that a nation host agrees can have its own governance system, allowing it to be business friendly, in the hope it will improve the host nation’s economy.

The first phase will involve building smaller-term city “solutions” to city issues like transport and housing funded by Mr Rzepecki before submitting an application to a host nation for an entire city, when he hopes that his network of Silicon Valley founders and investors will get involved.

“It is very tricky to build an economy and convince tens of thousands to relocate, so I am definitely not of mind that I am just going to buy a plot of land and figure out everything else after,” he said.

“I think that there are going to be a variety of approaches and a variety of founders tackling the problem.”

Mr Rzepecki, who has a background in urban planning, said he grew disillusioned while living in San Francisco, home to some of the wealthiest individuals yet one of the largest homeless populations in the western world.

Venture-backed private cities have received funding from tech heavyweights. Trump donor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, Marc Andreesen and Bitcoin investor Roger Ver put $9m in Pronomos in 2019, a venture capital fund dedicated to building the next charter city. Pronomos is backing Blue Book Cities, which is in discussion with officials in Africa.

“We are working with teams of people in Africa and Europe to create the legislation and get government approval to do these unique real estate developments where the value is driven by having different laws and maybe more honest, reliable courts, because that's a huge problem in a lot of countries,” Patri Friedman, Pronomos’ general partner said.

In Nigeria, Iyinoluwa “E” Aboyeji, cofounder of Flutterwave, a fintech firm valued at more than $150m, is currently on the hunt for Silicon Valley engineers to invest and eventually move to his business-friendly “Talent City” in Africa.

Previous attempts by Silicon Valley elite’s attempts to create self-governed states, such as “seasteading”, have been dismissed by critics as tax havens and a new form of tech colonialism.

Mr Rzepecki says that his goal is to create economic prosperity and fix long-lasting issues with traditional government having grown dismayed at the homelessness problem in San Francisco, one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

“The way we have built regions and cities is not fundamentally sustainable and there is a chance to build new places that are better, more sustainable and environmentally friendly,” he said.

“There is a pretty broad spectrum of people who are interested in this and I think it most people, or at least myself, are trying to make a better world in the broadest terms,” he said. “It's not like things are working for everybody on the planet at the moment. I think having some people say ‘let's try something different’ shouldn’t be met with scepticism."

This article was originally published by Margi Murghy for The Telegraph and can be found here.