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Nevada Announces New Cities in State To Be Run By Big Tech

The zones promise technological freedom, but what are the dangers to handing so much political power to big corporations?

Nevada is courting technological business by offering them the opportunity to develop cities independent of government regulation.

In his State of the State address on January 19th, Nevada Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak announced proposed legislation to create “Innovation Zones” in order “to jumpstart the state’s economy by attracting technology firms.”

Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak
Photo by Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ

The long-term vision for these Innovation Zones is a county independent of local government, run solely by a technological corporation for the purpose of pursuing advanced technology without the red tape of bureaucracy.

The proposed legislation draft calls “traditional forms of local government” “inadequate” in their ability “to provide the flexibility and resources conducive to making the State a leader in attracting and retaining new forms and types of businesses…”

In order to create such a zone, a company would need to submit an application to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Once approved, the company could begin development of any purchased, undeveloped, and uninhabited land of at least 78 square miles, with expectations that it invest $1 billion within the first 10 years after an initial investment of $250 million. The zone would be overseen by a three-member board of supervisors, appointed by the governor, holding the same power as county commissioners to impose taxes, establish schools and courts, and provide government services.

City governments have been experimenting with “smart cities” for years, in which political powers cede some power to technological corporations for the purpose of implementing advanced technology throughout a city. Nevada’s proposed Innovation Zone takes that idea a step further by handing over political power to a corporation entirely.

“Technology often moves faster than state laws can keep up,” reads Nevada’s website promoting the endeavor. “Innovation Zones are an effort by the State of Nevada to match regulation with the fast pace needed for innovation, while setting strict standards and charting a clear path forward.”

The site features a Florida State University case study of Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District as an example of an expansive entrepreneurial project that has thrived with its own independent government.

And one technological enterprise is already on board. Sisolak announced that should the legislature approve this proposal, Blockchain, LLC – a Nevada-based company – has already “committed to…create a smart city in northern Nevada” (east of Reno) “that would fully run on Blockchain technology.”

Disney and Nevada aren’t alone in their independent city ventures. As another example, Toyota began construction of its own smart city in Japan in February. Dubbed the “Woven City”, the city will house over 2,000 people associated with Toyota in a city based on robotics technology and artificial intelligence.

But not everyone is excited about the idea of corporations wielding political power, much less taking control of their own jurisdictions. Most opponents have voiced environmental concerns. Nevada’s state director for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, Patrick Donnelly, for instance, has warned that Blockchains, LLC would engage in a “massive water grab from rural Nevada,” stealing water from Nevada’s indigenous communities, endangered species, and environment.

Similarly, the Democratic Socialists of America chapters in Northern Nevada and Las Vegas have both announced their opposition to “the corporate town bill,” decrying it as harmful to workers’ rights and the environment.

But the concept of a business-run city itself raises many concerns on both the political right and the left in an age when corporations — specifically, technological corporations — are garnering unprecedented power.

Left-leaning political commentator and comedian Stephen Colbert has called such proposals “a solution to the problem of any public accountability.”

“Now, encouraging innovative companies to come to your state is a good thing, but not if they replace the state,” Colbert said during a segment of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “And that’s exactly what this proposes.”

While Democratic Socialists of America may oppose a company free of government regulation, the political right is largely antagonistic toward any powerful entity (whether it be state, corporate, or otherwise) that prey on individual rights. Technological giants such as Google and Facebook are becoming ever more invasive with data collection and engaging in more and more censorship, leading some to raise privacy concerns over the idea of letting such corporations run entire jurisdictions independent of oversight.

When Sidewalk Labs, a sibling company of Google, proposed building its own high-tech city in Toronto in 2019, Stephen Diamond, a Toronto-based real estate CEO, raised objections about “data collection, data use, and digital governance.”

If the American founders argued extensively for the necessity of checks and balances and separation of powers among political institutions, what sort of accountability might need to be considered for corporations as we explore creative solutions to a rapidly-changing world?

Nevada’s drafted legislation has not yet been introduced to the legislature.


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Caitlin Bassett

Caitlin Bassett is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture. Her interests are in political philosophy and current events, and she enjoys attempting to understand physics and cosmology. She graduated from Liberty University in 2017 with her Bachelor’s in Politics and Policy.

Nevada Announces New Cities in State To Be Run By Big Tech