Internet billionaire Marc Lore worries about the growing wealth gap in America. His answer? Create a new utopian city.
He wants to buy cheap land in the West or Appalachia and create a town, called Telosa—derived from the Ancient Greek word meaning “highest purpose.” The city would feature indoor farming, energy-efficient buildings, autonomous electric cars, and high-speed transportation.
But it’s most novel concept is how land would be owned: Anyone would be able to build homes and sell them, but the city would retain ownership of the land underneath.
In theory, that land’s value would grow over time. Lore predicts that as the city grows, the land could eventually be worth $1 trillion, and earn $50 billion annually from investments that would be used to ensure that every citizen – no matter their income – had equal access to healthcare, good schools, parks, safe streets, and transportation. Lore calls it “equitism,” or a twist on capitalism.
“I’m trying to create a new model for society, where wealth is created in a fair way,” Lore explained from his New Jersey lake house. “It’s not burdening the wealthy; it’s not increasing taxes. It is simply giving back to the citizens and the people the wealth that they helped create.”
On Wednesday, Lore announced that he had hired the architectural firm BIG to handle the city’s master planning. The company is owned by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who has previously designed the headquarters of Google and Apple.
Utopian cities have become a thing with wealthy individuals. Bill Gates, for example, plans to build a smart city outside of Phoenix on 2,800 acres. Meanwhile, cryptocurrency millionaire Jeffrey Berns bought 67,000 acres in Nevada to start his own smart city. Even Prince Charles started a town in the U.K. called Poundbury, designed to be an integrated community of shops, businesses, and private and social housing, without zoning and limited use of cars.
Lore, who grew up in Staten Island, earned his fortune after moving from investment banking into e-commerce. He sold his startup, Quidsi, which included Diapers.com, to Amazon for $545 million in 2010. He then sold his next venture, online retailer Jet.com, to Walmart for $3.3 billion in 2016. Lore served as CEO of Walmart’s U.S. e-commerce division for more than four years until January.
Lore’s radical approach to land ownership is inspired by the 19th century book Progress and Poverty by Henry George. He believes that much of American family wealth was created simply by luck that an “ancestor put a stake in the ground and said, this is mine.” Inequality is further exacerbated by a system in which local real estate taxes fund local education. It creates a vicious cycle in which some people end up with worse education, and therefore earn less money and live in less valuable homes. Education, Lore said, shouldn’t be dictated by local wealth.
Lore will tap private investors, philanthropists, federal and state grants, and subsidies for economic development to fund the city, but he also plans to pay for Telosa out of his own pocket—an estimated $500 billion—using the expected returns on his startup investments, including in air taxi company Archer. That means, paradoxically, Lore will attempt to close the wealth gap by getting even richer.
Lore joins other billionaires, including Marc Benioff and Ray Dalio, who have called for reforms of a system that has enriched the already wealthy in recent years. For example, since the pandemic started, the wealth of U.S. billionaires has grown 60%, or $1.8 trillion in economic gains. Meanwhile, an estimated 24 million U.S. adults report their families haven’t had enough food in the past week, according to a July report by Inequality.org.
The notion of community-owned land isn’t new. The Singapore government owns 90% of that country’s land, which is leased out and the proceeds reinvested into the country. Additionally, 277 community land trusts operate across the United States to keep housing affordable. The trusts own the land but leases it to homeowners, who, when they sell, only earn a portion of the increased property value.
Telosa, Lore said, could someday cover 200,000 acres—about the size of New York—and be home to 5 million people. By 2030, he plans to seed 1,500 acres with a diverse group of 50,000 people. It would include everyone from doctors and lawyers to teachers and baristas. Lore said residents would come for jobs, education, and “a new way of life.”
“Residents will have a part in creating something new and with that comes the inherent pride to join the community,” he said. A Lore-controlled venture capital fund would also draw citizens by promising investments in startups that relocate to the city.
Ambitious? Yes. A good idea? It depends on who you ask.
Dennis Gilbert, emeritus professor of sociology at Hamilton College, in Clinton, NY and author of The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality, said the idea is naive. Growing U.S. inequality over the last 50 years is largely the result of changes in the job market and in American families, he said. Technological advancements and dependence on imported goods means fewer high-paying jobs for low skilled workers in manufacturing. At the same time, a gap in marriage rates between college and high school educated people has widened and translated into more single-parent households being dependent on low-paid jobs. Home ownership, said Gilbert, has played a role in inequity, but it isn’t the fundamental problem.
“The notion that some person will be able to solve our problems outside of a political context—I don’t buy it,” Gilbert said. “But wealth gives people a platform. You’re smart, confident and successful. You think it’s possible to save the world.”
Guided by the idea that entrepreneurs move fast, think big, and aren’t afraid to fail, Lore has amassed a team of 50 people—a mix of full-time workers and volunteers— including architects, historians, researchers, economists, creatives, designers, engineers, and climate and sustainability experts.
“I love that he’s trying to reframe but not break the mold,” said Ellen Dunham-Jones, an urban design professor at Georgia Tech University. “But the idea of supporting a million people on worthless land is a tough hill to climb.”
A big obstacle to the city’s future, at least in the West, is water—or lack thereof. A severe drought has vastly reduced the amount of water available and climate change is expected to exacerbate the situation over time.
Lore said solving the water issue would require innovation, money, political resolve and public support. But, he acknowledges that water is a challenge facing 40% of U.S. cities.
Dunham-Jones said that in fact, water, technology and urban planning may be the easiest challenges to tackle. The biggest hurdle may be simply the idea of inventing a new model for society.
Creating a constitution would be tricky. And there are questions about whether shared land ownership could turn into a nightmare. Could you get kicked out of your house if you fail to recycle? Who makes the rules on what kind of education people receive? It would be like a homeowners association on steroids.
The history of tech-led utopias doesn’t exactly scream success. Google tried to create a data-driven project called Sidewalk in Toronto that called for installing sensors in every home to adjust temperature (to minimize energy use) and cameras and AI to analyze traffic. But the plan was rejected by the city over privacy concerns.
A separate effort by late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh included investing $350 million to revitalize downtown Las Vegas by making it a hotbed of co-learning and coworking. Despite the initial hype, it failed to transform a downtown that is still mostly casinos and aging government buildings.
Since the 19th century, researchers have long studied utopian cities, and they have largely found that top-down economic models don’t work, said Mark Giliem, a urban design professor at the University of Oregon. Cities, he said, grow organically in response to millions of factors.
“Lore talks about reformed capitalism, but who will be in charge?” asked Giliem. “I think this sounds dangerous.”
Lore says he wouldn’t be in charge. Rather, the city would be “people-centric” and built on values of openness, fairness, and inclusivity. And it could take 10 to 20 years for it to happen—if at all. “It’s a moonshot,” he said. “I don’t know if it will work, but we’ll learn a lot.”
Correction (9/2/21): An earlier version of this article misstated the source of name Telosa, which is derived from the Ancient Greek word meaning “highest purpose.” Also, the story also incorrectly said that Bjarke Ingels had designed Two World Trade Center.