clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Cities Court Urban Hackers

The hackers want their own cities. Or at least autonomous zones where they don't have to follow onerous city rules.

Nellie Bowles

Mike Zuckerman turns old buildings into tech-infused community areas called Freespaces. While participating in a recent morning conference in San Leandro, Calif., he was offered two Northern California buildings to develop — at the spur of the moment and for next to nothing.

“Our negotiating stance: If it’s a dollar, we’ll consider it,” Zuckerman said, laughing a little to himself, but actually not joking at all.

I misheard him at first. “If the building is a dollar, you’ll take it?” I asked.

“Consider it,” he clarified.

As cities around the world try to build some of their own San Francisco mojo — the startups, the eager young people, the hipness of it all — mayors need guides, so Zuckerman and his merry band of hacker-collective makers are in demand. At the Prototyping the Future festival yesterday at the Zero Net Energy Center in San Leandro, a group of about a hundred hackers and city officials got together to present their recent work and talk about the future — including Freespaces, a new tech community center in Palo Alto called Be Human and a yet-to-be unveiled self-driving car course across 600 traffic lights in San Jose.

What the hackers want: Their own cities. Or at least autonomous zones where they don’t have to follow seemingly onerous city rules. But they also want grand world-altering effects — tech utopias.

“Airbnb and Uber don’t go far enough,” Zuckerman said. “[Mark] Zuckerberg wanted to connect the whole world — now the next step is for the whole world to start saying what it wants.”

Until then, there’s a push to create autonomous tech zones within cities. “As an entrepreneur, the last thing you want to do is work with the city, but you should!” cautioned festival co-host Greg Delaune.

I watched a presentation about creating one of these semi-autonomous zones: Prospect Silicon Valley, a 23,000-square-foot new tech test facility, which opened earlier this month, and which will slowly take over one square mile of San Jose (or about 600 traffic lights) and make it traffic-smart — a self-driving-car test course.

The project will allow small-scale hackers and startups to play on the open road, as well as in the Prospect headquarters. So, startups can answer the question, “What if we had an intersection?” explained Doug Davenport, the executive director. “Unless Elon Musk buys you, it’s hard to be a startup in this space.”

“They’re testing autonomous vehicles on city streets!” Delaune said. “Tell that to a city lawyer and they will freak out.”

Back outside, Zuckerman sat on a curb and told me about his Freespaces. Landowners with large, unused buildings on their hands give them to Zuckerman for a dollar a month. He moves in, brings in interesting people, and they set about doing projects (after-school programs, hackathons, silent dance parties). He has done nine of them around the world so far, but he said he might be getting tired of just sprucing up buildings. Now, he thinks the next step is to create fully autonomous zones with no government interference.

Like Seasteading? “Maybe,” he said. “More like Christiania.”

Christiana is an 84-acre autonomous city within Copenhagen.

He kicked the curb. “Here, you can’t just put in a mosaic — in a temporary autonomous zone, you could.”

Meanwhile, someone from the city of Fremont approached Zuckerman about a building she wanted him to take over. And the San Leandro secretary of commerce said that he had a space, but didn’t know what to do with it. Maybe Zuckerman wanted it?

Debbi Acosta, the chief innovation officer of San Leandro, who went to Burning Man with Zuckerman and his cohort and who spoke at the Prototyping the Future festival, said she was trying to make the city as innovative as it could possibly be.

Ari Eisenstat and his friend arrived late, after judging a pitch competition at Draper University, a Silicon Valley entrepreneurship program and accelerator.

Eisenstat, who teaches impact investing at Stanford and runs Draem Ventures, which invests in companies and prepares — among other things — for the coming Singularity, said he had just opened his own autonomous tech community center in Palo Alto.

“We’re calling it the BHuman Project — open source user-generated art and tech center,” Eisenstat said. “Two thousand square feet. A perennial pop-up.”

Before dreaming up BHuman, Eisenstat had started an organic farm with a incubator on it. For baby chickens? No — for tech.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.