This past year, my wife and I have been struggling to reconcile the many different social, economic, and personal pressures that come with the decision of where to live. We grew up on the West Coast, and decided 2 years ago to move across the country in search of a home that was more affordable and more amicable to the idea of starting a family. We eventually settled in a major Midwest metro, buying a house well below our means, with the explicit intention to focus on our potential family for the next 5 years of our life.
In the midst of this transition, I ended up starting full remote work, and found myself in a whirlwind of zoom meetings, slack chats, and digital spaces. Transitioning to remote work comes with a host of benefits, including schedule flexibility, no commute, and the ability to work from anywhere in the country. It is undeniable that this new paradigm will continue to affect social and cultural arrangements in ways we can't currently imagine.
However, in my situation, there are some palpable downsides. As someone in a new metropolitan area, I was counting on my workplace to help substitute my lack of a social circle and to become a main source of new connections and friends. This situation, in concert with a dark and bitterly frigid winter, has made my wife and I reconsider our choice in cities and left me feeling lost and unsure of where to take my future.
The last two years have revealed that local politics are more important than ever, so moving back to the west coast felt out of the question. Even if we wanted to move back there, the property prices became high enough to reasonably call the economic system Feudalism. So began the search for a new place to live…
Montanoso and Startup Cities
Montanoso is an ambitious project surrounding the idea of "crypto-cities". This supposes the idea that new forms of social coordination and new models of city governance can solve the problems that plague modern American cities. Montanoso plans to convert ~25 acres of land into a village ruled by a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO), which will develop the village and rent out residences to members of the DAO. This flips the traditional idea of "home ownership" on its head and elects for residents to have an equity stake in the city itself.
Months ago, when I first learned of Montanoso, I was put off by the idea. Opting to pay rent for life felt like an anathema to the commonly held belief that paying rent is "throwing away your money" But today, I am convinced that this model of economic ownership may solve the many problems in modern American cities.
At the heart of the tension in cities like San Francisco is the inability for any housing or infrastructure development to get done. This has led to the city being mocked as a place for NIMBYs. At the heart of this tension are real and conflicting incentives. While I am not a NIMBY, and I frequently criticize them, there are real consequences to development.
Increasing the population without fixing or growing infrastructure does lead to more traffic and congestion (just ask anyone in ATX).
Expanding can destroy the vibe of an area and lead to undesirable urban density.
Public infrastructure like airports and nuclear reactors do reduce local property values and often come at the expense of alternative public goods (like parks) that would increase local property values.
As a result, it is economically rational for the NIMBY to oppose all new development once they have secured their bag. In aggregate, new development typically benefits the community many times over the sum of the individual costs. But because some individuals incur large costs, it is rational for them to resist development.
Montanoso and startup cities offer a promise to economically align the incentives of homeowners and the city at large. If you own the city itself, then a new nuclear reactor improves the value of the city, which you want. If you are currently renting a home near the nuclear reactor, the DAO will likely lower your rent, and you can choose to move somewhere else in the city. This dynamic ensures that no participant is incentivized to resist something with a large net benefit in aggregate.
Social Isolation in the World of Remote Work
I often wish that making friends as an adult was as easy as it was in college and high school. In an educational environment, you typically have 100s of people who are forced to be in close proximity in pursuit of a common educational goal. This close proximity inevitably leads to regular interactions, which engender many small relationships. A few of these small relationships would organically blossom from fundamental attraction. It takes no work and special planning — it feels effortless.
It makes sense when you think about it. If you interact with 400 people a year at college, you are bound to hit it off with a few of them. In this way, being at school is a great way to “seed” many relationships from the proximity. As an adult, workplaces functionally serve the same role, and I now know most of my adult friends through work.
Remote work removed this natural environment to make friends, which now feels very difficult. In the suburban world, interactions are sparse and random conversations with strangers are considered to be “weird”. As a result, all my attempts to make friends must be intentional, which means the process is time-consuming and difficult. Instead of meeting 100s of people throughout my daily life I have to dedicate time to meet people, usually one on one. Most of these one-on-one meetings don’t yield a meaningful friendship, which is expected given that the average person won’t vibe with everyone they meet.
As remote work becomes the norm, this problem has to get solved. I believe city models like Montanoso have the ability to fix this. Walkable cities with small populations will facilitate the organic proximity required for social relationships to feel effortless.
Other Opportunities for Startup Cities
There are so many other potential benefits to a community of people with strong values alignment and similar visions for the future.
Home-school pods focused on instilling core values, teaching through application, and leveraging emerging technology in education.
Walkability leading to increased sustainability, a reduced dependence on vehicles, more community, and better health for the residents.
Other sustainability experiments around food production, rewilding, architecture, sharing tools and property, etc.
Less dependence on unhealthy digital tools for human interaction, reducing the effectiveness of tools that create cybernetic entrapment and suffering.
A blank slate for governance experimentation.
These are all very attractive to me as I imagine an optimal environment for raising kids and as I think about optimizing my physical environment.
I am increasingly convinced that the antidote to many problems in our modern world is a redesign of our cities and a re-imagined way of life. I view projects like Montanoso and Praxis as ambitious attempts to solve these problems.
If you’re interested in learning more about Montanoso, sign up for the informational session on March 16th.