Jay Galvin

The failed company towns of the 19th and 20th centuries have long served as a cautionary tale against the paternalism of the manufacturing sector and utopian ideals of planned developments.

Consider Henry Ford’s 3,900-square-mile Fordlândia development in Aveiro, Brazil, which was constructed in the 1920s to house 10,000 workers to produce rubber for the Detroit-based company. After failing to both grow rubber trees and integrate with the local community, by 1934, the city was abandoned. Even earlier, in the 1880s, engineer George Pullman established his eponymous company town on Chicago’s South Side for the employees who manufactured his sleeping railcars. The town’s concept famously met its demise soon after an 1894 strike that left 34 people dead.

Pullman National Monument in Chicago
Jay Galvin Pullman National Monument in Chicago

More than a century later, there’s a new twist on the company town: Instead of being an exclusive (and captive) place for a corporation’s employees to live, the new version is an information sponge built by a single company for the benefit of its database. The residents are employees in the sense that they contribute to the company’s bottom line—without actually working for the company itself.

Last year, billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates purchased 25,000 acres of land west of Phoenix with $80 million from his Cascade Investment group. His vision: an 80,000-residence smart city that “embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles, and autonomous logistics hubs,” according to a statement from the project developers Belmont Partners.

Pullman National Monument in Chicago
Paul Sableman Pullman National Monument in Chicago

One state away, near the Denver International Airport, Japanese electronics giant Panasonic is developing an almost 400-acre smart city. It will feature a solar-powered micro-grid, connected LED streetlighting, and an autonomous shuttle.

Given that the market for smart city technology and products is expected to exceed $1 trillion within the next five years, it is no surprise that corporations, funds, and entrepreneurs are investing in such developments. But unlike company towns of the past, tech companies do not need to build and own the towns themselves. Instead, with their data-gathering capacities, all towns become company towns.