Elon Musk and Google Should Purchase and Transform a Bankrupt Detroit

During a Q&A session this May, Google co-founder Larry Page stated that he believed an area of the world should be set aside for “unregulated scientific experimentation.”

Page described the increased pace of change occurring in the world, both good and bad, and urged the need for an acceleration in scientific innovation to match it. Conceding that certain ethical boundaries and laws were useful in limiting drastic changes from affecting the whole world, Page suggested a compromise might be reached with a small and controlled area where limitless possibilities could act as an incubator for new ideas.

With Detroit officially declaring bankruptcy this week, offering to sell city assets and eradicate retirement funds to meet its $18 billion debt obligations ... there’s an alternative possibility Detroit could consider which might transform the city to its former glory. 

Elon Musk (founder of Paypal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX) is always looking for another innovative leap to pursue. Google is also starting to implement some of its more adventurous ideas to reshape the way we communicate, move and live. The combined purchase power of these two corporate giants, counts in the hundreds of billions – more than enough to meet Detroit’s $18 billion debt. What could they achieve if they took over America’s once proudest industrial giant?

Detroit has seen a mass exodus of its population, a surge of large debt liabilities, significant rises in criminal elements, 40% and higher portions of families living in poverty, and thousands of buildings in various states of disrepair.

The city has even considered transforming vast stretches of available space into farming and agricultural land. But there is a better way to completely reclaim the Detroit brand: Transform it through renewal and innovation, and rebuild the former industrial heart of the Midwest.

Without completely indulging in Larry Page’s fantasy of an unlimited scientific utopia, there is still a lot of room to create a new environment of unprecedented experimentation, innovation and collaboration – while at the same time turning Detroit’s tragic story around. Certain zones of the city could be safeguarded, by preserving the historical and stable sections, while the vast majority of the abandoned areas could be razed or bulldozed.

Where once stood decrepit housing, empty warehouses and shut down factories – a world of modernized research centers, futuristic living habitats, and vertical farms could stand. In a matter of years, the city could be filled with self-driving cars, powered by innovative energy sources and interconnected with streamlined electric grids, sewers, high-speed Internet and roads.

Hundreds of companies from around the world would be eager to rent real estate at various facilities, enjoying an unencumbered ability to research and collaborate with each other. The thousands of unemployed citizens who’ve loyally stayed in the slowly dying Detroit would have hundreds of new factory and lab jobs to pursue. An increased population of scientists would mean that city council members would no longer be comprised solely of lawyers, bringing Page’s vision of unrestricted research a little closer to reality.

This isn’t the first time such notions have been put forward. World famous architect Jacque Fresco has been advocating a revamping of our societal design, both industrial and philosophical, for decades. His celebrated Venus Project designs incorporate new technologies, materials, energy sources and concepts, to create a clean slate approach to housing and revolutionizing human enterprise. 

This kind of leap is otherwise being considered for far away environments like the eagerly anticipated Mars Colony, or floating research centers 200 miles offshore in international waters. But with rising sea levels, hurricanes and pirates to worry about, it’s doubtful people will want to work in a mega version of the Deep Sea Horizon rig. Moreover, Mars may yet be a far away fantasy that’s decades in the making. We’d need several satellites in orbit of the planet to monitor the geography and weather, self-sustaining bio-domes that can produce oxygen and food, living habits, and active terra-forming process that would transform Mars’ harsh environment to a more human-friendly one, not to mention a massive space station above the planet to offer humans an escape and refuge. The idea of Mars accommodating a mass population of scientists, farmers, engineers, inventors, doctors, laborers, etc seems far too unrealistic for our lifetimes – not to mention far more expensive than the revamping of one city.

Honduras has already explored the idea of a "free city" within its borders. Small sovereign principalities like Luxemburg and Monaco operate within Europe quite efficiently. Masdar City is an impressive project in Abu Dhabi, creating a city that is entirely run on solar and other renewable energy sources (zero-carbon, zero-waste ecology and completely car free) and is designed to be a hub for cleantech companies.

The idea of wiping an entire city’s slate clean is obviously ambitious to the point of being absurd. There are other fears and limitations to consider as well. Who would pay for construction and development? Where would the new ethical lines be drawn on scientific experimentation? There is nothing in the Constitution that forbids cloning, genetically modifying humans, creating artificial intelligence robots, super-viruses or mind-control devices. Without a cumbersome bureaucracy, regulatory restrictions or FDA approval process, what would the base level of agreed upon "rules" be for all the companies operating in this space? What's to stop Google spy-bots from performing corporate espionage on an IBM facility, or Monsanto from undermining competing McDonalds mutant cows with a weaponized supervirus?

Detroit was once the greatest industrial city of the last century. It’s tragic watching it undergo an auction of assets, and further abandonment of its citizens’ quality of life, to try and pay off a few billion dollars in debt. We’re currently living in the greatest wealth disparity this country has ever known. A few families and companies have pooled together unholy amounts of money, and don’t seem to be spending it on anything that’s useful to the public. Where once there were Rockefellers and Vanderbilts laying down train tracks and building cities, now we have Walmart shopping centers, Koch Brother fossil fuels and Paris Hilton reality TV.  

What kind of tomorrow are we willing to invest in? What kind of future do we want to build?