Jeffrey Berns of The Blockchains company, wants to build a Smart City Utopia in Nevada. He spent $170 million in cash this year on 68,000 acres of land near Reno. Now he wants to build a community based on the blockchain technology introduced by Bitcoin. He imagines a sort of experimental community spread over about a hundred square miles, where houses, schools, commercial districts and production studios will be built. The centerpiece of this giant project will be the blockchain, a new kind of database that was introduced by Bitcoin.
The blockchain began as a digital ledger on which all Bitcoin transactions are recorded. Some aficionados have grander plans. They think it could be a new way of taking power back from the institutions they believe are calling all the shots.
Just as Bitcoin made it possible to transfer money without using a bank, blockchain believers like Mr. Berns think the technology will make it possible for ordinary people to control their own data - the lifeblood of the digital economy - without relying on big companies or governments.
Mr. Berns was drawn to Nevada by its tax benefits, including the lack of income taxes. And the breadth of his ambitions certainly raises some risks. So far, there isn't much to see of the community envisioned here, other than an office building and digs by surveyors. But he is different from his crypto-brethren in one big way: He is spending his own money. So far, he said, he has spent $300 million on the land, offices, planning and a staff of 70 people. And buying 68,000 largely undeveloped acres is a bit of old-fashioned, real estate risk-taking.
Still, Mr. Berns said his ambition was not to be a real estate magnate or even to get rich - or richer. He is promising to give away all decision-making power for the project and 90 percent of any dividends it generates to a corporate structure that will be held by residents, employees and future investors. That structure, which he calls a "distributed collaborative entity," is supposed to operate on a blockchain where everyone's ownership rights and voting powers will be recorded in a digital wallet.
Mr. Berns acknowledged that all this is way beyond what blockchains have actually accomplished. But that hasn't discouraged him.
Mr. Berns has managed to win over local officials. Nevada's governor, Brian Sandoval, read a proclamation that named the Blockchains property "Innovation Park" at an event last month where Mr. Berns sat on a panel with the governor and Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla.
Blockchains has preliminary county support for a new town along the river, with thousands of homes.
Tesla's Gigafactory in Nevada, which has been described as the largest building in the world, is surrounded by Blockchains' land. Companies like Google, Apple and Switch also have properties in the industrial park that is surrounded by Mr. Berns's holdings.
Last week, he announced a memorandum of understanding with one of the state's main power companies, NV Energy, to team up on projects that will run energy transactions through a blockchain.
Mr. Berns has hired a staff of 70 people to work on his dream community. But for now, Blockchains is empty land and a repurposed office building. Mr. Berns said the company won't begin construction on the broader property until late 2019, at the earliest, after putting together the master plan and getting it approved by the county. Mr. Berns bought Ether, the digital token associated with Ethereum, in a big sale in 2015. Thanks to an astronomical increase in the price of Ether and some well-timed selling last year, he became wealthy enough to fund his dream project.
Ethereum is what he believes makes his community more than just a giant real estate project. To understand why requires more than a bit of imagination. And faith. Every resident and employee will have what amounts to an Ethereum address, which they will use to vote on local measures and store their personal data. Mr. Berns believes Ethereum will give people a way to control their identity and online data without any governments or companies involved.
That is a widely shared view in the blockchain community, but there are significant questions about whether any of it can work in the real world.