Ashton Lyle: Flannery Associates and Tech’s Utopia Obsession

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

By Ashton Lyle, November 6, 2023

Much has been made of the Flannery Associates’ five-year-long, $1 billion purchase of a combined 50,000 acres in Solano County. The audacity of the investors’ stunt seems to have captured the imagination of many paying attention to the intersection of California’s housing problem, the tech barons who dominate California politics, and the convoluted state of America’s local democracy.

To the credit of the small group of “visionaries” who make up the Flannery Associates, they have correctly identified a lack of housing supply as one of the Bay Area’s primary problems. California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation Plan found that the region needs 187,990 additional affordable units to meet demand, of which only 15.7% are planned. Flannery Associates believe they have the solution, a city planned by elites and constructed from scratch, deep in Solano County’s golden hills.

There is a belief, propagated by Silicon Valley elites, that ingenuity and purposeful design are all that stand between us and a brighter future. The Flannery Associates represent this class of tech utopians whose infamous desire to “move fast and break things” continues to impact the lives of Bay Area residents while denying locals the opportunity to contribute to decision-making. In a state where conservatism has struggled to become a relevant political force in recent decades, this strain of tech-libertarianism has emerged as one of the strongest challenges to local democracy and California’s liberal consensus.

These tech elite seem to believe that Californians cannot choose for themselves how to develop their communities; instead, they will design and build the future for us. Their utopian ambition is increasingly common amongst the tech-baron class and seems to have only intensified as growing wealth inequality transforms the state. Tech and its most prominent advocates promise to bypass political processes, enacting significant change at the expense of voters’ input. This approach of asking forgiveness rather than permission is a tech favorite (used most memorably by ride-sharing companies and AirBnb).

We’ve seen the Flannery Associates begin to enact these ideas through the 5-year effort to purchase massive amounts of land without public comment or discussion. This land grab was executed through a process so secret that it inspired independent investigations by the FBI, Treasury Department, and Department of Defense. 

A common complaint registered at this point is that our government, with its overly complicated processes and regulations, is simply too inefficient and cumbersome to enact the wishes of any group of citizens. Bold action is needed to fix the housing crisis, and Flannery Associates is certainly a group with the power to do so. 

California faces a number of existential problems, including wealth inequality, the effects of climate change (especially wildfires), and a housing crisis that leaves at least 20% of our Bay Area neighbors in poverty and 30,000 unhoused. The answer, however, is not to be found in the designs of any one group or individual. It is the process of democracy itself which allows the community to make its own decisions, and to build the future we decide together.

While old institutions undoubtedly suffer from bloat and stagnation, new ones, especially those championed by tech elites, are at risk of capture by moneyed interests. The hubris of a few rich men cannot be allowed to outweigh the needs of the Bay Area’s communities. Flannery Associates is just another in a long line of companies that have avoided the input of everyday people, a failure that indicates that they don’t believe they can convince a majority. If the tech barons truly believe they have the best ideas, they should face the judgment of the democratic process.

Tech continues to look for the easy way out, and they should face ridicule for doing so. These CEOs, venture capitalists, and Wall Street investors are not brave disruptors of broken institutions, but dreamers who don’t have the backbone to converse with the people they claim to champion. The democratic process is not an obstacle to progress but how we decide the best path forward, and those who aim to circumnavigate it are only concerned that their vision of the future won’t be realized exactly as they see fit.