Published in


Startup City: How Business-driven
Urban Planning Misses the Mark on City-making


What do Disney properties and Telosa have in common? They are both selling a way of life where the architecture creates a setting, not unlike a stage set, for the espoused lifestyle to play out. As a plan for a new American city, the carefully crafted renderings of Telosa help to communicate the city’s mission. While it’s not possible to picture equality and sustainability directly, the image can signify these qualities to the viewer through strategic details. For example, an abundance of foliage communicates that the city is “green” and therefore environmentally sustainable. Likewise, the residents of Telosa are shown at leisure and not at work, suggesting economic prosperity for all. At this point Telosa is only an idea, and the purpose of the renderings is to sell us on the potential of the new city.

To understand more about the global trend of cities built from scratch, I contacted Dr. Sarah Moser, professor of geography and director of the New Cities Lab at McGill University. She appeared on my computer screen over video from her office; behind her were framed photos of the cities she’s been studying — some of the over 110 new urban centers currently under construction worldwide.¹

“There’s so much stuff happening. It’s crazy. It’s bananas,” she said, while sending me Google Maps links to new developments in the chat box.

In a 2018 lecture at the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative, an interdisciplinary research center at the university, Moser discussed how, over the last three decades, countries in the Global South have begun urbanizing at a rapid pace.² The new building boom in these areas is motivated by a sense of hopelessness that pervades many of the existing urban centers. Pollution and overcrowding are pushing cities beyond their capacity. The idea of building a fresh new metropolis is attractive to governments as a solution to existing urban challenges, and as an opportunity for economic growth and the crafting of national image.

An important factor that separates these newly built cities from those of the past is an emphasis on public-private partnerships, and the involvement of technology companies. Moser’s research found that a majority of new cities are run by CEOs, not mayors.³ That is, the city is not run like a business, but actually is a business itself. Take, for example, King Abdullah Economic City, a new city founded in 2006 on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. The city is managed by a development company called Emaar The Economic City, which is publicly traded on the Saudi stock exchange, Tadawul.⁴

Buoyed by the optimism of a fresh start and the potential for profit, technology companies also want a hand in the urban sector. Multinational corporations like IBM, Siemens, and Cisco have been the driving force behind the development and spread of smart city technologies.⁵

The term “smart city’’ describes a vision for city-wide integration of data collection with municipal operations such as transportation, waste management, and security. The systems have been adopted by cities, while the vision has captured imaginations and produced sci-fi-like aspirations.

Moser and her colleagues have developed the term “unicorn planning” to describe a new city designed as an idealistic techno-metropolis. The word “unicorn” is pulled from the language of venture capital for a startup company valued at over $1 billion. Like a startup, unicorn planning is characterized by an entrepreneurial spirit that values high risk for high reward, and an expectation of instant success.⁶

“How can they say, ‘We want all this profit so fast’? What’s the rush?” asked Moser, recounting how the term emerged in conversation with a graduate student. “It was really the time and the big promises that made us think, ‘This
is not like any real estate development I’ve ever seen.’ It feels
more like Silicon Valley.”⁷

[1] Sarah Moser, “New Cities: Utopian wishes and Powerpoint dreams,” Recorded lecture from the Sustainability Systems Initiative Invited Speaker Series, McGill University, Montreal, December 11, 2017,

[2] Sarah Moser, “New Cities: Utopian wishes and Powerpoint dreams.”

[3] Sarah Moser, “New Cities: Utopian wishes and Powerpoint dreams.”

[4] “Investor Relations,” KAEC, accessed April 21, 2022,

[5] Donald McNeill, “Global Firms and Smart Technologies: IBM and the Reduction of Cities,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40, no. 4 (2015): 562,

[6] “Map,” Unicorn Planning, Accessed January 31, 2022,

[7] Sarah Moser, Interview.

CLARA GROSS (she/her) is a writer, researcher, and artist based between New York City and Berlin. Her work at the intersection of design, art, and culture is motivated by a lifelong curiosity for understanding the city around her; everything from the emotional and psychological aspects to the political and economic dynamics of a place.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
SVA MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism

SVA MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism

We’re a two-semester MA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City dedicated to the study of design, its contexts and consequences. Aka DCrit. ✏️🔍💡