Building Cities From Scratch: An Interview With Mark Lutter and Tamara Winter

We know how to make new apps. New companies. But what does it take to make new cities? Mark Lutter and Tamara Winter are building the Charter Cities Institute to figure out the answer.

Mark is the Founder and Executive Director of CCI. He and Tamara, the first hire of CCI and their Head of Strategy, won Pioneer February 2019. After doing his PhD in economics at George Mason University, Mark started CCI when he realized that the charter cities community wasn't gaining traction or learning from past experiences.


What is a charter city?

For many people around the world — but particularly for those in developing countries — the biggest barrier to creating something great is their country's governance.

Charter cities are new cities granted broad autonomy to create a more competitive business environment than would otherwise be possible. Singapore, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Dubai demonstrate that it's possible for cities to grow from small villages to world-class hubs in two or three generations. We at the Charter Cities Institute believe it's possible to develop a replicable model from those lessons by focusing on governance.

More specifically, charter cities have two elements. First, they're new cities built from the ground up on greenfield sites. Second, charter cities have wide-ranging authority to improve their business environment in areas usually reserved for national governments: labor law, business registration procedures, education law, tax administration, etc.

Why work on charter cities?

It turns out that perhaps the most significant determinant of growth, at least in the long-run, is a country's quality of governance. This is especially important for entrepreneurship.

The same entrepreneur faces vastly different challenges in Lagos vs. in Dallas, and many of those challenges relate to things like how easy it is to register a business and at what cost. If you believe, as we do, that talent is equally distributed around the world but opportunity is not, it should lead you to focus on the most significant barriers to opportunity. Charter cities are the best solution we know of to nurture entrepreneurship in the places that need it most.

Assuming charter cities succeed, what's different about the world?

When charter cities succeed tens of millions of people will be lifted out of poverty and able to pursue their dreams. There will be dozens of charter cities around the world building and experimenting with new ways to living together. Ideally charter cities are teachers for their countries and for entire regions, just as Shenzhen was in China — this is the path to lasting economic growth.

Core to this mission is minimizing the time entrepreneurs spend thinking about things like inadequate infrastructure and regulatory barriers so they can prioritize what they do best: building.

Finally, we hope to develop a model for low-income housing so slums aren't the default arrangement for many people living in the world's fastest growing cities.

How are you helping to develop charter cities?

Our initial goal was to build the ecosystem for charter cities. There was a small community, but it was unfocused and didn't have much traction. Since our founding two years ago, we've seen that community grow, with new companies joining the ecosystem rapidly. Within the last few months this has coalesced into a sustainable community, which you can come learn about at our inaugural Charter Cities Conference.

Now that the core of the ecosystem has been built, we have two key priorities: establishing a set of best practices for creating new administrative systems and working with new city developments to help them implement governance reforms.

Developing the 'Charter Cities Handbook' which details how to start a legal system from scratch is our most thorough attempt to date to create a set of charter city best practices. As our team grows we'll also produce an urban plan for 1 million residents on 10,000 acres, all informed by interviews and collaborations with charter cities developers and practitioners.

We're also working with new city developments which are interested in becoming charter cities like Nkwashi, a Zambian planned city for 100,000 residents outside Lusaka, and Enyimba Economic City, a planned city in Nigeria for 1.5 million residents.

What does the Charter Cities Institute look like in 5 years?

CCI will be a world class research institution in five years. Whenever there is discussion about rapid urbanization, governance, or migration, we want to be involved.

We'll also be on the ground working with new city developers on their site selection, urban plan, or governance plan. Beyond that, we'll partner with development finance institutions to determine criteria for funding charter cities, and continue to organize events to bring together the charter cities community.

Finally, though we're still in the ideation phase on this one, we plan to create a graduate school to train the first generation of charter city administrators. The next five years will see charter cities transformed from a mostly niche idea to become a development strategy that is debated, discussed, and implemented around the world.

What has gone better/worse than expected?

We've gotten much better traction on the ground than we expected. When I (Mark) started CCI in October 2017, I thought it would take years to develop the network and intellectual framework before starting working on active charter cities. I've been quite pleased by the amount of interest from entrepreneurs and new city developers who are interested in improving governance. We're looking forward to reaching public milestones with charter city developments that we can share with you!

Public engagement has been more challenging than we expected. Because we find the idea so powerful, we operated with the assumption that everyone else would too. Not quite. While we've gotten a lot of interest from some groups — Silicon Valley types for example — we've struggled to engage other stakeholder groups, the international development community being a prominent one.

We're quite proud of our progress over the last two years and look forward to continuing to build the future governance for tomorrow's cities.