A tech millionaire wants to build a blockchain city in the desert

Jeffery Berns' company has purchased 68,000 acres and plans to build a community based on Bitcoin technology

The desert in northwestern Nevada near Tesla’s Gigafactory is filled with sagebrush and dust, but if a cryptocurrency millionaire’s high-stakes gamble goes the way he wants the land will soon bloom into a full-blown city unlike any that has preceded it.

The land includes 68,000 acres of desert near Reno. The man behind the plan is Jeffery Berns, 56, a lawyer and the founder of a company called Blockchains LLC. And the idea is to create an entirely new community, the size of a city, that is based entirely on blockchain — a kind of digital record keeping technology that is best known as the transaction ledger behind cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

“We are building the world’s first smart city based on technology, from infrastructure all the way up,” Berns said Thursday in Prague during a launch event for the project. A moment later he added that, “It’s not so much a city as much as a series of different projects to highlight the power of a public blockchain.”

The New York Times toured the property and reported Thursday that so far development is limited to office buildings and surveying digs. The Times also reported that Berns has spent $300 million of his own money on a staff of 70 people, as well as on offices, plans and land.

Berns’ ambition for that land, however, is huge. Images released by his company show a sprawling, verdant city rising up out of the parched desert.

Credit: Blockchains LLC

During Thursday’s launch event, Berns said that the first step would be to construct a 1,000-acre campus, which “will be a high tech, high security park.” Projects on that campus will focus on incubating relatively new technologies such as artificial intelligence and 3D printing.

Later phases will include building a studio — which Berns claimed would “change the way content is distributed” and “give back the power to the content creators” — and a residential community. Everything in the community will be based on blockchain.

“Houses, apartments, condos, banks, markets, stores, schools,” Berns said, describing what the community will include. “We will use blockchain, the public blockchain, where ever possible.”

Credit: Blockchains LLC

Berns also said he wants to build the worlds first esports arena on the Nevada property, and participants’ “reputations will be maintained on the blockchain.”

When The New York Times pointed out that Berns’ ambitions are beyond what blockchain (the technology, not the company) have been able to accomplish, he replied that “something inside me tells me this is the answer, that if we can get enough people to trust the blockchain, we can begin to change all the systems we operate by”

Berns’ company did not respond to Inman’s request for comment Friday.

Credit: Blockchain LLC

The Nevada property is not the only major land purchase Berns’ company has made. During his speech Thursday, he announced that Blockchains LLC has also purchased former government bunkers in Georgia and Wyoming, as well as fortress-like spaces that have been tunneled out of mountains in Switzerland and Sweden. Berns described the European spaces as being resistant to nuclear bombs.

All of the bunkers and mountain fortresses will be used to store digital assets. Berns claimed that the sites will provide a level of security that “no bank, no single government can match.”

The company has also released several promotional videos, including one in October that shows a girl drawing binary code in the sand while touting blockchain’s potential.

In another video, released Thursday, the same girl states that “we’re using the blockchain and we’re building a real city.”

But it was not immediately clear how the company might address the myriad of environmental complications that might arise from building a “real city” from scratch in the middle of the desert. Water, for example, is an increasingly precious resource across the West, and more than 90 percent of Nevada is currently experiencing some level of abnormal dryness or drought.

In an apparent acknowledgement of the challenges ahead, Berns tweeted Friday evening that the project “will either be the biggest thing to have ever happened, or the most spectacular crash and burn in the history of mankind.”

During his address Thursday, Berns said he first started researching blockchain years ago after his daughter asked him what he had done to change the world. After failing to come up with a good answer, he started looking for ways to change his life and finally hit upon blockchain in 2013.

“It blew my mind because I started to understand the potential of blockchain,” Berns said. “Imagine a world where anybody anywhere can collaborate, establish the rules of that collaboration, enforce those rules, exchange value, and do it all on the block chain. No government, no bank, no corporation, just trusting in math.”

Credit: Blockchain LLC

During Berns’ address Thursday he repeatedly criticized banks, and said that his project was designed to cut out traditional holders of power such as corporations and governments. He also said that he isn’t a developer or a software coder.

Instead, he just wants to change the world.

“This is me trying to create a movement to use the public blockchain to re-empower the individual,” he said, “to change the way we do things.”

Email Jim Dalrymple II