Looking For a New Way to Live

This article is part of a new series on Visionaries. The New York Times selected people from all over the world who are pushing the boundaries of their fields, from science and technology to culture and sports.

For James Ehrlich, farm-to-table is just a starting point for the future.

The New York native, who migrated to Silicon Valley decades ago, is the founder and president of ReGen Villages, which seeks to create self-reliant ecosystems globally.

In addition to running ReGen, Mr. Ehrlich is also an entrepreneur in residence at Stanford University, where he focuses on sustainability and infrastructure. Among his other appointments, he also is on the faculty of Singularity University, an educational community that focuses on global challenges and is affiliated with the Ames Research Center, NASA’s Silicon Valley center.

Mr. Ehrlich is anything but a typical real estate developer. Instead, his company, which he started in 2016, derives from his concern for the environment and his love of farming communities. His idea is to establish a far-reaching plan to create new neighborhoods that will generate their own power through solar photovoltaic panels, biomass and biogas from material, food and animal waste, and geothermal sources, to name but a few. The communities will also grow their own food largely from aquaponic farms, which essentially combine plants with fish cultivation in water.

At the outset, the communities that ReGen hopes to build will be within an hour’s travel from major cities to attract those who must commute to work. But there will be no cars in the community; even garages and driveways are absent from the plans. For those who do not bike or walk, taxis and, eventually, autonomous cars will transport the residents. At the center is the development of the “Village OS,” a software platform that initially will connect regenerative infrastructure to smart houses in the community, but which ultimately will connect other ecosystems globally.

“We have an urgent opportunity to set ourselves on a better course for humanity on earth within this next decade, but we must start right now.”

The first community, with about 300 units, is planned for a 61 -acre parcel within commuting distance of Amsterdam. Mr. Ehrlich has been in discussions with a range of companies that specialize in services such as lighting, heating and horticulture.

Mr. Ehrlich is generating interest from around the globe. Just don’t call it a utopian plan. “I grew up in a family of four, and not everyone got along all the time,” he said. “Neighborhoods are no different.”

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

What would you like people to know about your work?

ReGen Villages is not “Star Trek.” There’s a better way of living within nature and not separate from it, where people can reside in thriving abundance with agency and connectivity to their critical resources at the doorstep. We have an urgent opportunity to set ourselves on a better course for humanity on earth within this next decade, but we must start right now.

There are some who only a few years ago thought I was crazy. Their view was that no one would leave a city to live in a rural area. But I thought the move back to the cities was a trend. And the urban model has broken down because of poor living conditions and a lack of affordability. Now, some of those doubters are apologizing.

What did you want to be when you were a child?

I did some acting as a child, but knew pretty early on that this was not a career I wanted to pursue. I also spent time in my late teens and early 20s as a lighting designer and director in the music industry, working in local nightclubs and doing some touring. I truly loved lighting design for music, although the ephemeral nature of that art form (and challenging lifestyle) made it difficult to imagine doing this beyond a college job.

I fell in love with my computer labs at school, but it was my first interaction with the Atari arcade games like Asteroids and especially Lunar Lander that sparked my passion to imagine where technology will lead us, where I could design and develop whole worlds that can make sense somehow.

“I never aspired to be a real estate developer — I like to say I am a sheep in wolf’s clothing.”

I never aspired to be a real estate developer — I like to say I am a sheep in wolf’s clothing. After college I worked in game design, and over time became interested in organic food. It led to an interesting path of co-authoring a cookbook [“The Hippy Gourmet’s Quick and Simple Cookbook for Healthy Eating,” written with Bruce Brennan] that tells the story of family farms and intentional communities and began producing a public television cooking show on the topic as well.

Who — or what — inspired you to create ReGen Villages?

I was inspired by the thought of lily pads of self-reliant communities that had to hydrate and feed themselves and had to produce power and deal with waste.

But in my work, I stand on the shoulders of incredible minds who were thinking of building ecovillages and logical infrastructure. People like Rudolf Steiner and Buckminster Fuller — I’m in their shadow.

“Success to me will be when thriving families can live in vibrant neighborhoods — outside of megacities — that enable longevity and happiness.”

Where else do you find sources of creativity?

Well, just the other day my son Louie, 8, built a neighborhood out of Jenga blocks. I loved what he built and sent some photos of his construction to some architects to see if we could incorporate some of his ideas.

In addition to my incredible colleagues at Stanford, including Aneel Chima and Larry Leifer, I feel so blessed to have attracted such a wonderful group of collaborators, including a dear old friend from grade school, Rob Liebeskind, who is leading the development of our elegant Village OS software. Rob plays a significant role in helping me frame the creative exploration of marrying software with natural systems, intended for the benefit of eventually managing regenerative and thriving communities autonomously.

And, I would be totally lost without the loving support of Lena Blanc, my wife and chief information officer of ReGen Villages.

What obstacles do you face?

We are dealing with complex issues mostly around land rights and zoning and permitting. The two greatest challenges we face are financial support and political will.

There are many wealthy family offices, industrial and institutional investors who are inspired by our vision and plans, who all want to invest in us, yet seem to be waiting for others to lead the next round.

We have moved mountains in the past three years on very little family office seed investment — 1.2 million euros [about $1.3 million] — and we are ready to move forward once we raise the private equity investment.

But we need €16 million to purchase the land for the pilot community, have the requisite funds to complete our Village OS software stack and have operating expenses for master planning the next couple of concurrent developments.

Are there other challenges you have encountered?

I’ve been busy — I’ve been traveling for almost half of my son’s life. And with my family, we had to make a decision to invest most of my life savings in ReGen Villages. There is no greater commitment than putting your own resources into something you believe in. And I thought it was necessary to match other investments coming in. I have been talking to huge funds in Europe to understand what we’re doing and to track our progress.

“There is no greater commitment than putting your own resources into something you believe in.”

How do you define success?

I like to imagine looking back even a couple of years from now, that those in positions financially and politically did what needed to be done in this moment to collaborate with us to build a better world.

Success in part is redefining what success actually means in the context of taking necessary action now during these pressing planetary times. Returns on investment through the lens of healthy outcomes of whole communities, where positive externalities from creating and restoring natural ecosystems comprise intrinsic value and returns beyond all expectations and imagination.

Success to me will be when thriving families can live in vibrant neighborhoods — outside of megacities — that enable longevity and happiness.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/26/business/james-ehrlich-environment-neighborhood.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *