Building A Soaring City at Uptown

Part I:  Mirror World and the Emerging Metaverse:  

On a cold, snowy night in March of 2019, while riding on the A-Line train from the Denver Airport to Union Station – I glimpsed the future. 

An experiment which I began three years earlier, involving remote work & full bore commuting over 3,000 miles per week, was conceived in part to provide an immersive experience in telecommuting and transit-oriented development.  It was an opportunity to immerse myself in Transit-Oriented Development –  learning its strengths and weaknesses from every angle –  experimenting with all variations of mobility all while sleeping on an Air BNB mattress.

But on that fateful evening, as snow slowly gathered on the tracks and my fellow commuters stared vacantly out the window into the dark – I stared intently at a printed copy of the March 2019 edition of Wired Magazine and for the first time in my life glimpsed the Mirror World. 

Kevin Kelly, Wired’s Founding Editor, had written a powerful cover story describing something which I innately understood was brewing within the gaming world – powered in part by Nvidia Chips and Unreal Engine software. Kelley described in the second paragraph of his epic article a new augmented reality where “every street, lamppost, building, and room – will have its full-sized digital twin in the Mirror-World.” He described “a 1:1 map of almost unimaginable scope, and this world will become the next great digital platform.”  

It is a world where the real and the imagined collide. 

My instincts have served me well. 

As a Hillsborough County Commissioner, from 2004 to 2014, I forgoed (yes it’s a real word) meetings whenever possible from the stuffy 26-floor County Center building in downtown Tampa for space at a coffee shop on Kennedy Boulevard. Later, when I took a job as the Director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, I worried little about where my office would be located, insisting that I and my small team would work while on the move. For me this meant from my backpack, often while riding a bus, train, or plane at 39,000 ft –  or someone else’s car. Transportation platforms & coffee shops would serve as my office. 

I wanted to see America and understand where we were headed as a country. 

My trips were sprinkled with tons of anecdotal data from conversations with Uber drivers or comrades waiting for a bus ride and what I saw & heard then reflects what we are now experiencing in America following almost two years of pandemic inspired lockdowns & working from home. What I witnessed was that the economy is not working for many people; that they increasingly find themselves alienated by the system, with families torn apart by the gulf between rich and poor as the middle class disappears. 

My rideshare experience was a tutorial for a world where people must work multiple gigs to pay the bills, and many are just one healthcare crisis away from total ruin. 

And so, on this train ride, after four hours on a plane where I finished writing reports using spotty Wi-Fi, I read Kevin Kelly’s optimistic take on the latest emerging platform; which will fuel the fourth Industrial Revolution.  This new platform, wrote Kelly, is hurling towards us at the speed of light in the form of electromagnetic bits, its CPU found “deep in research labs of tech companies around the world.” 

This new world means nothing less than a digital replication of everything on the planet which will lead to a new economy of unimaginable wealth and income generation. This new world is virtual; virtual factories, virtual retail outlets, virtual gaming experiences, virtual entertainment … where humans and avatars merge like in the movie “Free Guy” and offices of concrete and steel are augmented by ones from bits and bytes. 

This is not happening in a vacuum. Our digital future has recently made its way into the mainstream with Epic Fortnite, Bitcoin and even the recent public announcement by Mark Zuckerberg that Facebook has been renamed Meta, but is still in its infancy. 

Not long ago our leadership team at Tampa Innovation Partnership traveled south to Plantation, FL to visit Magic Leap and experience firsthand the Magic Leap I Headsets. “The Metaverse,” declares Magic Leap, “is already here!” And so it is, but only at its most basic element. During our visit I felt as if I were test riding a Model N – the precursor to the world changing Ford Model T – which would reshape the urban landscape from one of mud streets, horses, and manure into modern cities. Magic Leap glasses are focused on healthcare, defense and manufacturing & will soon to be followed by the Magic Leap 2 Headsets which promise endless commercial applications. 

Yep — this single train ride and that copy of Kevin Kelly’s cover story in Wired Magazine imbedded into my cerebral neural network a new world where the future will be made. And while much of this emerging economy will be designed by companies and really smart University students living in places like Silicon Valley, Silicon Hills, Research Triangle, and the smattering of innovation campuses that dot the landscape of America; it will be from the neighborhoods that this greatest expansion of the global economy since the beginning of humankind takes lift – indeed soars!    

More powerful than the steam engine, modern plumbing or even biotech, the Mirror World, now often referred to as the Metaverse, will generate unfathomable economic growth that touches every facet of our existence from where we live, work, and play – like a trip to the store or doctor’s office, or concert. More importantly, it allows us the opportunity to redesign broken communities, replacing blight & distance with recovery, unlimited proximity, and total access. 

Part II:  Building the Soaring City at Uptown:  Mirror – World Meets Uptown:  

Florida Blue has long been one of the Tampa Innovation Partnership’s key anchors. A driver in healthcare innovation and an important investor in people, Florida Blue and GuideWell President & CEO Pat Geraghty and David Pizzo, the Florida Blue Market President for West Florida and Rick Bennett, head of Strategic Programs & Local Partnerships, challenged us at the start of the pandemic to rethink how we might end generational poverty and build a resilient community.  In the midst of massive societal change and herculean public investment to address the pandemic which threw people – primarily the poor – out of work, shutting down businesses and even cities, it seemed like the right time to begin re-envisioning our community at Uptown.  Once derided as “suitcase city”, which the census informs is the poorest zip code in Hillsborough County, and ignored in the past by the old political class and downtown-centric business establishment, it seemed like the right time to take on this project. And the right place is Uptown. 

The Uptown district, so named by Chris Bowen whom you will meet in two paragraphs, is anchored by massive public institutions – from a top research university to a world class cancer treatment center, the second largest VA hospital in the nation, major entertainment venue, and one of the largest not-for-profit hospitals in America.  It is the perfect juxtaposition of wealth, brains, blight, and poverty for Florida Blue to place its bet on the future of the world. 

By mid-2021 we announced a partnership to create a resilient community at Rithm at Uptown – once a thriving –  then dying – mall, but now a 100-acre urban tech community percolating research, innovation, technology, habitat, and medicine.  Rather than build the resilient community in a pristine downtown setting, we chose a once blighted community with 50,000 residents and grit. In 2017, the Uptown District boasted $3 billion in new development projects. That number continues to grow. 

Notwithstanding the significant investments underway and, most recently, plans by FDOT-7 to turn one of the most dangerous roads in America, which bifurcates Uptown, into a Boulevard, this area boasts a new organization: Soaring City !p – a 501(c)3 designed to reimagine the urban dwelling place.

Soaring City !p’s intellectual underpinnings are the result of a 1-in-a-million hire by RD Management, a privately held real estate development organization that acquired the six pieces of the University mall over a five year period, and then smartly coaxed Chris Bowen, an expert in urban medical development, to be its development guru. Chris Bowen, Chair of Tampa Innovation Partnership, the brains behind Soaring City !p, the person who actually came up with the name Uptown, is now leading a battle of epic proportion to turn an old dying mall into an urban tech village and transform “Suitcase City” into the Uptown District. 

Already, Rithm at Uptown boasts the first university inspired Institute of Applied Engineering which was intentionally built in a blighted urban neighborhood, and now Vū Studio. Vū is the world’s second largest digital studio. It is here that Florida Blue’s vision for building a resilient community was launched as a Soaring City. It will close the income gap in one of Hillsborough County’s poorest communities. 

And the vehicle for this wholesale transformation??? Mirror World –  or metaverse –  and the emerging technology platform that Matthew Ball, CEO of Venture Capital firm Epyllion, believes could be valued between $10-30 trillion in the next decade. 


Is this mere hype? 

Was the Internet hype or did it not help remake the world – even with its glaring inequalities and deficiencies? 

And why not at Uptown? 

Chris Bowen recently told the Board of Directors for Tampa !p that our greatest strength was not the technology which will grow from Rithm and the Uptown District.  Not the AI. Not the Machine Learning. Not quantum technology or robotics, but the people and the neighborhoods at Uptown. The very neighborhoods which some from the past turned a blind eye or even rerouted visitors around to avoid confronting the blight.  

“This is our greatest strength! It’s a huge opportunity,” Chris told us all. “Don’t turn away from it. Run towards it.”  

And so ground zero for Florida Blue’s Resilient Community is Rithm at Uptown and the product will be a Soaring City that pipes AI, ML, Quantum Technology, NFT and most importantly, helps build the emerging Mirror World from within the neighborhoods.  

It’s an opportunity to be on the forefront of the fourth Industrial Revolution and help build the platform for the new trillion-dollar economy from the ground up, within a diverse community of the rich and very poor.  

It’s an opportunity to help build a new world at Uptown. 

Kevin Kelly closed his epic article by stating that eventually “this melded world will be the size of our planet. It will be humanity’s greatest achievement, creating new levels of wealth …. and unaccountable opportunities for billions of people.”

And then this clincher – a statement which speaks directly to Soaring City !p and Uptown:

“There are no experts yet to make this world; you are not late” 

Join us at Uptown.