Can Tech Companies Remake Puerto Rico?


All of your favorite tech brands are pitching in to help rebuild Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricane Maria. It could make the island a model for everyone’s future.

Realizing dreams for tomorrow are always impeded by the reality of today, not to mention the habits of yesterday. Renewable energy has to compete with existing sources and distribution. Robot cars need to share the road with human drivers.

Every disruptive innovation must contend with a delicate balance of existing technology, governance, economics, and behavioral routines.

But not in Puerto Rico, where hurricane Maria literally erased nearly all of it. So tech companies see an opportunity to remake the island’s infrastructure, not merely rebuild it.

Alphabet will put dirigibles in the sky to provide wireless internet access. Tesla will ship its Powerwall batteries for home energy storage, and work along other companies like Germany’s Sonnen to build new electrical microgrids. Airbnb is teeing-up housing for displaced residents that may permanently alter relationships between home ownership with sharing. Amazon is sending planeloads of “supplies,” while Apple and Microsoft have committed millions in cash.

And, although Facebook demonstrated its Spaces VR with a stupid, cartoony “visit” by founder Mark Zuckerberg, there’s the intriguing potential that it could factor into future requirements for roads and services that enable movement in geophysical space.

I believe the primary intent of these efforts is goodwill, since the people of Puerto Rico are in dire need of help, and the government’s response seems less inspired than obligatory (if not slightly resentful).

There are other intentions involved, too.

For instance, tech companies have been getting grief lately for their “we’re just agnostic platforms” positioning in the face of destructive propaganda, endemic misogyny, and the rampant data acquisition they enable (and from which they profit).

“Doing good” is a tried and true PR response to accusations of doing “bad” things, like when Rockefeller handed out dimes as his Standard Oil was asserting monopoly control of oil, or cigarette brands funded PBS and the arts as they fought culpability for killing their customers.

But then there’s the possibility that Puerto Rico could emerge from its current crisis as a model for the future.

Will it ever need to be “wired?” Could its energy use by renewable and distributed? Might VR replace various physical business or government services?

These are really cool questions, and they beg a host of additional questions about the the political, economic, and social implications of such innovation, not the least of which being what levels of autonomy and ownership will the people of Puerto Rico have to give up in exchange for using this new tech?

So maybe the question isn’t can tech companies remake Puerto Rico, but rather what will it look like when they do?