A Man Who Grew Up Playing Sim City is Now Building His Own Town

Jimmy Stice spent his childhood in the suburbs of Atlanta playing video games like Sim City. Now, he is the founder of Kalu Yala—a village in the heart of the Panamanian rainforest that aims to be the world’s most sustainable place to live.

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Apr 25 2017, 10:35pm

Jimmy says the Kalu Yala Institute switched from a "if we build it, they will come" model to a "if they come, they will build it" model. The institute is built mainly by student-interns who attend its Study Abroad program. You can enroll as a student for $6,495 from May 15th to July 21st. The course offers several disciplines ranging from Sustainable Agriculture to Business & Entrepreneurship, so student-interns can contribute to the town based on their aptitudes.

I gave Jimmy a call to understand his approach to Kalu Yala, especially after playing city simulators such as Sid Meier's Civilization and Sim City.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

You mention on the show that your love of town-building stems from playing video games like Sim City when you were 12 years old. Did you always think you'd end up building communities later in life?

It dawned on me that people should be building better communities when I was 12. It was a weird moment where I was living in a suburb outside of Atlanta. I'd see the Lil' Rascals and all these movies about places in the past where there were tons of kids hanging out together. And I'm like, "the suburbs don't provide that." And then I played Sim City and I was like, "wow, people make decisions to build cities." So I started dreaming about people building better cities when I was 12 through that.

You followed that up by saying "I knew that real estate was ugly as a kid, and there were bankers making it ugly. I knew that. And I said 'I'm gonna create a real estate company that makes the world a better place.'" Where there's a company, there's capital. So in what ways is Kalu Yala different from capitalist real estate companies?

I don't think bankers are bad people, at least I hope most of them are decent human beings. I just think that we've got the algorithm that has worked most successfully and therefore been most heavily adopted. Like, "okay, there [are] these people who need this product and we're going to give it to them. But, we're going to give it to them as quickly and cheaply as we can, make as much profit as we can, and go on to the next place." It's an extractive, 'mining' mentality and it's been very successful and massively adopted.

I think the thing with us is that we're actually trying to understand real estate's role in generating the value. So Kalu Yala and real estate can be interwoven with the community to create a regenerative place that creates more value than it consumes.

Jimmy addresses Kalu Yala's student-interns. Image via VICELAND

How did you acquire the property that is now Kalu Yala? And what was the vision when it was an empty piece of land?

We were going to put organic farms, renewable energy, carbon-neutral housing, varying from $70,000 to $1,000,000 so that anybody who wanted to be a part of the community could be. My family bought [the property] from another family that was Panamanian. They were selling it because they've got pretty big farming operations.

The big thing that changed was that it became a "community development project." We realized that citizens had to actually participate in the decision-making to even build the neighborhood, rather than have some real estate guy show up and decide to build the neighborhood and then sell them the end result. Does that make sense?

Yeah, and that leads me into my next question. What about neighboring settlements? Who are they and what is their relationship with Kalu Yala?

Kalu Yala is in a valley called Tres Brazos, which is 7000 acres—we own 575 of those. There are 30 other farms around us and 80% of those farm owners live in a village called San Miguel—a village of 500 people that is located five miles from Kalu Yala. So they live in the village, they come to the farm to work. I'd say that nine out of ten people like us, just because we're neighbors.

You know, we got there and we said, "what can we do to be good neighbors?" and they said, "we'd really like our children to be able to speak English so if you could help us with that..." And then we also recognize, "hey, there's no after-school programming because there's no budget for that." So we'll run the soccer club and do some stuff.

Our relationship, I would say, is one of interdependence. I think the other thing that's really exciting is the fact that we're starting to grow so much, we're starting to create an economy near their village.

Kalu Yala founder Jimmy Stice. Photo by Zach Dilgard.

But from the outside looking in, what would you say to someone who views Kalu Yala as colonialism?

I think that everyone in San Miguel would laugh at those people. By definition, colonialism is taking over the politics of someone else's country, putting in settlers and then exploiting that country economically. By definition we're creating wealth in the country, and none of our people who are hired, [nor any] of our neighbors feel exploited so it's tough to make the argument if you did the research.

How do you create incentives to bring people to Kalu Yala? Or does the experience sell itself?

I didn't mean to have Kalu Yala become something that was worth having a TV show about. I just wanted to build a nice town that resonated with my values and where I would want to live. And I said "that town doesn't exist," so I went ahead and said "I'm gonna build a nice place to live. You know, I like Latin America, I like the tropics, I like growing food year-round," everything about it just made sense.

Having students be your first pioneers [means] they don't give a shit about your investors. All they care about is their passion, their values, and they're 18-25 so they're full of testosterone. I think the values are what's attractive. The other part that's attractive is how hard it is to achieve those values. Because a lot of people in Kalu Yala like the challenge.

So what do the people who come to Kalu Yala from abroad find themselves adjusting to?

The big things: communal living, we sleep 10 people in a rafter together. You can hear each other fart. A lot of us in the developed world, [have grown up] with their own bedrooms since five years old. In Kalu Yala, that private space doesn't quite exist.

I think number two is how hard physical labor is. Everyone's reading books on organic food and it's romanticizing farming. And so when you go from reading a book romanticizing the system of farming, to having to dig a hole in the tropical Sun, the physical labor wears out people pretty hard.

I think the biggest problem we have at Kalu Yala is lack of diversity within the institute. You see on the TV show [that] the institute attracts a largely North American group. So the students are shocked when they show up and see, "well I came to Latin America and I'm surrounded by Americans."

What "cheat codes" would you invent to build Kalu Yala, if you could?

It would be a "population happiness" cheat code. Left, left, up, up, A, B, A, B, and you get 30 minutes where everyone is happy and you have no complaints, and everything's great.

My other one would be perfect knowledge transfer. All the documents like the student handbook, the staff handbook, the environmental studies, all of that stuff is automatically downloaded into everyone's brain so everyone's on the same fucking page.

If there was a Kalu Yala video game, what would the "unlockable achievements" be, for you personally and for your interns?

Number one, diversity in our student body. We want Kalu Yala to be inclusive. There could be some problems with the fact that I'm a privileged white male and I want to make sure that I'm not making a product just for people like me.

Number two, I'm obsessed with creating jobs of purpose. I wanna pay people to do something—and it might be hard work—but they know it has a positive impact on the world.

Number three, do it again to prove that this isn't just one unique accidental moment of the fact that human beings can treat each other well and live sustainably. It can actually be done again and again to where the entire world can live in an environmentally responsible way and treat each other well.

While signing off, he mentioned the possibility of a Kalu Yala video game in which "everyone gets to be Jimmy Stice and see what happens in their town when they do it their way." Watch JUNGLETOWN on VICELAND, Tuesdays at 10P. Learn more about Kalu Yala Institute's Study Abroad program here.

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