Edge Esmeralda: My Experience

June 27, 2024
UNCONFERENCE An Edge Esmeralda talk hosted by the Convergent Research organization at a Healdsburg hotel.

As you may have seen, I wrote a story for this week’s issue of the Healdsburg Tribune about local impressions of Edge Esmeralda, the "popup village" that came to Healdsburg for the entire month of June.

This elaborate conference-meets-festival brought hundreds of international "techno optimists" — between 300 and 600 on any given day — to the hotels, event spaces and streets of our tiny town. They were mostly young people, most with a shared goal of leveraging modern technology and ancient wisdom to save the world, or at least make it a better place to live.

Healdsburg’s population grew by more than 5% on certain days this month. Yet many locals barely seemed to notice the newcomers were here.

During Week Two of the event, Zara Stone, a reporter for the San Francisco Standard, popped in for a day and wrote a pretty amazing recap. She called the story "Hackers on holiday: They’re building the city of the future from a summer camp in Sonoma." TBH, it’s the piece I wish I’d written — a great capture of these zany, new-age subcultures of the tech world colliding with the small-town way of life. "At the monthlong Edge Esmeralda in Healdsburg, biotech meets blockchains meets blood draws," she writes.

I’ve had a difficult time boiling it down like that. So I’m going to try something different. I’m about to go off-script and offer you a different perspective on what happened in town this month: my own. This won’t be an objective or journalistic account. Certainly not a solicited one. Just my honest experience.

Here goes.

Edge Esmeralda was one of the weirdest, wildest, most ambitious, most unexpected — and most fun — things I’ve ever watched unfold in Healdsburg. (Full disclosure: I grew up here and moved away when I was 18, in the year 2005, and just moved back full-time last year, so I’m sure I missed a ton of awesomeness.)

Yes, I was one of the suckers who shelled out $200 for a locals ticket. I ended up attending about a dozen sessions total, of the many hundreds on the calendar. So I only caught a glimmer of the event’s full scope.

The options were endless. There were daily runs, yoga classes and other organized sports; urban-planning discussions; wonky science and technology talks that went alllll the way over my head; virtual-reality experiences; group therapy sessions and touchy-feely, meaning-of-life convos (my favorite); field trips to farms and other enclaves in the nearby countryside, to learn about cool sustainability projects happening out there; a bunch of other stuff I don’t even know how to describe; and, I’m sure, all sorts of secret sexy side meet-ups that never made it onto the calendar.

A very chaotic view of Week Three events. (Image: Edge Esmeralda)

At one point, organizers had to give everyone a pep talk about how to turn FOMO, or the fear of missing out, into JOMO, or the joy of missing out. They spoke to the beauty of choice. That helped a little.

To give you a better idea of the range of topics covered at Edge Esmeralda throughout the month of June, I’m just gonna start rattling off some of the event titles, K?

"Cities of Tomorrow: Flying Cars Meet Ancient Urban Designs." "Protocols for Decolonization." "How to Die: A Death Ritual." "Informal Family Playground Hang." "First Annual Sonoma County Crypto Hackademathon." "Polymarket and Betting Markets for Climate Change." "Kava Vs. Alcohol Experiment/Social." "Accelerating Privacy Technologies." "The Art of Seduction." "Futuristic Art: ‘Train’ Your Own AI Art Model." "Cities for Independent Childhood: Brainstorm." "Post-Solstice Harp Concert." "Becoming a ChatGPT Power User." "Telepathy With Animals." "Help Build a Data Terrarium." "Exploring Multiple Identities Through Movement." "Governance Games Hacker House." "Qualia Takeoff in the Age of Spiritual Machines." "Building an Off-Grid Pop-Up College." "Guided Meditation: Meet Your Future Self." "Fundamentals of Standup Comedy." "A Night in the Metaverse." "Solar Geoengineering: How to Cool Earth." "Lie on the Floor and Listen to Choral Music." "Becoming Your Own Doctor." "Psychedelic Genius: Raise Your IQ 15 Points in 5 Months or Less." "Golden Future Night Market."

At this session, attendees made their own "AI wearables" that can record and analyze daily interactions, "Black Mirror" style. (Photo: Edge Esmeralda)

The way the calendar worked was that anyone with an Edge Esmeralda ticket could schedule events ad hoc. Each session attracted anywhere from a handful of people to more than 100. Some of them flopped. Others kinda blew my mind. It was a hit-or-miss sort of scene — but during both the hits and misses, I kept having the thought: "I can’t believe this is happening in Healdsburg."

The most well-attended talks were led by top researchers and CEOs from sectors like cryptocurrency, AI (artificial intelligence) and neuroscience. I had never heard of them, but they were huge celebrities to the Edge Esmeralda crowd.

Other talks were led by experts who live right here in Healdsburg: people like City Manager Jeff Kay, who spoke about what it takes to run a small town like ours, and Sotheby’s Realtor Eric Drew, who pulled from the vast encyclopedia of Healdsburg history that lives inside his head. (Full disclosure: Eric sponsors the Healdsburg Tribune newsletter, and we love him for it!)

Something about seeing familiar local characters in this spotlight, through the gaze of outsiders, illuminated things I hadn’t noticed about them before — new aspects of their specific magic.

That’s me on the far right, next to Eric Drew. (Photo: Edge Esmeralda)

I also ended up making new friends in town and discovering nooks of Healdsburg I never knew were there. Kind of funny, right?

On a more academic note, I started to wrap my head around concepts like AI and crypto that have heretofore evaded me, despite their growing relevance. I now feel semi-literate in the global forces that are coming for us. And all I had to do was step outside. (And, yes, pay $200 — which is, as fellow Healdsburg attendee Richard Burg put it, "cheaper than dinner at SingleThread.")

I’ve been hearing about some cool outcomes for others, too. For example: One group of Esmeraldans is building a cluster of off-grid, solar-powered A frames on a property out Mill Creek, in the burn scar of the Walbridge Fire. And the trio of psychologists who provided free therapy to Edge Esmeralda participants and Healdsburg residents all month tell me they’re now "discussing opening up a clinic together in San Francisco."

The A-frame project, which is happening on David Baeli and Fred Euphrat’s land. (Photo: Edge Esmeralda)

Meanwhile, these are the main complaints I’ve heard from locals about the Edge Esmeralda folks: A) They seem out of touch with the very real problems plaguing Healdsburg, like racial divides and income inequality; B) Their flexible scheduling style is chaotic, both for people trying to attend events and the venues trying to host them; C) Some of the out-of-towners who couldn’t afford Healdsburg hotel rooms were a little too forward about asking residents for a place to crash; and D) The $200 tickets for locals didn’t include access to near-nightly "family dinners," which left some feeling confused, if not a little left out.

All valid perspectives. There also seemed to be a bit of culture clash going on. I thought Jim Heid, who owns the CraftWork co-working space and hosted some Edge Esmeralda events, said it well: "What feels like chaos to one segment actually feels like energy, optimism, empowerment and positive disruption for another cohort."

Dozens of children attended Edge Esmeralda with their parents. (Photo: Edge Esmeralda)

For what it’s worth, in conversations I’ve had with the event’s two main organizers — South Africa native Janine Leger from the Edge City org, and Bay Area native Devon Zuegel from the Esmeralda Land Company, both young women in their 30s — they’ve acknowledged some of these same issues. They say there are things they’d do differently next time, if there is a next time.

And there might be! They’re thinking about it. First, with learnings from Healdsburg under her belt, Janine has to pull off two more six-week popup villages in Argentina and Southeast Asia later this year (!). And Devon plans to continue searching for land in California to build the real-life village of her dreams: "a town for families looking for a car-light lifestyle, lifelong learning and independence for children." Her main inspiration is the "Chautauqua" gathering in upstate New York, which she attended as a girl with her grandma.

That, too, was a summertime popup village of sorts — famous for democratizing education, science and culture outside of a costly/elite university setting. Back in the day, there were also "traveling Chautauquas" that would set up shop in rural U.S. communities. (Sound familiar?)

That’s Janine in the middle, wearing turquoise — and Devon’s on the right, holding up the phone. (Photo: Edge Esmeralda)

Both Devon and Janine have been visiting Healdsburg for years, and thought it would be a great spot to try out a multi-generational, college campus-style event for people interested in healthier community living and building a better future.

Did they pull it off? Everyone who attended the event probably has their own answer. And everyone who didn’t, too. (Wanna give organizers your 2 cents? You can reach them at [email protected].)

As for me — I’m just glad they did it at all. I’ll remember June 2024 in Healdsburg as anything but status quo. I’m proud of my neighbors for welcoming these weirdos into our imperfect utopia, and I’m grateful to organizers for welcoming us into their trippy sci-fi dream world of flying cars and bottomless fresh vegetables.

I’ll quote Jim Heid from CraftWork again on this one: "They were here to learn and explore and build community. They weren’t here to get drunk and celebrate somebody’s marriage. It was healthy tourism, you might say."

Jim told me he’ll miss the energy they brought to town — from their hoverboards to their "huge level of naivete." ("Hey, that’s how shit gets done," he said. "You get somebody who doesn’t know what they don’t know and they go out there and they try to do it, and something comes out of it. … We’ve got enough cynicism in the world. It’s nice to balance it with a little bit of optimism.")

I’m going to miss them, too. If Edge Esmeralda is a crypto cult, it’s a super chill one. If it’s a scam, I for one got my money’s worth.

Simone Wilson was born and raised in Healdsburg, CA, where she was the editor of the Healdsburg High School Hound's Bark. She has since worked as a local journalist for publications in San Diego, Los Angeles, New York City and the Middle East. Simone is now a senior product manager and staff writer for the Healdsburg Tribune.


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