Cities are so trendy right now that every big tech company wants to build its own. Zappos did it in Downtown Vegas. Amazon is kind of doing it in a Seattle. Alphabet is probably doing it somewhere soon. And now Y Combinator wants in on the fun, too, with a plan to build some kind of alt-Silicon Valley… somewhere.
Image: Artisanopolis, by a team of three architects from Roark 3D
In an announcement last week, Y Combinator partner Adora Cheung (who joined the famous seed-funder five weeks ago) writes that our present cities “don’t provide the opportunities and living conditions necessary for success”. Cheung goes on to highlight specific failures the project hopes to address in the areas of affordable housing and transportation.
Fair enough, but why not simply focus on improving the city of Mountain View, California, where Y Combinator is already located, and which certainly needs to find solutions to many of these urban problems (some due to startups like Airbnb which Y Combinator has backed)? Y Combinator is not interested in that, really:
Some existing cities will get bigger and there’s important work being done by smart people to improve them. We also think it’s possible to do amazing things given a blank slate. Our goal is to design the best possible city given the constraints of existing laws.
And if that starts to smack of some tech industry déjà vu —
Just to get ahead of the inevitable associations: We want to build cities for all humans — for tech and non-tech people. We’re not interested in building “crazy libertarian utopias for techies.”
There’s a good reason why this would work particularly well for Y Combinator. Since part of its business model is making the startups it funds relocate to Silicon Valley for an incubation period, this could create a built-in audience of engaged residents. It wouldn’t be much more difficult to convince these companies to move to Y City — or to require they launch there, per the funding agreement.
But the question remains: Where? That’s the thing about cities — the reason they’re expensive and crowded is because people do want to live there. From the description, Y City sounds more like it would be some kind of self-contained outpost located far away from the bustle of today’s existing urban life.
Many constraints related to where cities should be located (e.g. near rivers for trade) have changed. We now have major technologies such as smart grids, autonomous vehicles, etc. The internet itself allows for participation never before possible. Also, housing prices in many cities have become untenable and we need more housing in places people want to live.
But, but — the location of our urban centres go far beyond antiquated reasons like “rivers for trade”. There are not only issues like the availability of natural resources to address but the also impact of bringing thousands of people to live in a place where many humans don’t live right now. The existing supply chains and infrastructure are what make cities the most environmentally smart places for humans to live. Building a brand-new city to the density that would be able to support a sustainable, low-emission lifestyle for its residents and allow economic stability not found in current US cities would be quite the accomplishment — especially if it actually managed to become the kind of techno-utopia where “regular” people will want to live. Will it be more like a hippie commune in the Nevada desert or a misguided city-within-a-city in the Nevada desert?