Y Combinator wants to build a tech city, too

Forget wearables, virtual reality and driverless cars. The hottest new tech product is entire cities.

Now Y Combinator wants to build a tech city, too

This whole “tech-companies-think-big-with-plans-to-build-entire-cities” thing is getting out of hand.

Earlier this year, I reported on (OK, ridiculed) Google’s silliest moonshot, a plan by Google's parent company, Alphabet, to create Project Sidewalk, a city with hundreds of thousands of residents, intended to act as a proving ground for new technology. I asked “what could possibly go wrong” with a plan like that? I was thinking, well, just about everything.

+ Also on Network World: Google’s biggest, craziest ‘moonshot’ yet+

But maybe I’m the lone skeptic here because high-profile tech accelerator and investor Y Combinator, the company behind Hacker News and more than 1,000 startups, is apparently planning a project to testconstruction methods, power sources, driverless cars, even notions of zoning and property rights,” according to the Associated Press.

In a post titled New Cities on the Y Combinator blog, President Sam Altman and partner Adora Cheung say they’re building a team to research high-level questions such as “What are the KPIs for a city” (hmmm, gonna have to think about that one for a while), as well as tactical issues like “Should we have human-driven cars at all?” and “Can we fit all rules for the city in 100 pages of text?” 

Want to help? They’re taking applications until July 30. Right now they’re still in the research stage, but that’s only phase one.

“We’re seriously interested in building new cities, and we think we know how to finance it if everything else makes sense,” Cheung and Altman say in their blog post.

Again, though, I have to ask, “What could possibly go wrong?” While Y Combinator insists it is “not interested in building ‘crazy libertarian utopias for techies,’” how many “normal” people have any idea what a KPI is or want to live in a city run by them?

A garden, not a machine

More to the point, perhaps, is that a true city is more like an organic entity, growing on its own when conditions are right, than a planned, organized, intentional creation. To date, most attempts to plan and create new cities have turned out to be sterile failures instead of vibrant communities.

Cities aren’t companies, where you can hire and fire your way into making sure everyone is on board with the plan. They’re messy, disorganized, contentious places where multiple ideas and goals and cultures ebb and flow according to the needs and desires of the cities’ citizens and would-be citizens.

Trying to carefully orchestrate all of that spontaneous confusion and complex energy isn’t just impossible, it’s not a very good idea. Careful command and control in the service of over-arching principles or goals tends to founder on the shoals of residents’ own goals and ambitions. And that’s how most people like it. 

Mayor vs. CEO

Residents may be willing to elect a mayor, but they’re not interested in being told what to do by a CEO. They may want a good job and an affordable home in a safe, convenient and interesting neighborhood, but they want to decide for themselves what constitutes those things. Y Combinator asks, “How can cities help more of their residents be happy and reach their potential?” Heck, we can’t really define happiness very well. And do you really want someone else to determine whether you’re living up to your potential? 

I’d be far more optimistic about a more humble approach, where Cheung and Altman work to create the right conditions for a new kind of city to grow rather than trying to actually build it. Who knows? Maybe that’s the kind of plan they’ll end up with after they do their research. Or maybe they’ll just come up with some useful suggestions for civic planning and policy. 

But from my perspective, the New Cities project, like Alphabet’s Project SideWalk, looks more like another case of tech-industry hubris—the kind that’s already angering broad swaths of the population in and around Silicon Valley.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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