When Mountain View start-up incubator YCombinator announced this June that the company would be creating an initiative around designing new cities, it was easy for architects and urbanists to laugh.
Best known for early investments in companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, and the video game streaming site Twitch, YCombinator launched its cities initiative with language that seemed straight from HBO's hit satire show, "Silicon Valley":
Some people who work in and write about urban design were wary of applying the business oriented language of "Key Performance Indicators" and optimization to a field with such a long and complex existence. On Twitter, Arts journalist Geeta Dayal commented:
@fascinated always skeptical about projects like this that don't go deep into urban studies, planning, architecture, sociology, history, etc— Geeta Dayal (@geetadayal) June 27, 2016
Planner and artist Neil Freeman observed:
Might be time to dig up Robert Moses's 1942 Arch. Forum essay on Haussmann. You know, the one where he explained that he was a new Haussmann— Neil Freeman (@fitnr) June 27, 2016
Critic and researcher Amanda Kolson Hurley wondered about the disjunct between Mountain View's setting and the urban ambitions of its companies:
Funny that SV fawns over cities while operating from the suburbs, at a time when cities decant their brown & poor ppl to the suburbs.— Amanda Kolson Hurley (@amandakhurley) June 27, 2016
YCombinator's announcement seemed to anticipate at least of some of these criticisms in a footnote at the bottom of the page: "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.'" That last line may be a reference to YCombinator advisor Peter Thiel's interest in Seasteading—creating a floating city where businesses could operate free of political entanglements and regulation.
YCombinator's announcement said they wanted to look at new greenfield sites only, and avoid intervening in existing cities. Silicon Valley historian and Stanford University professor Fred Turner has written about the connections between the area's technology start-ups and the notion of a new frontier. Turner traces this idea complex back to Global Business Network founder and Silicon Valley guru Stewart Brand. Brand got his start publishing the Whole Earth Catalog for the "back-to-the-land" countercultural movement in the 1960s, eventually shifting his interest to the "High Frontier" of space colonization, before turning his attention to the "cyberspace" of the early World Wide Web.
A man who got rich selling out his stake in a cat picture website is teaming up with a woman who founded a failed housecleaning company to imagine the future of cities.In October, YCombinator announced that its first "Explorer" in the New Cities initiative would be entrepreneur Ben Huh. Huh's previous venture had been built around the acquisition of popular viral websites like "Know your Meme," "Fail Blog" and the cat picture site "I Can Has Cheezburger." Huh built a company, The Cheezburger Network, around consolidating this user-generated content. He cashed out in 2015, and, according to his Medium bio "Wandered the planet for a year." In a long post titled "Should I Pursue My Passion or Business?" Huh says that he is excited to join the project:
"For the next 6-months, I am joining YCombinator Research’s New Cities project as an Explorer. My goal? Create an open, repeatable system for rapid cityforming that maximize [sic] human potential. It is a vastness [sic] and complex challenge — and one that makes me so happy that I want to tap dance to work. Like any other epic journey, we’ll start small and learn fast: Everything we learn, we will be publishing online."
Huh will join Adora Cheung, the YCombinator partner in charge of the New Cities project. Cheung had previously founded a house cleaning start-up, Homejoy, as an incubee at YCombinator. Homejoy sought to avoid labor, payroll, and training regulations by classifying most of its workforce as independent contractors, instead of staff. Homejoy closed when it was faced with several lawsuits from those workers about their status.
This would all be silly if there weren't so much at stake.Like Cheezburger Network with its user-generated content, Homejoy and other "sharing economy" companies are uprooting the way traditional industries are doing business by serving as software-enabled middlemen and distributers—rather than creators—of content. "Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening," as strategist Tom Goodwin wrote in Techcrunch in 2015. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen put it more succinctly in 2011, when he wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled simply "Why Software is Eating the World".
A man who got rich selling out his stake in a cat picture website is teaming up with a woman who founded a failed housecleaning company to imagine the future of cities. They're backed by advisor and investor Peter Thiel, perhaps best known for his interest in—besides seasteading—using the blood of the young to extend the life of the old, speculating about whether extending the right to vote to women was bad for democracy, and secretly funding lawsuits against journalists. Sam Altman, YCombinator president, recently had to defend the company's relationship with Thiel, when Thiel donated $1.25 million to Donald Trump's presidential campaign a week after a recording surfaced of Trump bragging about committing sexual assault.
YCombinator's project has moved to the site selection phase. They have a form online that requests suggestions: "We want to build a city. Know of a specific location that works? Tell us about it below." One landscape architect friend on twitter dubbed Huh's future city "Cheezburg". "To call a city a system or a platform underestimates the complexities. We’ll be working on a project to develop a system for creating networks of systems," Huh wrote on Medium. This kind of jargon and hubris is easy to mock, until we remember that these people are applying the same business model that's putting taxi drivers and bookstores out of work all across the country. This would all be silly if there weren't so much at stake.While we in the business are concerned elsewhere, people from other industries are defining how that urban technological adaptation will play out.
The urban ambitions of technology companies are growing. The self-driving cars from Google and Tesla will change the way cities are planned. Elon Musk's other companies are turning roofs into power generators and walls into batteries. He wants to build cities on Mars, and new high-speed floating trains on Earth. Researchers from Adam Greenfield to Keller Easterling are writing about the "Smart Cities" that IBM and others are designing. Architects and urban designers are engaging with these projects, but we're still not doing it often or effectively enough. "Many will wonder why a guy known for cat pictures and memes is running a project to build the cities of the future," Huh says. He's right about this, and he's right when he notes "What got us here won’t get us there. As technology advances, cities must adapt to new realities of life." While we in the business are concerned elsewhere, people from other industries are defining how that urban technological adaptation will play out.
Unlicensed Architect, Amateur Urbanist, Uncredited Designer, Sometime Researcher and Writer