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Is Y Combinator’s Project To Build “New, Better Cities” Shortsighted?

Originally published on Bikocity.

According to a recent blog post from Y Combinator, an early stage technology startup incubator, the organization wants to “study building new, better cities.” At first blush, this desire to improve something really basic — our daily living habitat — as opposed to the fairly conventional challenges that many tech startups take on (which may be a solution for a very specific market, usually in a narrow niche, or ones with decidedly limited reach), is a noble one.

3945923987_7d0a38f041_zBut it might also be a misguided, shortsighted attempt to use technology to solve issues without acknowledging that the phenomenon of a city is an emergent one, as pointed out by Adam Hengels of Market Urbanism, and the effort by Y Combinator begins with “one fatally flawed premise, that wise technocrats can master-build entirely new cities catering to the infinitely diverse set of needs and desires of yet-to-be-identified citizens.”

In the introductory blog post for the “New Cities” project, Y Combinator makes the following statement, which connects the dots between potential and opportunities, and although it seems to ring true in general terms, it’s also a rather vague statement, as are so many tech-centric approaches these days:

“The world is full of people who aren’t realizing their potential in large part because their cities don’t provide the opportunities and living conditions necessary for success. A high leverage way to improve our world is to unleash this massive potential by making better cities.

“It’s more important than ever to think about how to do this. The need for new supply continues to increase significantly. 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.” – Y Combinator

On Market Urbanism, Hengels points out how reliance on a previous “new” technology, the car, led cities down the path to where we are now, which is a decidedly car-centric and pedestrian-unfriendly situation, and one that we’re now starting to “fix” with walkable urban places and bike networks and such:

“Because of flawed philosophical underpinnings that emphasized top-down design (urban planning) and failure to acknowledge the emergent nature of cities, American cities nearly destroyed themselves in reaction to the 20th Century’s greatest technological disruption, the automobile. Cities’ master builders, armed with the best intentions progressive philosophy had to offer at the time, devastated vibrant communities and urbanity through the use of urban renewal projects, overbuilt a system of highways catering to the automobile, abandoned rail lines, and utilized zoning to separate homes from commercial activity and push growth further from where it was desired.”

Obviously, developing and deploying effective technology is one of the core strengths of the human race, so there’s no argument that the technology sector will be at the center of any “better cities” initiatives, but along with effective and efficient technology, we also have a tendency to develop technologies just because we can, not because we should, or because it makes lives easier or healthier or more fulfilling. And we also have a tendency to want to mold our creations as we think they should appear when seen from the “20,000 foot view” and the lens of our own experience — which may not be anything like the experience of those who actually live and work at ground level (the “top-down, build-from-scratch mindset,” as Hengels puts it).

This desire to take on big bold problems and challenges, and to use technology to try to overcome them, is a laudable one, but also one that is virtually bound to fall short, at least as long as the approach is one of top-down assumptions, rather than a bottom-up, feedback-driven one. That being said, here’s hoping that the Y Combinator effort is one grounded in humility and free of hubris. Perhaps they will be mindful of this sentiment, shared by Maciej Cegłowski at a panel at the recent Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics conference:

“We should not listen to people who promise to make Mars safe for human habitation, until we have seen them make Oakland safe for human habitation. We should be skeptical of promises to revolutionize transportation from people who can’t fix BART, or have never taken BART. And if Google offers to make us immortal, we should check first to make sure we’ll have someplace to live.”

Image by Ivan Walsh (CC 2.0 license)

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Derek lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, fungi, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves fresh roasted chiles, peanut butter on everything, and buckets of coffee. Catch up with Derek on Twitter, Google+, or at his natural parenting site, Natural Papa!


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