Y Combinator made a controversial announcement last week that their nonprofit arm would begin research towards building an entire city from scratch.
The accelerator’s mobile app development projects have raised record-setting returns for the group, fueling a multi-million dollar nonprofit fund which Y combinator president Sam Altman hopes to grow to 100 million in coming years. Project manager Adora Cheung (formerly of Homejoy) took to Twitter to discuss and defend the initiative, which has drawn a wide range of criticism, both negative and positive.
Building new cities is the ultimate full-stack startup, in both complexity and ambition, and we need a lot of help figuring it out.
— adora cheung (@nolimits) June 27, 2016
Media sources like Gizmodo were quick to call out the project as “arrogant” and “trendy,” although Y Combinator spokespeople have pointed out clearly that at this stage it’s purely a research project — if the research doesn’t pan out, the city might be scrapped before laying a single brick:
The first phase of this will be a YC Research project. We’ll publicly share our results, and at the end of the process, we’ll decide if it’s something we should pursue and at what exact locations.
The city project is particularly polarizing in the mobile app development community as it comes on the heels of Y Combinator’s universal basic income experiment in Oakland, where a sample group of random residents are being given $2000/month — no strings attached — to see how the money affects their behavior and choices.
Unsurprisingly, minimalism and efficiency are at the heart of the project. The goals: fix major urban issues like rising housing costs, inequality, lack of transit, polution, and waste. To start, the research group will be addressing questions like “can we fit all rules for the city in 100 pages of text?” and “How should citizens guide and participate in government?”
While the initiative certainly sounds lofty — even crazy — to San Francisco mobile app developers now, it’s important to remember that most game-changing technology projects sound crazy at first. They said Musk was crazy for going to space. They said Jobs was crazy for building a home computer. If I had to place a bet on where the solutions for major societal problems like housing and inequality will come from, Y Combinator would be a strong contender. Controversial though they may be, you can’t argue with their track record when it comes to innovation.
…And for those with strong views about how a “smart city” should look, applications are still open for research partners:
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