Big Tech: The Ultimate Start-Up Is An Entire City

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Technocrats in Silicon Valley think they hold all the keys to the future and that science and technology have the answers for every societal problem. Now they envision creating an entire city as a start-up, using technology to create their Utopia. ⁃ TN Editor

For all the optimism, innovation and wealth that are produced here, the Bay Area can also feel like a place that doesn’t work quite right.

The cost of housing has priced out teachers and line cooks. Income inequality is among the widest in the nation. The homeless crisis never seems to ebb. Traffic is a mess. On bad days, transit is, too. And local governments are locked in conflict.

Clearly, the region has not been optimized.

“It could be so much better,” said Ben Huh, who moved to San Francisco in 2016 after running the Cheezburger blog empire in Seattle. “There’s so much wealth. There’s so much opportunity.”

In the maddening gap between how this place functions and how inventors and engineers here think it should, many have become enamored with the same idea: What if the people who build circuits and social networks could build cities, too? Wholly new places, designed from scratch and freed from broken policies.

Mr. Huh leads a project begun by the start-up accelerator Y Combinator to explore the creation of new cities. Hundreds applied to work on what looked like “the ultimate full-stack start-up.” Last October, Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet company, announced it would team up with a government agency in Toronto to redevelop a stretch of the city “from the internet up.”

For others in tech — intrigued by word of a proposed smart city in Arizona, a big Bitcoin land grab in Nevada, a special economic zone in Honduras — fantasizing about newly built cities has become a side gig. They dream of utopias with driverless cars, radical property-ownership models, 3-D-printed houses and skyscrapers assembled in days.

While some urban planners roll their eyes, it is true that America’s cities have always been built on someone’s hubris, whether the characters who plotted Manhattan’s street grid, or those who imagined the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Who were these guys who were thinking so big? Then the question is, where are those people now?” said Paul Romer, the former chief economist at the World Bank, whose ideas (and TED talks) on new “charter cities” have influenced some in tech. “Tech types — as much as people might talk about the parochial way they’re approaching it — deserve credit for thinking bigger than anybody in government right now.”

Their interest has an internal logic to it. The tech industry tries to produce better versions of familiar things — cheaper phones, smaller computers, faster chips. But cities like San Francisco don’t seem to be evolving into more efficient versions of themselves. And if you take literally the economist Ed Glaeser’s assertion in “Triumph of the City” that cities are our greatest invention, it ought to be possible to reinvent them.

The idea isn’t such a stretch, the dreamers say, when Elon Musk is already shooting rockets into space and trying to bore tunnels for a transit “hyperloop.”

“You now have a lot of people who have seen a lot of success thinking, ‘Well, how can I one-up that? What’s bigger than starting a multibillion-dollar company?’ ” said JD Ross, the 27-year-old co-founder of Opendoor, a home-buying companythat has been valued by investors at more than $1 billion. “We have the home screen on our phone, we have the home button in every app. But it really comes down to people’s actual homes — that’s much more important.”

To planners and architects, all of this sounds like the naïveté of newcomers who are mistaking political problems for engineering puzzles.

Utopian city-building schemes have seldom succeeded. What we really need, they say, is to fix the cities we already have, not to set off in search of new ones.

But it is hard to overstate the degree to which these tech entrepreneurs are looking at the world in ways that would be almost unrecognizable to anyone already working on urban problems.

The Idealized City: An Absence of Rules

After Mr. Huh stepped down from Cheezburger in 2015, he took a sabbatical abroad that brought him to the Croatian port city of Dubrovnik. In the old city there, he watched Americans debarking from a cruise ship coo over the Old World architecture and narrow streets.

Mr. Huh had the same epiphany that many urban planning students have brought back from study abroad: Americans love these environments, but we make it impossible to build them here. Instead, we encourage sprawl, outlaw density and design around cars. And we’ve exported that paradigm around the world.

The model cities Mr. Huh and others in tech describe are not so different from what many urbanists want. They aspire to tame NIMBYism and private cars. They want to create walkable neighborhoods, albeit around hyperloop lines that would travel faster than any bullet train. They’re focused on affordable housing, although the shortage of it looks to them less like a matter of policy than a problem that better construction technology can solve.

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