A Silicon Valley Incubator Plans To Build “New, Better” Cities

Are KPIs and optimization the keys to solving centuries-old urban issues? Y Combinator thinks so.

A Silicon Valley Incubator Plans To Build “New, Better” Cities
[Illustrations: spacedrone808, AvDe, cherrytana via Shutterstock]

Here’s a quiz. Do the following questions sound like they pertain more to a new gadget, an ad sales platform, or a city?

  • What should a ████ optimize for?
  • How should we measure the effectiveness of a ████ (what are its KPIs)?
  • What values should (or should not) be embedded in a ████’s culture?
  • How can we make sure a ████ is constantly evolving and always open to change?

The language is unmistakably that of the tech world, where KPIs (key performance indicators) and optimization are the lexicon with which disruptive apps and fitness trackers for dogs are commonly described. Yet these questions were asked about cities. They were posed by the Silicon Valley seed fund Y Combinator this week, when the accelerator announced a new project to research and build cities from scratch.

Citing issues such as affordable housing, traffic, outdated zoning laws, and safety as major challenges in current cities, the fund argues that the best bet is to build from the ground up. Cities, it writes, are “a high-leverage way to improve our world.” Another of the project’s goals? To reduce the length of this new city’s code and zoning rules to 100 pages (but what font size?).

The announcement was written by partner Adora Cheung, the founder of Homejoy, a Y Combinator-funded startup that paid independent contractors to clean homes at a flat rate of $25 and became a standard bearer of the “gig economy” before folding in 2015. Now, Cheung and Y Combinator president Sam Altman are calling for interested experts to join their team. Their short-term goal? To complete a research report about the ideal city–and then, to build it.

Y Combinator isn’t the first tech company to take on urban issues–it joins Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs. But many aspects of its approach to urbanism remain unclear. (Y Combinator did not return a request for comment.) For example, why Y Combinator wants to build new cities rather than improving existing urban hubs, or how new cities would be funded. “[We] think we know how to finance it if everything else makes sense,” Cheung writes.

Reactions to the announcement have varied, ranging from excitement to incredulity to Robert Moses comparisons:

Even though it’s rarely explicit about it, Silicon Valley is already reshaping urban life around the world. Take Uber, a company that has single-handedly transformed transit, or Airbnb, a Y Combinator-backed company that is radically altering the real estate markets and affordability of hundreds of cities, and which is currently doing legal battle against cities including Berlin and San Francisco, as Anthony Lazarus points out.


Both companies have endured withering criticisms for their failure to acknowledge how their products impact cities in a deep, socioeconomic way. In a footnote to her announcement, Cheung notes she wants to “get ahead of the inevitable associations,” saying “we want to build cities for all humans–for tech and nontech people. We’re not interested in building ‘crazy libertarian utopias for techies.'”

One thing is for sure: The announcement is steeped in the ethos of Silicon Valley, which the writer Evgeny Morozov once described as “an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion, whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.”

Whatever you think of the project’s ambitions, this won’t be the last time we see a tech organization take on urbanism. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Silicon Valley moves to apply its logic to large-scale, adaptive networks like cities–which are historically and structurally so different from the networks the tech industry is used to developing.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.