The startup accelerator that incubated Airbnb and Dropbox wants to take game-changing to a whole new level. As Tech Insider reports, Y Combinator is exploring the possibility of creating a city from scratch.
According to a job listing posted to its website on Monday, the Mountain View-based accelerator is looking to hire a full-time team to research the city of the future. “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,” reads the announcement.
Acknowledging that technology has permanently altered the conditions that once defined whether cities thrived — access to rivers for trading purposes, for example — the posting is sprinkled with techno-optimism even as it tries to counter the impression that Y Combinator’s city would be for the tech-savvy few. “We want to build cities for all humans — for tech and non-tech people,” reads a footnote. “We’re not interested in building ‘crazy libertarian utopias for techies.’”
Still, the listing’s language may feel uncomfortable to anyone who has been “disrupted” out of a job in the last few years, or people wary of a data-mining world. Among the high-level questions the research project would seek to answer are, “What should a city optimize for?” and “How should we measure the effectiveness of a city? (what are its KPIs [key performance indicators]).” In terms of that “cities for all,” they also pose, ”How can we encourage a diverse range of people to live and work in the city?,” though as with employment in today’s tech sector, that language hints at a “diverse range of people” not necessarily being involved in creating the city of the future, but needing to be intentionally shoehorned in after the fact.
The post also lists some concrete and familiar aspects of city design to be researched: How can housing be kept affordable, how might zoning be changed to create better public and private places, what role will vehicles play — “should we have human-driven cars at all?” — and how can civic engagement be encouraged through more streamlined rules and regulations?
This isn’t Y Combinator’s first foray into projects that promise to shape the city of the future and mitigate the impacts of technological change on urban life. Last month the accelerator announced it would conduct a basic income pilot study in Oakland. Defining basic income as “giving people enough money to live on with no strings attached,” Y Combinator says it will select some Oakland residents to receive a basic income for between six and 12 months and research what they do with it.
“One reason we think it may work is that technological improvements should generate an abundance of resources,” the company posted on its website. “Although basic income seems fiscally challenging today, in a world where technology replaces existing jobs and basic income becomes necessary, technological improvements should generate an abundance of resources and the cost of living should fall dramatically.” The pilot study could be followed by a longer research project.
As for the brand-new city initiative, people interested in architecture, ecology, politics, technology and urban planning are urged to apply. The announcement states that the results of the research will be publicly shared. Y Combinator will decide which aspects to pursue and where. “We’re seriously interested in building new cities,” reads the listing, “and we think we know how to finance it if everything else makes sense.”
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.