FRANCISCO — 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
cost of housing has priced out teachers and line cooks. Income inequality
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.
the region has not been optimized.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
Idealized City: An Absence of Rules
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.
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.
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.
have not affected the fundamental building blocks of infrastructure and
society,” Mr. Huh said. “We’ve made this better,” he added, gesturing to
his laptop. “We’ve made the new things better. We haven’t made the old
thinking about how to do that, people in tech prize “first
principles,” a concept that suggests that
historical awareness and traditional expertise can get in the way of
approach has worked before. Uber wouldn’t exist if Travis Kalanick had
begun by researching how taxis were regulated around the world. Uber
instead produced a service that violated those rules, and changed how
millions of people travel.With cities, this means stripping away the
histories of other utopias, the building codes that shape San Francisco,
the political dynamics that block change. The tabula rasa is alluring not
just for the lack of buildings, but also the absence of rules.
Huh and others proudly say this leads them to odd-sounding questions: How
much does a city cost? Why can’t you construct a skyscraper in days? Could
you fit a city’s rule book into a hundred pages?
in turn leads to very different conclusions.
currently live in cities that are the equivalent of flip phones,” said
Jonathan Swanson, a co-founder of the company Thumbtack,
which connects consumers to professionals like house painters and wedding
officiants. If someone built a better version of San Francisco — the
iPhone X of cities — two hours away, people here would demand those
upgrades, he said. One new city could benefit millions of others who don’t
you have competition, you get iOS versus Android or Lyft versus Uber,” Mr.
Swanson said. Without competition, we get cities that are like Comcast or
Collision of People and Ideas Is Sort of the Point
is a thread running through the past, however, that is not just about
urban history, but also tech’s own history. In the 1960s, people were
equally convinced, as Hubert Humphrey put it, that “the techniques that
are going to put a man on the moon are going to be exactly the techniques
that we are going to need to clean up our cities.”
the time, NASA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development
collaborated on ideas for “urban control systems.” Lunar landing
simulators were used to study city environments. Companies promised
space-age cities built from scratch.
very easy to get a sense of déjà vu,” said Nicholas de Monchaux, a
designer and Berkeley professor who describes this history in his book “Spacesuit.”
optimized cities, he says, failed then for the same reason they would be
unsuccessful now. Technology can help reduce traffic, or connect you
faster to a ride home. “But a city is not at its fundamental level
optimizable,” he said. A city’s dynamism derives from its inefficiencies,
from people and ideas colliding unpredictably.It’s also unclear what you’d
optimize an entire city for.
Technologists describe noble aspirations like “human flourishing” or
“quality of life.” But noble goals come into conflict within cities. You
could optimize for affordable housing, but then you may create a more
crowded city than many residents want. You could design a city so that
every home receives sunlight (an idea the
Chinese tried). But that might mean the city isn’t dense enough to
support diverse restaurants and mass transit.
trade-offs demand political choices. And so technologists hoping to avoid
politics are bound to encounter them again.
the techno-urbanists, Alphabet’s Sidewalk
Labs seems to be closest to actually creating
something. The company, run out of New York City by the former deputy
mayor Dan Doctoroff, concluded after a year of study that it needed a
not-quite-blank slate to truly innovate.
too many people or buildings already in place, it could never install an
energy grid, or test what happens when you ban private cars. But a
stand-alone city in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t work, Mr. Doctoroff
said, because people wouldn’t want to move there.
smart city movement as a whole has been disappointing in part because it
is hard to get stuff done in a traditional urban environment,” Mr.
Doctoroff said. “On the other hand, if you’re completely disrespectful of
the urbanist tradition, I don’t think it’s particularly replicable. And
it’s probably pretty naïve.”
Lab Experiment in Toronto
had what Sidewalk Labs had been looking for — roughly 800 acres of
underused waterfront that could be reimagined as a neighborhood, if not a
full metropolis, with driverless cars, prefabricated construction and
underground channels for robot deliveries and trash collection. The
company is in the middle of a year of public meetings around a
pilot phase of the project. Sidewalk Labs could ultimately become
the co-master planner for the full site, alongside a government
organization that manages it.
Huh would not say what form Y Combinator’s project would ultimately take.
The group has announced no plot of land or government partner. But Mr. Huh
described the effort as an “ongoing moonshot,” one that’s still trained on
the affordable housing problem that Y Combinator believes connects to
possible that tech’s greatest impact won’t come from anything like the
hyperloop, or with new North American cities. It could come in the
developing world, where some economists who have inspired the would-be
city builders are hoping tech will turn its ambition. Mr. Glaeser poses a
question that is less provocative — but perhaps more productive — than how
to build a better San Francisco. “The first-order thing,” he said, “is how
can we do mass-produced plastic housing for slums in a way that’s sanitary
and really, really cheap?”
Ross, the 27-year-old entrepreneur, is still pondering the right target.
going to put $100 million into this as soon as I can figure out how,” he
said, sitting in a coffee shop at a loud corner of San Francisco full of
construction cranes, where the city is reinventing itself more slowly than
he would like.
better,” he said, “than buying a Bugatti.”
Badger writes about cities and urban policy for The Upshot from the
San Francisco bureau. She's particularly interested in housing,
transportation and inequality — and how they're all connected. She
joined the Times in 2016 from The Washington Post. @emilymbadger