Silicon Valley is obsessed with building utopian cities of the future

It’s something of a mantra among urban planners, architects, and Silicon Valley types at this point: The world’s population is growing rapidly, and by 2050, over two-thirds of people will live in urban areas. Today’s cities can’t handle the huge influx of people to come, so we have to make some big changes.

If you listen to Silicon Valley, those changes might look like…new cities entirely.

In the spring, Footpath Labs (owned by parent company Alphabet Inc.) announced its intentions to build a “smart city” within one or more existing cities in the US. First up is overhauling parking and ride-sharing in Columbus, Ohio, according to documents obtained by the Guardian. The project, which hasn’t been approved yet, will use software to analyse transportation data, create an “Airbnb for cars” where vehicles can use short-term rented parking spots, and use artificial intelligence to help parking cops be more efficient (yay?).

Eventually, Footpath Labs envisions testing out a multitude of city-building projects  —  though not necessarily in Columbus   —   experimenting with water and electricity infrastructure and self-driving cars, among other things.

Footpath Labs isn’t alone. On Monday, Y Combinator announced that it’s launching a research project focused on building cities of the future, with a special focus on making affordable housing. “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 tech accelerator explained in a blog post. “We’re seriously interested in building new cities and we think we know how to finance it if everything else makes sense.”

But this is not, Y Combinator assures us, an experiment in “in building ‘crazy libertarian utopias for techies.'”

It’s probably a matter of months, if not weeks, before another Silicon Valley luminary announces a new plan to overhaul a city or just build a new one.

It’s easy to heap scorn upon people and companies that think they can overcome urban planning problems that experts have been debating for decades. And there are reasonable concerns; handing over city services to a private company like Alphabet, for example, could have unexpected impacts.

Here’s just a small sampling of the Twitter critiques of Footpath Labs and Y Combinator that emerged this week from architecture and design experts:

On Y Combinator:

 

And on Footpath Labs:

 

Is it all hubris? Hard to say at this point, though overhauling infrastructure within existing urban areas (a la Footpath labs) certainly seems less daunting than attempting to build a brand-new city. 

Still, Silicon Valley is often accused of working on meaningless problems, so it’s not the worst thing in the world to see people focusing on crucial global issues, quixotic as the plans may be.

Here’s my great (if unlikely) hope for the Valley’s city-building initiatives of the future: Focus on helping cities prepare for sea level rise. So many of the world’s greatest existing cities will have to consider moving inland in the coming years as they’re overtaken by water. There will be so much room for new and better infrastructure to be built. 

Overly ambitious ideas are welcome.

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