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Tech’s newest obsession is finding ways to overhaul cities

San Francisco, California
Compassandcamera | Getty Images
San Francisco, California

It would seem Silicon Valley has found a new thing to disrupt.

Y Combinator, a startup incubator that likes to incubate ways to rehash well-worn policy knots — in January, it launched a research project on universal basic income — announced today a research project to solicit ideas for building "new, better cities." Here's their objective from a blog post:

Some existing cities will get bigger and there's important work being done by smart people to improve them. We also think it's possible to do amazing things given a blank slate. Our goal is to design the best possible city given the constraints of existing laws.

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Adora Cheung, the incubator's partner and author of the above post, notes some potential areas for the research: Affordable housing, zoning rules, transit and autonomous cars. If this rings familiar, you are following the movements of Sidewalk Labs, the Google subsidiary now under Alphabet, which has discussed each of these areas. (That and building a city from scratch.)

It even has a product, a software platform called Flow designed for cities. The Guardian uncovered more of the aspirations behind it, surfacing documents between Sidewalk Labs and Columbus, Ohio, winner of a government "Smart City" grant. Therein, the Alphabet unit proposes using data-tracking tools around transportation and parking to save and generate revenue for the city while creating more ways for residents to use private ride-sharing services like Uber.

The tech industry's effort to seed influence and capital from "smart city" initiatives is not new, although these latest projects center on ways novel technology — widespread sensors and self-driving cars — could alter urban economics.

Y Combinator, an early backer of booming San Francisco startups like Airbnb and Dropbox, is closely linked (in perception, at least) to the city's widening inequality. In its post today, the firm ended with a caveat: "We want to build cities for all humans —for tech and non-tech people. We're not interested in building 'crazy libertarian utopias for techies.'"

It may find that the non-tech people, particularly those running city governments, are less willing to glom onto lofty tech ideas. A Columbus official told the Guardian that Sidewalk Labs' platform could be valuable, but stressed that the city hasn't "signed any agreements with them."

By Mark Bergen, Recode.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.