Challenges face former Cheezburger CEO joining Y Combinator’s New Cities project

Y Combinator’s ambitious New Cities project has a new leader today as Ben Huh, former CEO of The Cheezburger Network, joins the effort.

The initiative, previously announced back in June, aims to take a fresh, entrepreneurial approach, to city building. Details have been hard to come by, but the group was hiring researchers for a short time on the tail end of the summer. In a blog post, Huh explained his intentions to make a real difference in the world with his upcoming work. 

It appears YC is serious about leaving behind prior notions and best practices of urban development in their quest to disrupt. Huh, something of a meme mogul, is coming off a long term role as CEO of a company that facilitated the creation and sharing of internet memes. Huh left Cheezburger in 2015 noting how much of a “marathon” the eight year effort had been. In today’s post, Huh connected his experiences traveling during a gap year to his renewed drive to tackle hard problems.

While the aim of the New Cities effort was almost certainly to inspire, the project’s announcement earlier this summer was met with criticism from many who poked fun at the initiative for trivializing the work of urban planners, whose job is to manage land use and plan next generation infrastructure.

In true startup fashion, the group has an application open for location referrals to potentially optimal locations for a new experimental metropolis. The form asks for information on zoning restrictions and immigration rules for the site. It also leaves room for a breakdown of costs if YC makes use of the location.

Huh’s role is being described as that of an “explorer.” He is only set to be involved in the future cities project for the next six months, which seems like an awfully short time horizon for a problem Altman noted could take “a long time,” perhaps even “25 years,” to address.

To critics, Huh’s post screams of a particular Silicon Valley savior ethos. The attitude can roughly be explained as a belief that private enterprise, unencumbered by the chains of bureaucracy, can execute public service better than the government itself.

Sam Altman himself, President of the YC Group, donated $10 million to form the research arm that gave birth to the New Cities project in addition to work around openAI, basic income, and human advancement. In YC’s initial blog post, Altman and Adora Cheung, a YC Partner tasked with initiating New City efforts, included an almost comical footnote addressing this potential criticism head on.

“We’re not interested in building “crazy libertarian utopias for techies,” the two clarified.

However, today’s post from Huh remains quite focused on problems likely to be on the forefront of the minds of “techies” in places like San Francisco and New York City.

“Housing prices in urban environments have skyrocketed due to poor policy decisions and NIMBY-ism,” noted Huh.

There is a lot of nuance required when addressing NIMBY-ism and its part in today’s urban challenges. Huh is not explicitly wrong so much as narrow in addressing many of the challenges faced by cities not caught in the waves of economic prosperity. Detroit for example may have inclusivity issues, but blight and vacancy are what occupy the thoughts of residents on a daily basis.

That isn’t to say starting from scratch is always bad — diversity of approach can and often does lead to positive unexpected outcomes. It is simply up to Y Combinator to disclose additional details on the exact end game of its efforts.