Y Combinator's research project will shift Ben Huh from meme kittehs to dream cities.
The man who gave us some of the Internet’s best memes is now shifting his efforts to designing the cities of the future.
On Tuesday, Ben Huh, best known as the former CEO of Cheezburger Network and a co-founder of now defunct news startup Circa, announced he’s joining Y Combinator’s research project on city design. Huh will spend the next six months as part of the project he said in a blog post, though he may stay longer, he told Fortune.
Y Combinator, best known as a selective startup accelerator program in Silicon Valley, announced over the summer it plans to explore how to build new and better cities as part of its research arm. Huh, who spent much of his childhood on construction sites with his father, says he’s had a life-long interest in cities and urban design. Last year, Huh stepped down as CEO of Cheezburger Network, a media company known for its blogs with silly and iconic Internet memes.
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After his departure from Cheezburger, Huh spent a year traveling. A month ago, he came to San Francisco in search of the next startup he wanted to build, but after a meeting with Y Combinator partner Adora Cheung, he decided to join the project. Huh’s ultimate goal is to design a system for building new cities that is replicable and not dependent on traditional anchors like ports, so that more cities can be built.
“When I returned to the U.S. and we were thinking about places to move to, there weren’t that many choices [for working in the tech industry],” said Huh. “There should be another San Francisco, there should another L.A., there should be another New York.”
Huh’s thesis is that despite cities’ tendencies to evolve naturally over centuries, technology can make new approaches to building cities ways that weren’t possible before.
“As technology advances, cities must adapt to new realities of life,” Huh wrote in the blog post. “Ancient towns were designed for beasts and wells. In the last century, cities were built for cars and concrete.”
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As a first step, Huh plans to spend a considerable amount of time learning about cities, urban design, and other relevant areas—including taking trips to places like a refugee camp in Jordan to learn about the resources that people there need. “We have to be careful about coming off as know-it-alls,” he told Fortune.
Eventually, the plan is to build a lab somewhere near San Francisco where Y Combinator can experiment with ideas, as well as build a prototype city somewhere, though Huh doesn’t have much information to share on either of those projects, as he’s only just joined the organization.
Y Combinator’s research arm, which president Sam Altman announced late last year, already investigates other topics, such as universal basic income and artificial intelligence. Altman pledged to donate $10 million to the research arm.