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Why Cities Are Zombies...

(and how Lean Placemaking™ can bring them back to life)

This week’s blogpost is Read-One-Get-Three (plus a video bonus)! We’ve been hard at work implementing lean startup principles and writing our Small Business Innovation Research Phase II proposal to scale our startup. It led us to think about our blog series about Lean Placemaking and how State of Place makes it easy for cities to adopt lean startup principles by providing the data and analytics they need to “build, measure, learn” and create better places. In non-startup speak, that means use data to not only create an (even more) awesome plan - but actually get them approved and funded - faster and cheaper! What do you think? Have you used Lean Startup methods? Please feel free to comment or email us your story! We’d love to profile you in an upcoming blog!

Our Founder/CEO, Mariela Alfonzo, speaking about Lean Placemaking at the Lean Startup Conference

Part I: Cities have a lot in common with startups:

A key difference, however, is that in light of their high failure rate, many startups have pivoted (more on that term in the next blog), adopting a fundamentally different business development method – the Lean Startup Methodology. Sparked in large part by Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany and Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, this movement has become absolutely infectious, in a good way! Based on Eventbrite data, the number of registrants of the annual lean startup conference went up by 51% from 2012 to2013there are over 1350 lean startup Meetup groups with a total of nearly 350k members in over 460 cities across 70 countries; and over 80k members are part of the Lean Startup Circle, a global grassroots organization of Lean Startup practitioners!

It’s time for the lean startup epidemic to spread to Cities. It’s time for Lean Placemaking.

This blog series will explore why and how lean startup for cities – or Lean Placemaking – should be used to disrupt cities’ status quo, the same way lean startup has done for startups. I aim to build upon previous writings on this topic by laying out a parallel structure that cities can use to integrate a lean startup approach – in other words, to outline a Lean Placemaking framework, which integrates some of the principles espoused by DIY urbanism,tactical urbanismpop-up urbanism, and lighter, quicker, cheaperstrategic approaches. (Note that Lean Placemaking is not the same as what has been recently coined as lean urbanism.)

Before I define the term lean startup, and lay out its methodology’s key tenets, let’s walk through what the typical startup development process has been like historically:
1. Get a brilliant idea
2. Run numbers/Craft a business plan
3. Convince others to give you money for the idea
4. Spend (too much) time building out the product (e.g. technology, infrastructure, design, etc.) to bring the idea to life
5. Market to customers
6. [Try to] sell idea
7. Sell too few ideas
8. Idea (startup) dies, 9 out of 10 times

Now, let’s walk through what the typical city/planning process has been like historically:
1. Get a brilliant idea
2. Run numbers/Craft a conceptual plan, master plan, comprehensive plan, RFP [insert planning mechanism here], etc.
3. Convince others to give you money for the idea/Budget for the idea
4. Spend (too much) time building out the product (e.g. infrastructure, real estate development project, design, etc.) bringing the idea to life
5. Present idea to public/Engage public
6. [Try to] sell idea
7. Sell too few ideas/Face public resistance
8. Idea dies/Idea gets implemented but fails (to meet expectations)

That’s quite the stark parallel, right? I swear it even surprised me as I was writing this out! It’s no wonder why this typical top-down, insular process fails (or dissatisfies) so often. It’s broken.

So what is the lean startup solution to this problem? Actually, one of lean startup’s most significant contributions has been to diagnose the root cause of the problem: The biggest reason for #8 is the fact that #5 is #5 and not #2, or ideally, #1; it’s just too late in the game to bring in the “customer” – or the public. This process increases the likelihood that a startup will fail, and worse, that the startup fails late in the game, after a lot of time and money has been spent on the process and/or product.

The solution then – the Lean Startup – is to implement a “scientific approach to creating and managing startups [to] get a desired product to customers’ hands faster” (and of course, involving the user as soon as possible). Several books, handbooks, blogs, and workshops, including of course Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, have fleshed out a number of concepts and key tenets of the Lean Startup Methodology. I summarize these below and explain how they can be applied to cities via “Lean Placemaking”:

Lean Startup Mission: Create value for customers
Lean Placemaking™ Mission: Create public value

Adapted from The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Adapted from The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Lean Startup Key Objective: Don’t spend time building something nobody wants
Lean Placemaking™  Key Objective: Don’t spend time (and money) building something nobody (or only a select few) wants – or needs. Optimize limited resources.

Lean Startup Meta-principle: Feedback loop of(Idea) Build, (Product) Measure, (Data) Learn
Lean Placemaking Meta-principle: While some argue it’s a matter of semantics, I’ve altered the order of the feedback loop (as have others) to start with: (Idea) Learn, (Data) Measure, (Product) Build as outlined below.

Lean Startup & Lean Placemaking  Framework:  Running experiments. To implement the lean meta-principle, startups, and cities alike, must test their various assumptions using the framework laid out in the scientific method.


1) To validate an idea, learn through customer discovery.
Example: A city thinks creating pocket parks is a good idea. Before beginning to scope out where these pocket parks could be located, the city must validate this idea – it must “Get out of the building!” This is a key lean startup tenet. Startups must interface with potential customers, and in the cities’ case, users, to make sure they are meeting their key objective – not building (or planning) a pocket park no one needs or wants. I’d add that cities must also interface with the physical community itself to understand existing conditions (maybe there are already plenty of pocket parks, but they are not being used because they are not well maintained). This, of course, is part of what we do with State of Place.

2) Measure/Test customer validation & acquisition models:
While getting out of the building is a key step in the customer discovery and lean startup process, this doesn’t mean a city should just randomly ask people if they do or do not want a pocket park. Instead, the city must engage in Hypothesis Testing to address three key assumptions, as outlined by Ash Maurya in Running Lean:

a) Problem/Solution Fit:  Does the idea for a solution address a significant problem for potential users?
Hypothesis: Five out of 10 residents feel there are not enough green spaces within close walking distance to their homes.
Hypothesis: Six out of 10 residents believe that pocket parks would address their desire for green spaces within close walking distance to their homes
b) Product/Market Fit: Do enough people want or need your solution?
Hypothesis: Seven out of 10 potential users indicated that a solution like pocket parks would satisfy their need for more green space within walking distance to their homes
c) Scale/growth model: How can I implement this solution citywide (or within all communities in which this problem exists)?
Hypothesis: Eight out of 10 potential users would be willing to help build and maintain their community pocket parks.

All hypotheses must be “falsifiable” – you must be able to prove or disprove them. They must be specific and testable.
Not Falsifiable: Residents love pocket parks
Falsifiable: A “pop-up” pocket park (that’s hard to say out loud!) will attract > 300 residents over the weekend

Part II: MVPs as antidotes for zombie cities

3) Build MVP Approach:

In Lean Startup terms, an MVP, or a minimum viable product, is “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” This doesn’t mean the product is “embarrassingly” minimal. The MVP still has to “deliver enough customer value” for the startup to better understand if their solution addresses a customer need (problem/solution fit) and if enough customers have the problem the startup is trying to solve (product/market fit). The MVP isn’t about releasing early and often either: validated learning isn’t about deploying an early version of a product, acquiring customer feedback, quickly incorporating some of the feedback, and re-releasing the product. This kind of feedback loop is not the same as the learn, measure, build loop we discussed last time. The purpose of the MVP is to help you test your specific,falsifiable hypotheses as quickly as possible.

So what does this have to do with cities?

Source: ATLUrbanis

Source: ATLUrbanis

For example: A city wants to build pocket parks in a neighborhood that they believe is lacking in green space. It’s already passed the sniff test – or more precisely, the city has validated an assumption about its “customer problem” by conducting 10 customer interviews. The city validated its assumption, as five of the ten customers interviewed indicated that they didn’t have enough green spaces within walking distance of their homes. Now it’s time to validate the MVP – in this case, the Minimum Viable Project.

Although the city’s proposed solution for its lack of green space problem is a pocket park, the approval process for that kind of project is lengthy and its cost, not insignificant. The pocket park itself is not an appropriate MVP. Instead, the city decides to temporarily transform two parking spaces into a pop-up mini pocket park and invites the five “customers” who felt their neighborhood needed more green space (the “early adopters”) to be part of the process and test out the space (Stay tuned for how State of Place can help with this process!). This MVP still delivers enough of the value the city wants to deliver to its “customers” – green space – to test the its hypothesis and get further customer insight before investing in a full-sized pocket park. Most importantly, the MVP allows the city to avoid spending a lot of time planning and/or building something nobody wants or needs. 

While in this example, the MVP itself was inspired by what has now become an annual worldwide tactical urbanism event –Park(ing) Day – the purpose of the MVP isn’t just about building a temporary green space. In fact, the lean startup warns against falling in love with the product – or in the case of Lean Placemaking and cities, the project. As entrepreneurs – or planners and designers alike – it’s easy to fall into this trap, especially given relative training and expertise. But the MVP is about more than just the P – it’s about saving precious time and resources by gaining valuable knowledge and validating assumptions before moving forward – or not.

Part III: It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye to…Zombies?

4) Pivot or Perservere

To pivot or persevere, that is the question – one startups tend to avoid at all (or exceedingly high) costs. Confronting this question head on and answering it with the help of the scientific method (Learn, Measure, Build) is an integral part of the Lean Startup approach. Eric Ries describes pivoting as a “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.” The three previous steps in the Lean Startup process all lead – and help – us to answer this question. Startups must decide whether or not to move forward with their initial concept, move on to a different iteration of that concept, or, in some cases abandon the concept altogether.

A pivot should occur when or if a hypotheses is unverified. A pivot can mean addressing a different customer segment, modifying the problem you are solving, altering the solution, shifting markets, or adapting your growth model(s) (reflecting the three sets of startup hypotheses). Many famous companies have pivoted toward success: YouTube actually started as a video dating site and Flickr started as a video game with an inbuilt feature that allowed gamers to share photos. The list goes on and on. The list of those that didn’t pivot when they should have…well, it’s likely longer, but not easily “Googleable.”

Pivoting for Cites?

A city hypothesizes that adding pocket parks (solution) will address residents’ belief that there are not enough green spaces within walking distance of their neighborhood (problem). They conduct customer interviews and validate both of these hypotheses. They create an MVP (minimum viable project): a pop-up pocket park in two parking spaces that the customers who they interviewed helped create. But they don’t meet the minimum threshold of people they hypothesized would use the pop-up pocket park – in fact, the overwhelming majority of the folks that used the pop-up pocket park are those with whom they conducted the interviews. Do they pivot or persevere?

We Built it But They Didn’t Come

East River Park Park Promenade, Source:

East River Park Park Promenade, Source:

You’re probably thinking, why wouldn’t people use a perfectly good pop-up pocket park? Here’s a little story to help answer that question.

Last week, I was in desperate need of getting out of my own building and taking a long walk (as a walkability expert, I lose serious cred if I tell people I haven’t left the house in three days!). The question was, where? I needed to clear my head and wasn’t up for an urban walk. I had recently heard there was some sort of promenade along the East River that was part of the park in which I’d learn to ride a bike for the first time two years ago. I had no idea how to access it, where it led, how long it was, if it was just for bikers, etc. In my case, I turned to a trusty app, Localeikki (which my amazing friend co-founded), which crowdsources recommendations for great, local places to play outdoors (run, hike, bike, walk, etc.). I figured out the necessary logistics and was deeply rewarded with a majestic – and therapeutic – walk that perfectly balanced urban and green, passive and active. If you had asked me if these types of spaces were missing from my neighborhood, I would have answered with a resounding yes. But the problem wasn’t that this type of amenity was missing. The problem was I didn’t know about it – or enough about it to feel comfortable using it. The solution wasn’t more green spaces. The solution was, well, Localeikki – which turns out is a lot cheaper than creating a new park (cities, take heed)!

From Project to Pivot

Back to our example. During the time the pop-up pocket park was – popped up – the city spoke with the folks that showed up, including the original customers they interviewed. They sought to “learn” why their MVP wasn’t working. Were there enough places to sit? Was there enough shade? Did it need a food element? By now you know the answer to all of these questions was no. The only reason their interviewees had come was because they now knew about it – especially since they had been involved in the process of creating it. And the non-interviewees? Most simply came across the space by chance. But one couple there – longtime area residents – described a somewhat hidden, luscious park on the other side of a large intersection that cut across their neighborhood, which they frequented often. The others couldn’t believe there was such a gem lurking in their midst!

THE PIVOT: while the problem had been properly validated – residents didn’t think there was enough green space within walking distance – the key word was *think*. The City, of course, knew about the park; they just didn’t think of it as hidden, assumed residents knew about it, and thought that despite its presence, residents still felt they needed more green space (they had sort of fallen in love with their solution). In creating the MVP and refining the problem, they realized that the solution wasn’t more green, but better wayfinding, safer pedestrian crossing across the large intersection, and involving the community in creating appropriate programming for the space. And of course, an app like Localeikki to make the experience more user friendly and welcoming!

While the fifth step in the process, Repeat, is relatively self explanatory, the next blog posts in the series will dive deeper into how to execute – and replicate – this process, including how to structure experiments, including creating good hypotheses and conducting good interviews (which was a contributor to the longer path to pivoting in this example); establishing good metrics; designing MVPs; case studies, and of course, how State of Place streamline Lean Placemaking!

In the meantime, get out of the building! And, if you have a question about applying Lean Placemaking, State of Place, or urban design or walkability in general, just grab some time with me and we can personally chat about your needs or situation!

*Photo credit: @munirhamdan on Flickr