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MVPs as antidotes for zombie cities: Lean Placemaking™ Part Two


Last week, I began to lay out my plan to "infect" cities - to unleash an epidemic of Lean Placemaking.

I explained why many cities are zombies - not quite failing, not quite succeeding - but that adopting Lean Startup principles could save them from this fate. I argued that cities have a lot to learn from startups' new disruptive approach to business development: spending less time writing an ultra technical business plan that investors may or may not read or programming the "perfect" app, and focusing more on figuring out the most optimal way to solve people's actual problems. For cities, that means "getting out of the building" and digging into the "place" - both physical and social - they are targeting!

Specifically, I outlined how Lean Startup thinking can translate into Lean Placemaking. Last time, we got through the first two of the five key processes. Today, I'll discuss the third process.

  1. Customer Discovery
  2. Measure/Test
  3. MVP
  4. Pivot or Persevere
  5. Repeat

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?

Let's use the example from the last post: 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.

Source: ATLUrbanist

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.


tackle the "or not" scenario in the next blog post in this series in which I discuss how the 4th step in the Lean Startup process, Pivot or Persevere, translates to Lean Placemaking

And in the meantime, 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!

Read the next post! It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to...Zombies" Pivoting & Lean Placemaking™ Part Three

Read the previous post! Why Many Cities are Zombies (and how Lean Placemaking™ Can Bring Them Back To Life

Read the next post!

Why many cities are zombies (and how Lean Placemaking™ can bring them back to life)


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 to 2013; there 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 urbanism, pop-up urbanism, and lighter, quicker, cheaper strategic 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


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.

Adapted from The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

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  -- more on that in the next blog.

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

I will further flesh out these concepts, cover the remaining steps (3-5) in the process (outlined below), and introduce other key lean startup tenets and methods (including structuring customer discovery interviews and defining appropriate metrics) that can be applied to cities as part of a Lean Placemaking framework in the subsequent posts in this series. I'll also discuss State of Place's key role in this method! Stay tuned!!

3) Build MVP approach

4) Pivot or Persevere

5) Repeat

In the meantime, I hope you’re just as excited as I am for the potential of Lean Placemaking strategies to disrupt city design and planning!

Read the next post! MVPs as antidotes for zombie cities: Lean Placemaking™ Part Two