In this post we share our experience using concepts from the Lean Start-Up for urban design projects in Napier, New Zealand.

Where and how to start? Napier, NZ - the city's major districts wrap around an interesting landscape feature - a series of hills which used to be an island. Such a diversity of places is an asset, but also provides a challenge of where to start and how to allocate resources.

Where and how to start?

Napier, NZ - the city's major districts wrap around an interesting landscape feature - a series of hills which used to be an island. Such a diversity of places is an asset, but also provides a challenge of where to start and how to allocate resources.

In December 2014, Napier City Council began a programme to create urban design frameworks for its waterfront, city centre, and Ahuriri.

By integrating the lean start-up approach into their urban design projects through the last two years they have delivered numerous actions, building, measuring, and learning every step of the way.

The impact has been a rapid diversification of the city's identity, embracing an entrepreneurial culture, and activation of multiple public spaces.

Three key concepts from the Lean Startup

The Lean Startup is a mindset and method for beginning a business in circumstances with extreme uncertainty, and for reducing waste effort and creativity. Cities are complex environments full of uncertainty and in public projects waste resources and effort are sensitive issues so the Lean Startup is a relevant concept. For example, a cliched example of waste effort in cities is the masterplan - developed with the input and enthusiasm of community stakeholders - which sits on the shelf never to be implemented.

In order to create successful businesses the Lean Startup focusses on gaining traction (i.e. measuring success through key metrics) rather than execution (i.e. measuring completion of initiatives). Too many projects in cities are only executed and not enough effort is put into ensuring that the intended benefits are realised. So, the Lean Startup's focus on defining and tracking metrics of success breathes new life into making cities for people when wrapped into the rest of the startup philosophy.

The way that traction is measured in cities through the lean startup needs to be different than for business. Instead of a profit-focus as in business (creating value for the owners or shareholders), a city-making exercise is focussed on impact or creating value for the public. Fortunately, impact in public spaces and cities is becoming easier to track through observation, digital transport and cultural facility use data, social media, and automation such as Placemeter which can track various public space usage metrics with computer vision.

We've found that the Lean Startup helps city-makers create impact in public space through the following concepts:

  1. The Learning Loop and Validation
  2. The Minimum Viable Product
  3. The Pivot
Urban innovations are exported and adapted around the world There is now a huge variety of successful examples for cities to make great places and build city life. City makers can emulate successful cities and put their local unique twist on a concept and scale it up or down to their community's size. An example of this adaptation is a street food market on Copenhagen's waterfront where the vendors are inside the warehouse and protected from the Scandinavian climate. This type of project creates huge social value for a city's social life and diversifies its social offering so we need better methods to import and adapt ideas. The Lean Startup is one of the best we've encountered.

Urban innovations are exported and adapted around the world

There is now a huge variety of successful examples for cities to make great places and build city life. City makers can emulate successful cities and put their local unique twist on a concept and scale it up or down to their community's size. An example of this adaptation is a street food market on Copenhagen's waterfront where the vendors are inside the warehouse and protected from the Scandinavian climate. This type of project creates huge social value for a city's social life and diversifies its social offering so we need better methods to import and adapt ideas. The Lean Startup is one of the best we've encountered.

THE LEARNING LOOP & VALIDATION

The learning loop is the starting point for the Lean Startup for city-making. In business the goal is to make a successful product or service which nurtures a specific business model, while in city-making the goal is to make successful places which make an impact on peoples' lives. A key to the Lean Startup is to admit that every action you take to make an impact in a city has an element of uncertainty. This can be difficult for design professionals and experts who have thrived on their expert knowledge being unquestioned.

The level of uncertainty in a project can vary from inconsequential to extremely high. The effects of uncertainty become magnified with the amount of resources involved in a project and how important a project element is perceived to be. The learning loop focusses on testing the most important assumptions in your project with the minimum resources as quickly as possible. To reduce uncertainty ideas need to be tested and to achieve validated learning the lean startup focuses on three questions:

From The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, 2011.

From The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, 2011.

  1. What do we want to learn?
  2. How do we measure it?
  3. What do we need to build?

The goal of the learning loop (Build - Measure - Learn) is to get through the whole cycle as quickly as possible. This process is called validation. The result of validation is knowing that an idea was worth doing.

Yet, in some placemaking and tactical urbanism projects with communities, the focus drifts directly on to 'what should we build?'. After all, people involved in placemaking projects really want action (the fun part) rather than another talkfest, so, the focus on doing is acceptable for community members.

However, staying disciplined and focussing on learning makes the difference between a scattergun approach with unmeasured benefits and a virtuous cycle which will add increasing value to a community through each iteration. We believe this aspect - focussing on the entire learning loop - is where professionals involved city-making need to sharpen their skills and to more valuable to their communities.

Validating a waterfront market Napier City Council wanted to learn if the community would use the waterfront for a twilight market. They suspected there was latent demand for night-time events but the city centre was very quiet, so, significant uncertainty existed about how a twilight market would perform. With a commitment to a monthly market over four months they were able to test additional questions involving liquor licensing and the supply of alcohol at a public event. The success of the market led to a demand to test the market in the middle of winter which was also successful. The market's management has since been professionalised. (Photo credit: Napier City Council)

Validating a waterfront market

Napier City Council wanted to learn if the community would use the waterfront for a twilight market. They suspected there was latent demand for night-time events but the city centre was very quiet, so, significant uncertainty existed about how a twilight market would perform. With a commitment to a monthly market over four months they were able to test additional questions involving liquor licensing and the supply of alcohol at a public event. The success of the market led to a demand to test the market in the middle of winter which was also successful. The market's management has since been professionalised. (Photo credit: Napier City Council)


THE MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT

Use of the MVP concept for validation is aided by thinking of a place as a product with features. The features can be anything required to test your ideas, for example, defining the place spatially, changing its meaning through art, adding new activities to invite people to spend more time, providing varied seating and so on. It's important not to attempt to do any more than necessary to accelerate execution and to reduce complexity (this is known as capacity constraint). The MVP concept requires two judgement calls, you must decide on:

  1. The features which need to be included in the prototype to adequately test what you want to learn.
  2. The quality of features that you need to test your predictions or hypotheses.

The MVP is a flexible concept for learning how to make a successful place because it is contextual. After testing the initial set of features, subsequent versions of the MVP can be created. Importantly, features which do not work should be either removed or adapted to make space for features which do add value.

The Lean Startup is strategic by design - the direction is known but the exact route to getting there is not determined, and most importantly it anticipates that the direction will likely change once learning occurs with the users in the real world. The author of the Lean Startup provides the analogy of driving a car (Lean startup) versus launching a rocket (traditional business plans). Masterplans maximise risks for the client as assumptions underpinning the plan are not tested (i.e. traditional business plans are like the 'rocket' in the analogy). The Lean Startup which uses prototyping to learn and reduce uncertainty minimises risk for clients. Our experience with clients testing out this analogy has found it is easily understood and useful for a broad range of audiences and facilitates good discussions on the strategy of creating a successful place as people understand that there is no one right answer.

Napier's first MVP Napier's first 'urban oasis' March 2015 - a pop-up space on Market St had the following features (from near to far): box seating, market umbrellas, bean bags, artificial turf, and a small buskers stage. The judgement call on quality impacted on the quality of materials used to finish the seating boxes and the design of the turf - an Art Deco pattern to match one of Napier's heritage characteristics. Through the learning loop, Napier Council found that the buskers stage was not being used as buskers preferred performing next to the flow of people along the footpath on Emerson St rather than performing at the urban oasis where people hung-out. The stage was removed in iterations of the oasis, and bistro style seating was tested in the same location.

Napier's first MVP

Napier's first 'urban oasis' March 2015 - a pop-up space on Market St had the following features (from near to far): box seating, market umbrellas, bean bags, artificial turf, and a small buskers stage. The judgement call on quality impacted on the quality of materials used to finish the seating boxes and the design of the turf - an Art Deco pattern to match one of Napier's heritage characteristics.

Through the learning loop, Napier Council found that the buskers stage was not being used as buskers preferred performing next to the flow of people along the footpath on Emerson St rather than performing at the urban oasis where people hung-out. The stage was removed in iterations of the oasis, and bistro style seating was tested in the same location.


THE PIVOT- A CHANGE IN STRATEGY

All ideas for action are based on a strategy - whether it's well articulated or not (the shadow strategy) - and so, there are a series of assumptions and predictions about who users are, their priorities, and what will happen when they encounter your idea in a place.

One of the greatest benefits of the Lean Startup approach for city-making is changing focus from what people say about an idea to what people do - their actual response to a prototype. In cities there is pressure to engage people, consult stakeholders, gain feedback and so on, yet this can backfire by providing misleading input into decision-making - people don't always do what they say. In the startup world there is now an understanding that it is better to put forward a prototype and develop it over time through feedback from user behaviour. In the Lean Startup the execution of the idea is the engagement with the user.

It is crucial for placemaking with the startup approach to include design capabilities in a team to distill new or remixed ideas into propositions for urban innovation. Because, when a prediction or hypothesis about an idea is invalidated the team needs to make a decision about the strategy which lead to the idea. Including professional designers helps to overcome the phenomenon of 'pet projects' and hurt feelings that can arise in community-led placemaking projects when an idea needs to be killed off or radically changed.

The Lean Startup uses the phrase "pivot or persevere" for this decision point. The pivot involves a new strategic direction, whereas persevering involves tinkering with the existing ideas.

In placemaking, local governments are typically risk averse and failure can be criticised both inside the organisation and by the users and stakeholders involved in a place. Our experience shows that at the pivot or persevere moment, its critical to demonstrate commitment to the place and stakeholders - the relationships with business people and residents is often built on shaky ground when starting out and building trust needs to be a priority. This means quickly addressing any issues, and also to committing to a new direction with skill and rapid execution when necessary. Nurturing relationships over time through placemaking is a key benefit of the startup approach - relationships become less transactional and more collaborative as more prototypes and successes are experienced.

Time to change strategy - a pivot "What do you want in Napier? A better brothel..." Not every action is going to be successful as demonstrated on this public chalkboard based on the 'before I die' phenomenon. This early action in Lower Emerson St was part of creating an interactive area of the city.  Based on the MVP approach, this failed experiment was removed and replaced with new features developed from a new strategy for the place. The strategy pivot zoomed in to a specific user-group by creating a child-friendly play space in the street to attract mums with kids, instead of persevering with a generic space for all ages.

Time to change strategy - a pivot

"What do you want in Napier? A better brothel..."

Not every action is going to be successful as demonstrated on this public chalkboard based on the 'before I die' phenomenon. This early action in Lower Emerson St was part of creating an interactive area of the city. 

Based on the MVP approach, this failed experiment was removed and replaced with new features developed from a new strategy for the place. The strategy pivot zoomed in to a specific user-group by creating a child-friendly play space in the street to attract mums with kids, instead of persevering with a generic space for all ages.

A new direction The second iteration of lower Emerson St after a strategy pivot to target mums with kids. The board was repurposed to provide info about the library, play features, seating, a little library, and a toy library were added. A safety barrier was also created which incorporated a mural from a local street artist. The change in strategy was successful with both use of the area increasing and good user feedback. (Photo credit: Napier City Council)

A new direction

The second iteration of lower Emerson St after a strategy pivot to target mums with kids. The board was repurposed to provide info about the library, play features, seating, a little library, and a toy library were added. A safety barrier was also created which incorporated a mural from a local street artist. The change in strategy was successful with both use of the area increasing and good user feedback. (Photo credit: Napier City Council)


What next?

The bias toward action of the startup approach has helped our clients to reduce risk and cost, and accelerate outcomes and build relationships with place stakeholders and delighted their communities. The startup approach is great for quickly establishing a rhythm of of build-measure-learn for projects when resources are available. Yet cities are not businesses and the regulatory environment in which they operate can cause headaches for city makers. 

The next problem we discovered our clients experience is an absence of policy for urban innovations. So, when transferring a successful idea from one city to another projects quickly meet the resistance of bureaucracy. To overcome this we used the Sprint process to create urban policy with one of our clients - Palmerston North, NZ - to help them rapidly develop and prototype public policy for an urban innovation - a parklet and flex space guide. This will be the topic of our next post.


WE BELIEVE IN TRANSFERRING AND ADAPTING DESIGN AND INNOVATION PROCESSES FROM OTHER INDUSTRIES FOR CITY-MAKING.

We do this to increase stakeholder buy-in, reduce risk, and accelerate outcomes. Get in touch with us to discuss how your city-making could be strengthened with design and innovation approaches such as the Lean Startup.