Why Cities are Zombies (Part I)

Posted on August 25, 2017

This is a three part guest blog by ELGL member Mariela Alfonzo with State of Place.

From Mariela: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! For those of you short on time, you can enjoy watching an urban data geek with a Cuban accent (aka me) talk about this very topic!


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, 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?
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”:
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

ELGL will post Part II and Part III next week – stay tuned!

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