Why Cities are Zombies (Part III)

Posted on September 15, 2017

This is a three part guest blog by ELGL member Mariela Alfonzo with State of Place.
Check out Parts I and II.
4) Pivot or Persevere

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.”
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?

East River Park Park Promenade, Source: http://www.nycgovparks.org

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)!
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!

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