Innovation by Committee
A Dark Parable of City Building
You’re reading Startup Cities, a newsletter about startups that build neighborhoods and cities.
Is It Ever Time to Build?
Imagine you work for a big company. One day, you think up a new product. Like any good builder, you mull it for a while. Eventually, you can think of little else.
<MarcAndreessenVoice> IT’S TIME TO BUILD! </MarcAndreessenVoice>
“But wait!” your co-worker stops you, “All our products must meet specification!”
Your company has high standards — not just any product will do. Your product must be made of certain materials. It must maintain specific ratios of height and width. It must include many of the same features offered by legacy products, even though they have no relevance to the new one. It must fit into an existing product category. And it must be one of three colors.
You spend months to work out the details. Through heroic effort, you create something that fits the spec. Your heart swells as you realize…
<MarcAndreessenVoice> IT’S TIME TO BUILD! </MarcAndreessenVoice>
“But wait!” your co-worker stops you, “All our products must go through a rigorous approval process.”
You walk over to the Department of New Products: a sea of cubicles. The receptionist ignores you for 20 minutes. She promises to pencil you in to the New Product Committee in the next 12-18 months. “Oh,” she says, “and each meeting costs $5,000.”
You sigh, but agree. This is a good idea, damnit! It needs to see the light of day!
16 months and $5,000 later, the committee convenes. A smiling lady from middle management opens her laptop and fires up a Zoom call. “We need to get input from stakeholders throughout the company,” she says with a wink.
And input you get.
Someone from another department claims that your idea is too similar to an existing product. Someone else says that the company already has 12 products, expanding to 13 would be unlucky and bad fengshui. The intern from marketing says you should have chosen one of the other three colors. And some guy who clearly didn’t read the proposal yells that your product represents late-stage capitalist dystopia. Before it’s approved, he says, you must donate $20,000 to plant trees outside an adult day-care in Milwaukee.
Overwhelmed, you nod along. You change your designs. And you pony up the 20k just to get Milwaukee-guy to stop yelling. The panel votes. Your idea survives.
<MarcAndreessenVoice> IT’S TIME TO…! </MarcAndreessenVoice>
“But wait!” your co-worker says, “You do realize that this is the first of five committees, right?”
A sense of dread consumes you.
You arrive to the Design Review Board. Others in the company, some clearly jealous of your innovative idea, nitpick your work. Several people say “best practices”. You realize that none of the good designers have enough free time to be on this board. After many revisions, you pass.
You then face the Environmental Review Board. They’re not pleased. New products require resources, they remind you. And, in case you’ve forgotten, resources come from the Earth. And the Earth is where nature lives.
You point out that your product uses fewer resources than others. Not so fast. Those products were approved back then, in the Dark Ages when we still thought Nuclear Power and Economic Growth were Good Ideas.
We’re smarter now. Standards are higher. After all, the only safe way to build the future is to ensure everything looks exactly like the past. You shave off some features and redesign your supply chain.
You then face the Product Planning Commission. They aren’t sure where your innovative idea fits into the product roadmap. The roadmap is full, you see. We can’t have new products just flying off into the market. They provisionally let you on the roadmap for 3 years from now.
You then face the Council of Executive Big Wigs, your final hurdle — other than the work of actually building your thing, of course. The Council surrounds a sturdy mahogany table. It is now 5 years since you had your idea. Your temples are gray. Between revisions and fees, you’ve sunk your life’s savings to reach this day.
The Council listens politely. They hem and haw, pretending to deliberate. “Sorry”, mutters a generic Boomer, “We just don’t think this fits the character of our company.”
Your head spins. All that time. All that money. All those hours listening to people rant; people with no incentive to get accurate facts, no real skin in the game, no imagination, no unique insight, no relevant skills; people often of questionable mental health and even more questionable taste. Years of people with opinions and too much free time.
You’ve tried to please everyone. But here dies your idea. You look over your designs: the mockups are a Frankenstein, a shell of the brilliant, simple insight that animated you 5 years ago. You feel disgusted. Your designs have the unmistakable fingerprint of innovation by committee.
You quit your job and join a startup.
City Building as Product Development
People despise the bureaucracy of large corporations. We know that innovation by committee creates stagnation and mediocrity. Yet this is how cities build.
Readers unfamiliar with urban policy may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. Every step above, from the micromanaging specs to the long delays and brazen extortion by politicians and their cronies, exists today.
Zoning, floor area ratios, dwelling units per acre, setbacks, restrictions on unrelated people living together, minimum parking requirements, height limits, urban growth boundaries, building codes, impact fees, neighborhood review boards, design review boards, environmental review boards, planning commissions, city councils, and historic preservation committees all conspire to create innovation by committee in our cities.
Everyone agrees that these procedures look absurd when applied to normal product development. But, for some reason, we accept innovation by committee when applied to cities.
City building is a form of product development. A city is a bundle of products: a set of specific value propositions for customers. Physical security. Pleasant streets. A booming job market. A booming singles market. An interface to a surrounding legal system.
Great cities are like a successful platform product. Cities bundle some services but their main purpose is to help others build and connect. The tragedy of modern cities is how they’ve surrendered to NIMBYs, rent-seekers, and other cronies to block instead of build.
Innovation by committee looks even more absurd when we understand cities as technological systems. A technology stack powers the city. This stack stretches from physical technologies like sewer systems and sidewalks to social technologies like business licensing or courts. Each of these technologies is a real, buildable thing with a supply chain, a value prop, a user experience, unit economics, and all the rest.
How do we build better technology? Trial and error. Startups, not committees, are today’s most successful purveyors of the trial and error tinkering that creates technological progress. The tech stack of the city must be eaten by startups. This is why Startups Should Build Cities.
And next time you wonder:
“Why aren’t there more affordable houses here?”
“Why are there so many gross, standardized strip malls with parking moats?”
“Why are the oldest neighborhoods the most quirky, fun, and attractive?”
“Why do our cities feel so hopelessly broken?”
The answer isn’t developer greed or late-stage capitalism or a defect in the American character.
The answer is: Innovation By Committee.
If you enjoyed this piece, you’ll love Scott Beyer’s new book Market Urbanism (not an affiliate link). Beyer’s book is the definitive book-length statement of Market Urbanism, an exciting and growing philosophy of urban development. I used Market Urbanism to outline the city approval processes in this piece.
Let me know in the comments how we might get beyond Innovation By Committee 👇 … and don’t forget: Startups Should Build Cities!
This is great. Love what you're doing here Zach.
Excellent article, congratulations!
Let me play the devil's advocate now.
I've been fortunate to grow up in a place that has never had ANY restrictions on building. Maybe there are some legal directives, it's just that up until now, there has been 0 enforcement, which essentially allowed land owners / constructors to do their thing.
Despite (because of?) this, new buildings (mostly homes, some industrial), are crazier, uglier, of bad quality materials, which essentially decreased any sense of harmony, not to mention beauty and sustainability.
It's also mind-boggling that during communist times (also effectively no building restrictions), new buildings were better by any standard. Now, during capitalism (or some perverted form of it), it got worse.
For me, as a free market urbanism promoter, I think it's important to understand exactly why all of this happened like this.
I have a theory (hint:1971), but I'm still figuring things out.