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Interview: City Scale Observability
Urbanist Joni Baboci on big data, urban planning as art or science, why Smart Cities don't need sensors, underperforming bureaucracies, forcing mixed use, and urbanists as orchestra conductors.
You’re reading Startup Cities, a newsletter about startups that build neighborhoods and cities.
Today’s issue features an interview. These interviews focus on innovations enabled by Startup Cities as well as innovations that enable startups to build cities.
I have a few goals for these interviews:
To take innovators seriously, even if an idea sounds weird.
To ask the questions that an intelligent skeptic would have about an idea.
To go deep. No grand “TechCrunch visions”. How does the thing actually work?
I welcome your feedback on these interviews and my interviewing style. Let’s go!
Joni Baboci is founder of Layer, architect, urban planner for the City of Tirana, and an internationally sought-after urbanism consultant.
The state of the market for observability in cities
Hong Kong’s John Cowperthwaite and is it better not to collect data?
Urban planning: art or science
Observability as oppression
Smart Cities don’t need sensors
Population change as Customer Satisfaction Metric
Cities have a talent problem
Can legacy cities be reformed?
Can you change culture with technology?
“Customer Theater” in city agencies
If Joni were CEO of a Startup City
This interview is long. But it’s broken into chunks. I encourage readers in a rush to find a theme that interests them and go straight there.
Meet Joni Baboci
ZC: Who are you and what are you building?
JB: My name is Joni. I'm an architect and urban planner.
I'm building a platform based on my experience working in the City Hall of Tirana, Albania and my ongoing relationship with other cities. It’s called Layer and it offers cities a platform to manage and understand themselves a bit better.
ZC: Why did you choose to build Layer?
JB: One of the biggest struggles we had in Tirana was working in silos. The usual: “we don't talk to one another" and "we don't know what everyone is doing."
Layer provides the cities that I work with a place where they can see in one screen how traffic is going, how their progress on capital expenditures is going, how they're budgeting revenues, expenditures are going, what's the urban plan, where are the new building permits etc. It allows them to selectively overlay these different layers and try to arrive at their own conclusions about whatever they're looking for.
The point is to provide this service to cities which don't have the money, the capabilities, or the technical know how — we're talking about mid to small cities in Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, Africa. I call this group “Eastern Europe or poorer.”
Layer also solves for the problem of changes in management. Whenever you have a change in the management of a city, often a lot of knowledge is lost. Layer allows you to have some continuity which is saved and recorded.
When you have a planner or architect who wants to start working with a new city, you don't want them to build everything from the ground up. You want them to have a chance to see a good amount of data like the elevation to population density, to sentiment analysis, to how social media is reacting to different interventions.
A lot of this data is open source. But Layer packages and formats it in a way that would help people decision makers, politicians, mayors, deputy mayors and so on.
ZC: The UI looks sweet. Where’s the data come from?
JB: There are 25 indicators right now. My goal is for a lot of this data to be remote sensed. Almost 75-80% of the data right now is not provided by the local government.
That means we’re using Open Street Map and various satellite data and other indicators available online.
The State the Market
ZC: You mentioned that you're targeting these not-as-rich world cities. When I see the designs of Layer, my first question was, wait, do rich cities collect this data already? What's the state of observability in modern cities? Who does this best?
JB: Larger cities do have access to some of this data. They have custom made systems where they tailor whatever solution was out there to their own problem.
Some of them use more generic platforms which are much more expensive. These come from the big league technology companies like Siemens in Europe. The big companies basically do everything and, as part of them doing everything, they also cater to this need in cities.
The largest cities have the capabilities to either buy a platform or to hire a team that’s good enough to do it. But they would also have the intelligence behind the tool, meaning they know what they need and therefore they’re able to manage these systems.
Second tier cities would not have such systems in my experience. It’s not always because they don't have access to the capabilities but maybe because they don't feel like they need them. Or because the administration is from another generation. These cities still haven't moved their workplace into the tech world.
ZC: When I visited your website I thought, “Oh! Layer is an urban observability platform.” It’s analogous to observability platforms like Datadog that software engineers use to see inside complex software systems. Here the complex system is the city.
But you describe Layer as an “urban orchestration platform”. So that sounds like Layer does more than observe. Is there a bigger vision here beyond observing?
JB: That's the aspiration.
One very interesting conversation I had last month with a deputy mayor for example was: “This is great, I love it. But can you actually prioritize the conclusions in one screen for me? What are the policy decisions I might be able to make if I look at this data, what are the suggestions of the system?”
ZC: The executive dashboard!
JB: Exactly. The executive summary dashboard of all of these different screens. Can you prioritize looking at the data that you have now? Can you prioritize what are the 5, 10, 15 most important interventions that would improve the city?
A lot of cities have an “index of multiple deprivation.” The idea is to try and measure deprivation in a certain city by looking at 15, 17, 20, 30 different indicators and creating a formula which weighs all of them based on importance. For example: accessibility to public transportation, schools, hospitals, groceries, the quality of the citywide social support systems.
Then you try to rate the city based on how deprived each neighborhood is. I imagine there could be a version of this where you look at an area in the city as having potential for intervention. An intervention here would have an outsized impact in the communities because of the population density or because of their social or economic status.
Getting some of this data is a challenge, but we know it’s valuable. For example, in Tirana, just last month, the salary of every individual leaked. You could tell the average salary of a certain neighborhood at a high resolution. It's very dangerous and problematic, but it’s interesting for a planner to have this data.
ZC: So this was a cyber security nightmare, but a data science triumph.
JB: Yes, I would say so!
The biggest ambition for Layer, which I'm not expecting to do until the observability element is working well enough is: how can you use this data to help city government officials make better decisions?
Let’s say you have to design a new playground on a corner of the city of Dublin. With Layer you could have systematized and ingested all this urban data from around the world that provides planners with references in similar cities and neighborhoods. Maybe they’re located at a similar intersection or in a similar socio-economic zone.
You can reference successful patterns from elsewhere. To do this, you need to be able to ingest and understand and analyze the data well. Layer could help a very “zoomed in” form of planning by providing this wide range of references.
It could help a planner or architect who’s designing a simple thing by providing them with novel ideas of things that have worked around the world, things that they might never have seen during their career or their readings. You might miss something on the blogs you read, just because it’s from a very obscure place on Earth.
That’s the orchestration aspect: you’d be able to have everything that’s currently happening in your screen but also be able to connect things together and get interesting references from all around the world. And therefore make better decisions.
You’d be able to look at the city, not as an isolated intervention that you do day by day, but as an orchestra of different things happening which are in tune and in sync with one another.
ZC: Let's imagine you’re in a city with no data collection. What are the table stakes for data? What are the data points that an urban planning team must have for you to think they can do a responsible job?
JB: It depends on the scale of what you're trying to accomplish. If you want to do a new urban plan or review an old urban plan there's some data that you need in terms of population, infrastructure, and critical mobility: where traffic is failing, where most of the people are living, what's the current land use of most buildings in the city.
There's maybe 10, 15 things which are not extremely difficult to get and most cities in the world would already have them. But if you try to do something which is more focused or zoomed in the citywide data wouldn't be as helpful.
ZC: Is more data better?
JB: I struggle with this on in my work at Layer. It’s interesting to have this data: the idea of having a map of all of your schools and their accessibility to the city or having a sense of what's happening on Facebook.
But that's the big struggle with with most data exercises: how do you make it useful? How do you make it actionable?
Sometimes data is not useful. It can give you a false sense of security about something. It can guide or bias the way that you're thinking about a problem. So I think it really depends on on the type of problem that you have to solve and on the scale of it.
Big data doesn't help in terms of designing or in terms of improving at a super zoomed-in level, like a particular lot that you're working on.
I don't think that the platform itself would help people designed smaller scale interventions especially beyond just offering them some interesting references. But it it will hopefully be useful in evaluating how those interventions worked over time and whether they can be replicated or improved or morphed in other parts of the world.
ZC: If you could have a total observability over only one aspect of a city, what's that aspect?
JB: I think the first one would be mobility over population. If you had total observability, as you call it, over mobility you could also get hints at what's happening with density and population.
After those two, I would say land use in terms of what is happening at every corner of the city. What's the mix? Is there any mix? To a certain degree if you have a total view of mobility you could see how those patterns are working, where are people traveling to and from different parts of the day.
Is It Better Not to Collect Data?
ZC: John Cowperthwaite, the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong (under British rule), famously refused to collect economic statistics. In this way he was an enemy of observability while Hong Kong was developing. His worry was that his team would use statistics to try to optimize the city and in the process would make everything worse. Hong Kong has its problems. But I think it would be hard to describe it as a failed city.
Was Cowperthwaite's maxim stupid or genius?
JB: It was definitely genius.
But it also illustrates a different time where [being really top-down] was the only way to control what you optimized for. I think today we live in a different time where you don't have to stop people from optimizing for the wrong thing by not giving them the data.
If you're talking with reasonable people you can have a conversation where it's made clear that data is not a solution to all your problems. It's just another perspective on the world.
I think one of the most interesting things that we use data in Tirana for was rather than learn from data and then make interventions. we used it in a bottom-up sense. We would illustrate to neighborhoods what their neighborhood thinks.
We live in a biased and extremist world right now. A polarized world. Many people think that all of their neighbors think the same and it’s the government that thinks differently.
What we would often find out is that actually the community itself was very divided. But they didn't know until that data was made available to them. You could show that half the people living on this block don't want a playground, they want parking for their cars.
So it's interesting how data can be useful in those terms. It’s difficult to explain but this data can inform a city about itself.
It's important to have the opportunity to consult that data perspective. I don't think it's the solution to everything or the solution to anything a lot of cases. But it's a good mirror. You can put your biases and your ideas in front of that mirror of data and then try to see if that changes your mind on anything.
Urban Planning as Art or Science
ZC: Is urban planning a science or an art? You can only pick science or art.
JB: I don't think it's either.
ZC: That’s against the rules.
JB: If I had to pick one well, as an architect, I would love to pick art and say, “Oh, it's an art and I'm an artist!”
I certainly don't think it's a science yet. Maybe it will at some point become a science when technology allows for it. Or if we’re ever able to make sense of complex systems in a reductive fashion, which I don't think will ever happen.
I think it's more like a social exercise, like a communication exercise more than an art or science. It's a negotiation exercise. It's a consensus building exercise.
ZC: So it's propaganda? Urban planning serves a propagandistic role?
JB: Yes. It definitely does. Urban planning is a way to make and connect different opinions and then try to make sense of them and then evaluate how the decisions affect those communication channels.
There is a strong propaganda element, like in most politics. This is not necessarily bad. Often decisions in the city are very counterintuitive. Therefore the propaganda element is extremely important to try and put those points forward.
Let’s take the example of people driving cars in cities.
People don’t want to spend more time in traffic. They think that the solution to their traffic issue is by enlarging the road, which in a lot of cases, it's not, it actually makes the problem even worse.
You might be able to explain this to people in simple terms but, again, you often are not. It's not very intuitive. Some of these insights planners don’t even understand. We just have to trust that the physicists or the mathematician behind a certain paper who came to a certain conclusion actually did their work, right?
It's about whether this propaganda tool is being wielded by an enlightened urban leader or by someone who who wants to use it for the dark side. That doesn't mean it's bad. It's just another take on how cities should grow.
Observability as Oppression
ZC: You just used the phrase “enlightened urban leader.”
We can't reach the end of this conversation without mentioning James C Scott's Seeing Like a State. Scott pioneered the idea that governments simplify complex domains like cities. They make it “legible” to central administration.
A lot of people across the political spectrum dislike legibility. My friends on the Left are like, oh, surveillance capitalism, all these digital tools make it easier to monitor and exploit labor!
My friends on the Right are like, oh, big government surveillance state! Everyone's privacy is invaded! The benefits of privacy outweigh the benefits of legibility!
Layer certainly increases legibility. So is city scale observability like Layer just another tool in someone's oppressive apparatus?
JB: It could be. I think that it depends on who uses it. It definitely could be an evil tool now that you mention it. I had never thought of it that way.
I read Scott's book a couple of years ago and I'm still trying to digest the notes that I took. It’s such an amazing exercise in changing your perspective on understanding the world. The books I’ve read over the past 3 or 4 years have all been dealing with similar issues: complexity, legibility, complex systems and small scale interventions. Eventually this starts becoming your bias.
Going back to the Hong Kong, I think it's about making clear the expectations and priorities and the context in which these systems work. I don't think that a system like Layer per se is the reason why someone can become more “fascist.” It's a difficult question. I'm fighting with myself on this point.
Smart Cities Don’t Need Sensors
ZC: I totally agree with you. It's hard.
Next question: if observability is so great, why does every smart city seem to fail? Even Google, who is probably history's greatest purveyor of observability ended up abandoning its Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto.
JB: Smart cities are reductive. They try to reduce what a smart city can be, or what observability can do to a city to a simple communicable thing which often: “Let's put sensors all over the city. Then we can sense everything. Then, because we're sensing everything, we can make the best decisions.”
That simplistic line of thinking is not what what I'm trying to accomplish with Layer. I think a “Smart City” doesn't have to be digitized. It doesn't have to be sensed. It doesn't have to have a big data operation overseeing it.
For example, one main feature of a city is that the older it is, the more time it has worked, the more it has had a chance to iterate and has had a chance to transform or or adapt itself to the world conditions, in a sense, such a city is “smarter”. I think a Smart City is a city where you can use some of those indicators to improve life at the very small scale.
How can you make legibility useful to people at the bottom? There's some big untapped power and potential there understanding the city at large scale but then making that understanding available at a small scale. Then intervening at the small scale and then getting data again at the large scale, reevaluating and trying again.
A smart city is not just having one big digital system that drives large decisions. It's like a citywide platform or system or observability platform that drives very, very small systems and very, very small interventions.
Population Change as Customer Satisfaction Data
ZC: Startups have a standard vocabulary of data points that they build themselves around. These are things like CAC, which is the cost of acquiring a customer, or LTV, which is the lifetime value of a customer.
Do cities collect what we might think of as customer satisfaction data? And if so what is it?
JB: The most basic form are ballot boxes and votes.
That's the most basic element of collecting data on customer satisfaction and on terms of how the city has worked.
Sometimes a great politician can fail just because the world isn't working during his tenure as the Mayor for various reasons. And so he gets to get the blame. And then a great or a bad politician can also be very successful just because the world is working during his tenure. When I say the world is working I mean economically everything is going fine and there hasn't been a disaster and people are positive.
Various cities have polling standards and polling cycles. I have worked with cities that poll a statistically representative sample of citizens once a month or even more often on different topics. Sometimes it’s about how the Mayor is perceived or a particular decision made recently. I think it's helpful to try and guide and adapt your decisions to that indicator. Not all these polls are taken for the city itself. They also do it for their own careers in terms of making sure that they can get reelected.
I think the other large scale indicator is population. Is a city growing or shrinking? But the more you zoom in the less clarity there is about how these numbers help.
ZC: One depressing thing I’ve learned while researching for Startup Cities is that, in America at least, many municipal agencies don't collect good data on their own performance. Nor do the nonprofits and firms that they contract with.
I don’t mean citywide data. I mean simple stuff: input and output, customer satisfaction. I've also spoken to some people who have worked with cities who say that cities fight efforts at transparency.
I would argue that these cities fight it probably because transparency would reveal incompetent management. The city provides low value for the price its “customers” pay.
Is there a relationship between competence and observability? Is the ideal customer for Layer a competent municipality that doesn't mind having the harsh light of objective data shown on its operations? Will incompetent cities resist the platform?
JB: Well, yeah, there’s definitely a chance. Even without systems or platforms, in my experience, most people will try to hold on to their data for dear life because the more visibility there is on their data on public works, data on development, the more exposed they are to their higher ups, to their bosses, to the city at large.
So I think that in a way it could it could definitely be the case that some cities would not want systems which make everything more legible.
On the other hand, I believe a lot of this depends on how strong is the mayor is vs the bureaucracy and the administration. It varies a lot depending on the part of the world.
In some of these more developing typically newer, more vibrant, more growing cities in the Global South and in the developing East, you would have a mayor which is typically stronger than the bureaucracy. Therefore he or she will be able to push these systems through just by sheer power of will
I’d contrast this with some parts of the West where the bureaucracy might be more strong than the elected leader.
ZC: So competence hinges on the strong-(wo)man vs. the bureaucracy?
JB: The administration and the bureaucracy is such an easy target. They're there and they're doing their work and you want them as a Zach or Joni to do their work much better in a different way.
But bureaucracy is a bit like the the service economy of governance. Typically, they're not doing their dream job. What they're getting out of their job — especially in the West in this entrenched bureaucracies — is not giving intrinsic meaning.
They're not doing it because it makes them feel good. It’s a bit different in the East I think because cities are much younger. There's much more movement, much more potential, much more opportunity. Great people can actually do it for a while.
I think it's often a thankless job. I think that a lot of the interesting people out there don't want to work in the bureaucracy. It doesn't pay enough. There's little room for growth. If they do it, they do it for a short period of time. Then they get some experience and knowledge to leverage into something bigger.
Cities Have a Talent Problem
ZC: So there’s a talent problem.
JB: After I had my daughter, I started thinking a lot about who are going to be her teachers. I realized that I had no teacher friends. My friends were economists, professors at the university, you know, different professional grade jobs. None of them was a teacher.
I thought why would brilliant people today want to be a teacher at elementary school or middle school? That’s the kind of person I would want my daughter to have as a teacher. Having a conversation with my friends, we quickly realized why are none of us working as a teacher: we have other expectations.
We want to do other things, bigger things. We want to leave a mark on the world. But then who is going to do these jobs which are so important like public administration or teaching? The jobs are so thankless. No one likes them for what they do and typically they get all the blame for things not working.
It's a matter of reimagining how these workplaces work. It's also a matter of reimagining how can we incentivize interesting people to go and work for government to go and work for teaching elementary or middle school for life.
Maybe it's different in the US than from where I've worked.
ZC: It's not different here. It's the same. Except that everyone loves teachers in America.
Anyway… in your piece, The Deeper Order of Cities, you argue that the potential of urban planning and design is currently limited by the bottleneck of public governance. What do you mean by that?
JB: I mean that a city hall’s decision makers at the top are a bottleneck to the potential of the city. They’re the bottleneck for how the city can self-organize in a better fashion.
You know how in most cities from the Middle Ages you have these narrow corridors around relatively high buildings? That's the the typology of the medieval city to a certain degree. That happens automatically. That happened organically. There were no building permits issued.
It was just about where property was, what you negotiated with your neighbors. You built what you wanted to build. And slowly the city evolved. We don't have that anymore.
It doesn't mean that that's a great way to develop a city. It reflects the kind of city that you wanted in the Middle Ages. It doesn't reflect the kind of city you would have today, but I think that we don't have that at all: that interrelation, that informality, that communication between people in building a city doesn't exist.
Today’s cities are all about how we connect to the governance level at the top and then they tell us what to do. It's a very hierarchical way of organization.
I think there’s a revival in cities through technology and in the way that people think and want to live. I mean when you coined the term “Startup Cities” like, what, a decade ago, people weren't thinking as much about cities as they are now.
I have friends who have no professional affiliation with cities who are reading books about cities. They want to know more about cities. They want to participate, amateurishly for now, but they want to participate in the conversation.
That's opening the door and making the way that you govern the city more, not democratic, but more connected, more relational, more informal, but still organized in the central fashion. This is also why I’m excited about innovations like DAOs.
We should be giving all these smaller cells a connection to the hive.
ZC: But why do cities have a hard time attracting really high quality talent? We think about many owned environments like a big hotel chain, casinos, airports.
These places are sometimes as big as a neighborhood or a town. But the companies that administer these environments don't have the problem of attracting high quality talent.
These companies have bureaucracies. But these bureaucrats are competent yuppies. They make six figures. What is it about cities that makes their bureaucracies so much worse?
Is there a relationship between having unified ownership and the ability to attract talent? Why does city administration seem uniquely dysfunctional in its ability to attract talent and to execute things?
JB: I don't think the city is uniquely dysfunctional. I think a lot of bureaucracies are similarly dysfunctional. I think that everyone who works in a bureaucracy to a certain degree — I don't wanna be negative or offensive here — I don't think that they want to do it for a long time.
If they want to live their whole life in a corporation or in a bureaucracy it's just a matter of comfort. Being a bit risk averse. But now that's not the kind of people that you want to attract in a place where you want to have a lot of experimentation and want to innovate.
I understand that there's hundreds of people who have comfortable cushy jobs, they don't want to change anything about their jobs. I don't think that they see a path where their life is better.
Even if they have a high salary, it's still a fixed high salary. They don't dream beyond that. And I think most people are dreamers in these terms. They always want to imagine themselves better in the future. I don't think it allows you to to do that, but maybe that's just me.
ZC: Well what’s the alternative?
JB: I think that in a system where you don't have to be necessarily employed by a city, but you can contribute to the city, you can be rewarded by being known that this is a project that you did. You can virtue signal — and I mean that in a positive way.
It would look a bit like tech infrastructure: the open source tech infrastructure where you have these thankless bits of infrastructure which drive the web. People do it for free just because they gain recognition, they get a star on their profile that they're good at doing this thing. I can imagine a similar world where people who are very good at what they do, they would engage with their communities to get that proverbial star.
ZC: The not-so-secret conspiracy with what I'm trying to do with the newsletter and with the Startup Cities meme to attract more of the kind of people that you're talking about — people who are smart and competent but not “city experts.” We need the best people building cities.
But a lot of people, including me, are turned off by the idea of having to deal with bureaucracy. I hate bureaucracy. I’m impatient. I want to ship it. There's a talent deficit where this industry seems to select against certain personalities and skillsets.
I believe that if a large number of startups entered the city-building industry, we’d discover that there is no inherent talent deficit. I think that a big roster of Startup Cities would attract some of the smartest and most ambitious people that currently flock to fields like technology.
Anyway, that’s enough ranting from me…
Can Legacy Cities Be Reformed?
ZC: We might consider cities as firms in a market. Existing cities are our “legacy firms.” It's well known that entrenched bureaucracies — legacy firms — whether private or public, are hard to reform from within.
Is this an argument for building new cities from scratch? Or for building cities by purely private parties? In other words, should we just delete the public governance layer as much as possible from the top of the city?
JB: No. I think that these bureaucracies have optimized what they were built for. A bureaucracy was built to standardize the way that an individual deals with government.
“Bureau” in French is a table. It basically means “rule by table.” In the past cities wouldn't have a city hall. They would bring the table with them, they would go and sit in a certain area of the city and they would conduct public business.
This was supposed to lead to an effort to democratize and to make more objective the way that government dealt with people. Because, before bureaucracy, if you were my friend, you would get all the benefits. If you were not my friend, you will get nothing until you killed me with your squad or I died or somehow the leader changed.
So I think that it's always important to keep in mind that bureaucracies work the way they're supposed to for the time they were built. They were built as models to standardize behavior and to make decision making less arbitrary.
I think that in the current state of technology we can afford to offer that kind of standardization without a bureaucracy optimized for things being slow and complex.
Today's procedures were designed when procedures were still being done with paper and pencil. I think that one of the reasons why I want to work on Layer is because I think it can erase that the way that I.T. systems work in today’s cities. Today’s cities just try to emulate whatever was happening before computers existed in a digitized fashion.
Cities just took paper questionnaires and digitized them. They kept the fundamental systems the same. You’ve just changed the interface basically.
We could think of Startup Cities not just as new cities but also as a startup way of thinking of how to change the city. Doing small scale experiments, offering a range of options in terms of what the city can be — not changing the whole city at once. That will provide the much needed innovation and experimentation in the field, which doesn't have much typically.
Taipei, Tirana, and Changing Culture with Technology
ZC: Let’s switch gears.
My wife lost her wallet twice in Taipei. Taiwan. Taipei is a massive, dense city. Amazingly, someone returned it to the police both times. My Taiwanese friends told me this level of honesty is because there's cameras everywhere.
In other words, Taipei has a high level of observability. Does this mean observability could be a tool for cultural change? Could you take a low trust environment and turn it into a high trust environment by making a city observable?
JB: I don't think so. I don't think that the two people who you mentioned in Taipei Taiwan actually returned the wallet because there were cameras looking. Why would they even pick it up if there were cameras looking at them?
I don't want to be naive. I think that it depends a lot on the on the amount of money inside the wallet. Maybe she didn't have a lot of cash in the wallet at the point where it was stolen.
There might be an element of being afraid of being observed and therefore behaving correctly. But I don't think that's the culture that you would want to build because that's the culture where the moment that that system would fall down, you would have cultural collapse because the reason why you're being good is because you're being observed.
ZC: How do you build that culture though? Cultural change is hard. Is observability through technology a lever on that change?
If we were in a generic Latin American city rather than Taipei, generally speaking, you would never see your wallet again. These are lower trust environments. I’m not trying to be insulting. But it’s a different way of relating and only the most naive observer would deny this.
I felt my own behavior change and become lower trust during my time in Latin America. I behaved in a completely different way with the security of my stuff then I do here in Denver or if I visit Switzerland or in Taiwan. In Taiwan I would literally leave my laptop on a café table, go away, then come back an hour later. I could never do in a lot of places — including in my home city of Denver!
Can you do anything at the city level to make a culture like that?
JB: I think that the key thing comes from Christopher Alexander, who is a planner/researcher/architect/very cool guy. You need to have boundaries which are very visible — cultural boundaries — but at the same time they're very permeable.
I think that in a city with boundaries like this it will be much more possible for you to find your wallet because this idea of trust would be more localized. I'll just give you a simple example from Tirana.
Tirana, I think, is the safest city in Europe for burglaries from Eurostat. Even though people think “oh mafia, Albania, drugs, blah blah.” Tirana is one of the safest cities in Europe.
One of the main reasons is because no matter what time it is the streets are busy. This is because of the informal mix of users. Even if it's 1 a.m. in most streets in Tirana, even secondary streets, you would have an open coffee shop or an open shop with the light on.
It’s a place where you could run to. Now that place might not necessarily look at you right? It's not a camera that can actually observe if a crime is happening, but it is a destination for you to go if you feel like you're in danger.
It's a bit like reversed observability — not in terms of of having cameras that are looking at everything. It's more like focal points in the city: a shop, a coffee place, a small pharmacy, whatever. Where a person walking, a girl walking by herself, a woman walking by herself at 1 a.m. could direct herself to if she feels like she's in danger.
That’s not the same as having these cameras like in Taipei, but I think it provides a similar level of trust where you have these smaller communities which are more identifiable with one another than with other communities but have very permeable open access.
You pick which community you want to belong in. You build trust in the community. But you also have this idea of a citizen-driven observability due to the layout of the city.
ZC: Very Jane Jacobs. In fact, Taipei has a great coffee shop culture and it also has a 24-hour street culture. It's famous for night markets and night vendors making food even at 2 a.m. out in the streets.
I had overlooked that. It sounds like it may be share this feature with Tirana. It absolutely makes streets feel less desolate and scary at night.
Customer Theater in City Agencies
ZC: One of the tabs on Layer is called complaints. One tragic, hilarious thing that I observed while living in Guatemala is that every business and government office had this green book where you could lodge a complaint.
But the book was usually hanging on the wall right at the checkout counter. This meant that when some clerk or some bureaucrat was rude to you, you had to passive aggressively stand in front of them and write out your complaint.
Needless to say, this design did not encourage people to surface complaints. You had to be kind of antisocial or pretty ballsy to be like, “yeah I see you and I'm writing out like this bad experience I just had!”
But the real question is: if you wrote in the book, did anyone bother reading it? Did anything happen? Probably not.
Oxford economist Lant Pritchett calls things like this customer theater. It's when administrative agencies do this stuff to be make themselves look nominally customer-oriented. But when you look at the full experience or you look at the effect it has on the agency, it's essentially bullshit. It has no effect.
How do you avoid Layer from becoming a form of customer theater?
JB: There's an interesting duality here. On one hand, you want people to be as frank as possible and to be as direct as possible. On the other hand, the smaller the city, the less they're typically willing to do it.
In a very large city with 3, 4, 5, 6, million people, you might actually just write in the green book because you’ll probably never face that person again. But in a smaller city that's the guy who you have to face next week. You’ll be much more careful.
On the other hand, this idea of anonymity and giving anonymous feedback also has its dangers because it allows malicious actors to game the system. They can pretend to be anonymous and not be truthful.
In the long term, we might use ledger technologies and other innovations that are coming. And in general, I think no one is against listening to feedback, especially if they can do it by themselves in their room without people looking at them.
Everyone wants to know what other people think of them. What they don't want is for that feedback to become public and to become a reason for them to be fired.
Most people would love feedback if you could guarantee someone that you can provide them with critical feedback and they can consult it by themselves and have zero repercussions. They would become better bureaucrats for it because I think people are genuinely curious about how other people evaluate them.
Joni as Startup Cities CEO
ZC: You've been hired by a startup city project to build a new neighborhood and hopefully eventually a city on unincorporated land outside of Austin, Texas. Is your job title Urban Planner?
JB: Based on my experience with Layer it would be like Urban Orchestra Director, the guy who has the stick.
ZC: The conductor.
JB: Yeah, the conductor. I think that urban planners will soon not be just planners, they will have to evolve into something which is more holistic, just like architects are involving into something which is more holistic, just like most professions are becoming not just one thing which is mechanic and simple, but are becoming a much more complex thing where you also can evolve and morph and and shift towards whatever you like more.
I wouldn't call it an urban planner. I think an urban planner hearkens back to a world where we thought we could actually plan cities. I think today it’s pretty accepted that “planning” is not what we do to cities. We don't plan them, we try to engage with them and we try to improve them, but we don't really plan them. They planned themselves.
ZC: As Urban Orchestra Conductor it's Monday morning and you arrive to your desk. What are the actual, concrete activities and day to day responsibilities that you have in this role?
JB: You would have a lot of meetings with which would consist negotiating the different interests of different parties who want to come and live, build, develop, and do business in your city.
You're negotiating the interests of whoever shows up and you're trying to do that in a way that includes aesthetics, finances, economics, arts, culture, entertainment, sports.
You're trying to get all these differences to work together and connect them well together. You would need a very good understanding of the informal layer which drives cities if you would want to build something like that.
You would have to focus most of your time not on the formal aspect of planning the city, but on the informal aspect of how these relationships and these connections make a city work and thrive. And that would be, I think, the biggest challenge of not just of Monday morning, but of those first 5 or 10 years.
ZC: This project is small. This isn't a megaproject. It's the scale of the little neighborhood. Is there a single decision, either an organizational decision or a design decision that at this tiny scale would set up the project for long term success?
JB: I could give you a single one, but it wouldn't be enough.
ZC: Let's say you had to. For example, something like New York committing to a grid on Manhattan.
JB: Yeah, my one thing would be mixed use. Make sure that people are forced to mix uses: not just the choice of being able to mix, but being forced to mix — being forced to have residential and commercial and maybe some light industrial nonpolluting, and educational.
We want to have all these uses mixed in beginning of the neighborhood.
ZC: If you were mandating mixed use would you mandate, let's say, commercial uses on the first floor and forbid commercial uses on higher floors? This is often what you see in these planned mixed use neighborhoods.
JB: Yeah. But I think that you would need to leave a degree of flexibility there. One way we did it in Tirana was we would say the first floor is always commercial and the last four or five floors are always residential. But what happens in between the first and the last floors is up to the market.
You’re gonna have some office space in the second floor, you're gonna have another commercial space on the third floor. But you would layer the building vertically. Make sure that these different users are still co-located geographically in the same space, but there is some degree of flexibility for developers.
Especially in these floors in between. Typically, you have to make them as change-prone as possible. If the market at some point changes, people are able to shifts an apartment to an office or an office to an apartment in these middle floors. But I would always force the first floor to be commercial, no matter what, that's key.
ZC: That's interesting. I have an upcoming tongue-in-cheek piece for the newsletter called: "Why Can’t I Get a Manicure on the 23rd floor?"
I'm talking about in the United States. You rarely find small businesses like a nail salon in the higher floors of tall buildings, except for when the building is very old.
You get these old Wild West era buildings in Denver that were built and grandfathered. You'll still find small businesses on top floors. But not in new ones. Not even in “mixed use developments.”
But I find in Asia you can very easily get a manicure on the 23th floor.
JB: I'm just gonna tell you another joke. We had this complaint at City Hall throughout the years. What happened was that you would have dental offices on the 6, 7, 8 floor of a building. One of the big complaint which was fair, maybe not scientifically sound, but fair was that they were also doing teeth X-rays.
People on the sixth floor would say, “we're getting irradiated!”
There needs to be some sense to how you layer those functions but it can be forced. It can be fixed. It can be set in stone, otherwise it will fail, it will break, it won't bend.
ZC: The CEO of your Texas project says you can hire a team. What are the roles that you hire to support you?
JB: I think it's a diverse mix of professions. People who are good at what they do, who have a passion for what they do, who want to make a difference in this small area. Maybe they can own a piece of it by working there and therefore treat it more like a like a startup in that sense as well.
ZC: But what are their skills? What's on their resume?
JB: Nothing. It doesn't have to be something on the resume. I think it all depends on on the conversation you have with them. You can have the world's best economists, but will it make a difference in starting up this small town?
What makes a difference is a small close-knit team who have diverse interests and who like the project. People who will wake up and Google what they don't know, learn it and then go and do it.
So I don't think it's a mix of skills. I think it's a mix of character traits that you want to look for. For example, I don't think that an architect would make a big difference.
The skill that’s the most scarce are people who can learn for themselves and then apply that knowledge to their work. These are the top 1% performance.
ZC: Alright, we'll flip it a bit. You’re now CEO of a new Startup City, you have only $15 million in the bank. Nothing is built. You have no customers. What's your strategy? Where do you build? What's your criteria?
JB: I would build right next to the existing city or as close to an existing loci of a critical mass of people just to tap into that potential. Man, $15 million is nothing!
ZC: *laughs* Everyone says that. That’s the point!
JB: I guess like a small, mid-rise development. That would be pretty boring and probably would never work.
I don't know. I think you would need to build something extremely cool. Maybe no residential at all at the beginning: like a co-working space/maker space to serve as an anchor to to what could be a marketplace. Things that tend to attract cool and interesting people.
Then that anchor can generate interest so those people can actually come and invest for the residential and for the commercial. I would say an anchor project in the field of the future: maker space, marketplace, some culture like a good restaurant which is cheap and has interesting foods. That sort of thing.
ZC: Thanks so much Joni!
See you next week and don’t forget: Startups Should Build Cities!da