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Beta Interventions in City Government

Before we parachute into City Halls across the country, our class of newly-minted 2012 CfA fellows had the opportunity to hear Eric Ries speak on lean startups, Tim O’Reilly on open government, and David Binetti on launching usa.gov. Some of the sage advice received included caveats on risk-averse governance, power derived from the act of saying “No” and the importance of platform thinking. As we approach an exciting and challenging sphere of potential red-tape, blockades, and risk aversion — can we foster innovative, low-cost projects with quick turnarounds in government? Or do such models already exist?

Eric Ries conveyed how important beta testing has been in successful startups — but governments, we were warned, will be averse to the idea of a beta product. Beta means uncertainty, and uncertainty means potential failure and bad reputations. To produce successful products, we need to push risk away from government, and on to us. We’ll be forced to jump various hurdles mediating workplace culture and personalities, but most importantly, we’ll need to attempt to intervene in some pretty broken processes that have defined historic behavior and outcomes. So how do we support learning and innovation to design useful, modifiable products?

Daunting as this seems, there are definitely historic examples of amazing short-term projects that visionaries push through in city government. I immediately thought of a classic urban planning analogy: LQC or “Lighter Quicker Cheaper.” LQC is a strategy coined by Eric Reynolds of the planning firm Urban Systems Management. LQC defines a method for rolling out fast, simple, and low-cost solutions in the built environment which will organically spawn permanent and more meaningful development. By planning and implementing a minimally viable, simple solution to public space, the stage is set for future evolutions of space that will be infinitely more complex and enjoyable. Managing the ability to create effective solutions in balance with bureaucratic stop-gaps and long time frames have been found in temporary, simple innovations which provide solutions that can quickly pass through bureaucratic channels with minimum levels of perceived risk.

A fantastic example of this kind of success was accomplished under the leadership of visionary Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik Khan in New York City. In 2009, the Department of Transportation, along with the Times Square Alliance closed several lanes of traffic ‘temporarily’ in the middle of Times Square. Following closure, a thin layer of paint and texture was applied to these areas where removable tables and chairs were placed. The concept was described to NYC public agencies and the public as a reversible “experiment.” Consequently, the space was widely lauded and used, and eventually made permanent by the Bloomberg administration. If Sadik Khan had introduced this idea through the more traditional channels of a massive capital improvement project which would permanently alter a major arterial thoroughfare in Times Square, the changes may not have taken place.

Beyond the frustration of slow, expensive procurement — cities have historic evidence of innovation and experimentation under the right leadership. Positing ideas and innovation as temporary (moreover authentically limiting perceived risk) can facilitate the success of ideas that otherwise might not have made it out of the gate. City-led implementation of these simple, quick interventions have provided a true platform for enjoyment and an evolution of shared space — a model ripe for replication on the web.

Read more on LQC from Project for Public Spaces