The panelists gave some context to the increasing importance of finding new ways forward in the myriad entrenched urban and social issues we're facing. Despite their different backgrounds, all three panelists deeply believe that while technology can enable change, it is not the answer. But the lean and agile methods emerging from the tech sphere hold great promise when applied correctly to complex systemic issues. In general they demonstrated that we have the resources to create change, but the process is broken. From data philanthropy to citizens as censors, they discussed how using the adaptive design tenets and rigor of an agile process might lead us into smarter cities in a way that technology alone can't possibly. That said, urban agile is far from a magic bullet, and they implored us to consider how real impact will require tapping into our humanity to reframe civic innovation and relying on our humility to iteratively seek solutions.
You can download the entire presentation here, but here are the top three takeaways for the essentials in using agile approaches for urban challenges:
- Identify a real need - for citizens or users, this is the basis of any successful urban change and the heart of design thinking
- Define a hypothesis and map the opportunity - this is the best way to view the solution space by externalizing critical assumptions and prioritizing testing dependencies
- Develop and conduct tests to learn and iterate - even if this means changing directions or scrapping the initial hunch, prototyping with partners helps keep costs and effort in check to do this well
One of the biggest blockers to civic adoption of true agile practice identified by the audience is the perception that lots of money is required to test ideas involving large numbers of people or the infrastructure that underpins our cities and communities. But cities like Austin, and festivals like SXSW in particular, see huge inflows of visitors for events, causing the kind of pain points that urban centers are experiencing as the result of migration, real estate price inflation, and growth in general.
To this end, the panelists made a bold suggestion: why not use conferences as a proxy for agile testing of possible urban solutions? And why not use the session as an agile sprint itself?
Indeed. Let's start with SXSW. With the predictable cadence of March Madness, Austin residents indulge the past-time of complaining about the 50,000 - 100,000 people who flood into town during the festivals. As a result, getting around the city is a nightmare, due to gridlocked traffic in the center and a shortage of taxis around the edges. The presence of both Uber and Lyft this year made a noticeable difference, but the local taxi drivers are vocally concerned that they will suffer when the tide of tech-toting conference-goers recedes. And why wouldn't SXSW encourage mini-van-driving locals, for example, to partner with Lyft for the duration to have semi-flexible routes along the most-crowded corridors?
For locals and conference-goers alike, it's impossible to get into restaurants and the lines at the Convention Center or any convenience store within a mile combine with price gouging to make it really difficult to find even basic meals. Our tip to friends and panelists? Stop at the delicious local Royal Blue Grocery on your way in the morning, get what you need, and don't look back. It's about the only way to survive and get to sessions on-time and well-fed.
But, it turns out, the problem isn’t SXSW attendees. It’s the locals - and MANY cities are or will be facing issues of displacement, transportation, and access as populations shift. According to a March report on population trends from the Census, Austin saw the highest growth of any major U.S. city. Between 2010 and 2013, the population grew 12.0 percent - a surge that outstrips the growth of cities anywhere else in the country. And, while the population keeps swelling, public transportation figures are dwindling. Some of the upgrades—including real-time bus arrival info and open transit data—seem woefully behind the times for a city that bills itself as Silicon Hills. As Austin's population trucks along toward seven digits, the city will need to do more to shore up its future against gridlock. Traffic in the city is already worse than New York's, per one 2014 study.
In service of the world's shortest agile sprint, our fearless panelists went off-script to gather some data. The aim was to get real user needs from conference attendees, mapping some potential avenues to explore, and come up with a few simple tests to learn what might be helpful or worth investing in more significantly. They used low-fi data viz (aka see photos from the podium of raised hands) to get heat maps of issues and priorities. The panel began with some simple questions to warm things up. "How many of you have phones that die - battery life issues - while at SXSW?"