We had the pleasure of hosting a panel at SXSW 2015 on How Agile Approaches Crack Urban Challenges.  Kaz was joined by Grace Kim of GOOD/Corps and DeKoven Ashley of thrdPlace, who brought their diverse experience and perspectives to topics from opportunity youth to what happened on the ground after Hurricane Katrina.

They began by setting people straight on what can even be considered "urban agile" with a handy flowchart to clear up misperceptions and provide some guidance.  We hope you'll use this the next time some whippersnapper tries to convince you that a next-day turnaround makes a project agile...

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:

  1. Identify a real need - for citizens or users, this is the basis of any successful urban change and the heart of design thinking
  2. 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
  3. 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?"

They then referenced the ubiquitous “#MophieRescue” promotion as clever in the way that many SXSW Interactive street marketing campaigns are - meaning they point to need but never get to a sustainable, human-centered solution, never looking beyond the shelf-life of the conference. This fantastic post asked, "Who among us with a dying iPhone in our hands wouldn’t want an adorable rescue dog to come to our aid with a phone charger at the ready, free of charge? It’s so brilliant and simple, it’s almost dumb. And that’s where the problems may lie. If it reminds you of the well-meaning, but ultimately misguided “Homeless Hotspots” promotion from SXSW 2012 that became a national story, I’m right there with you.  When you convert living, feeling creatures into tech accessories for the wired crowd, you’re playing with weird energy and it could backfire." 

When we polled the audience about their SXSW pain points, some fascinating observations surfaced.  It's worth noting that the cross-section of folks who attended our panel came from as far away as Peru and London, Amsterdam and Brazil.  We assumed they'd rail against the usual, things like the all-or-nothing taxi situation but, for many of them, the issue of cars wasn't top of mind.  The travesty was not enough bikes.  Neither to rent nor to store around the conference.  Another gripe was that they were always hungry (see grocery-lines and price gouging above), especially if they had to decide between finding food anywhere near the sessions and any hope of getting into said sessions.  A mitigating factor?  Behold the belly of the beast.

For anyone who has been to SXSW for more than a few years, you can see what's shifting and what's not.  The worst immutable element is the constant crush whose epicenter is the Keynote room at the ACC.  Ironically, Daniel Pink, author of Drive and To Sell is Human, gave a talk about ways to change behavior.  And his example of cell phone lanes on sidewalks is no laughing matter.  In fact, it's so painfully obvious that implementing a reading-cell-phone-while-lurching-along lane would so profoundly impact the experience of the festival and perhaps even alleviate some of the other issues that there is no excuse for the organizers not to have implemented this years ago.

Hand in hand with the difficulty of getting around, it's worth noting that SXSW has an app that 98% of the attendees carry around on their gridlock-inducing cell phones.  And, while some may not like the idea of sharing their information, we all use the GPS functions to help navigate Austin, find sessions, and connect with people.  So, why not draft off the brilliant work done by Sarah Williams of the Digital Matatu project, which was a collaborative open data mapping of the Nairobi Public Transit system, in order to identify where more routes were needed.  SXSW could easily map the pedicabs routes, pedestrian flows, and build out better shuttle service using a mix of predictive analytics and the GPS data.  Because who wants the pedicabs to be more than a last resort, really?

The app also came up as needing a bit more than a facelift.  Given how getting into - or more often not getting into - sessions works, by the time you realize you need a different session because you've been locked out, the endless scrolling list leaves you toggling back and forth between locations and session descriptions.  Why not use the GPS to offer a now-common "you might also like" session in the vicinity based on what you already indicated as favorites?  Or, someone in the audience suggested, why not create the equivalent of playlists from technorati or interesting speakers or even friends who are also attending, so you have a quick guide of alternative ways to navigate the mayhem?  We would all have loved to know which sessions were being attended by Martine Rothblatt (who, in fact, walked into our session room just as the panel ended) - or even Bina 48.

In conclusion, the outcome of our urban agile sprint is a handful of suggestions which could be piloted during the festival but developed into longer-lasting solutions for the benefit of Austin residents and, in an ideal world, co-opted by other fast-growing cities.  

We challenge the 2016 SXSW organizers to take a few of these on, prototyping through partnerships to keep costs low, and implementing in the spirit of learning:

  1. More bikes - maybe use the Lyft backend to add Austin resident bicycles to a variable, demand-based pool of available wheels
  2. Cell phone lurching lanes - definitely in the ACC along the inner wall and perhaps even in the few block radius, we have no doubt this will create some social pressure as well as more efficient flow between sessions
  3. App improvements - use proximity and affinity cues to help more people get into sessions they'll enjoy, no doubt a number of the SXSW sponsors could lend these backend capabilities for additional exposure
  4. Shuttle loops that are fast-flowing and go where people need them most - opt-in data philanthropy through the app, and partner to keep costs down and figure out needs in real-time or based on historical data

We hope some of this will spark thinking about how various urban centers can use swarms of conference-goers as testing proxies for civic challenges.  Los Angeles has E3.  Vegas has NAB and CES and well, most tech confabs.  And perhaps your city has a smaller version that can serve the purpose just as well.  

You can listen to the podcast of the session here on SXSW SoundCloud.

We'd love to hear your thoughts!  And we hope to see you in Austin next year!

For easy reference, here's the panel description of what we covered:

It's almost impossible to escape the constant chatter around so-called Smart Cities, but why is it taking so long for us to experience the benefits?  Urban innovation is still bounded by the glacial pace of master planning, despite a world now shifting almost every 6 months.  So, how can civic centers keep up?  By bringing true agile and lean start-up methods from the emerging technology realm to our streets.  If we put human-centered design at the heart of rapid iteration, imagine how much more efficiently we could invest taxpayer dollars.  Testing assumptions we make about citizen needs allows us to flexibly adjust solutions before discovering costly errors years into an initiative.  We can no longer afford to ignore this bottleneck amid mass migrations and mega-cities.  In this panel, we will discuss why most civic pilots have nothing to do with true agile best practices; the big benefits that come from adopting a learning mindset; and what this might do for food deserts, for example.

AuthorKaz Brecher