Archive for March, 2011

Please In My Back Yard

You can take the boy out of the startup, but apparently not the startup out of the boy. If I weren’t super fulfilled by what I’m working on here in Helsinki I might be exploring something along these lines right now:

On the ground floor of my apartment building is a small shop that just went out of business. It used to sell snowboard clothes but during two years of residence I never spotted a single customer inside. Lacking a great cafe in my neighborhood, I would love the next person thinking about hanging their shingle to have a way to get an idea of what the market might be interested in.

What dreams does our neighborhood have for the erstwhile snowboard shop?

Now that we have a tiki bar down the street, surely there’s something else that would compliment the existing offerings on Uudenmaankatu, or the broader neighborhood of Punavuori. The thing is, the shops and services in urban centers have very weak feedback systems. Without the support and coffers of a syndicate that is able to conduct market research, an aspiring shopkeep has few tools to use other than subjective asking around. Mostly they test their hypothesis on the mean streets the old fashioned way: scraping together some cash and giving it a go.

A website called Kickstarter has grown into a community that made 386,373 investments in 2010 for a total of $27,638,318 dollars committed to capitalize projects ranging from iphone accessories to epic dance films. One thing I like about Kickstarter is that it turns entrepreneurship into a tool rather than letting it be the endgame. It’s not about building an enterprise, but using entrepreneurship to manifest an interest that is shared by creator and investor/customers. It turned the often-brutal realm of entrepreneurship into a more supportive, community oriented way to manifest new bits of reality. This is what community-scale rapid prototyping looks like.

From the buyer’s perspective Kickstarter is a marketplace of freshness, packaging specific deliverables with an extended aura of pay as you go DIYness. It allows customers to buy something that doesn’t exist yet—to vote on the specific future they want to live in, one product at a time. This brilliantly taps into the market trends that seem to be reacting to globalization by craving the unique, the limited, and the local.

But from the producers’ side Kickstarter is something much different: it’s  a demand aggregator that de-risks entrepreneurship. By allowing would-be entrepreneurs to collect commitments, they are able to look before they leap, as it were. Thereby expanding the pool of possible entrepreneurs to include individuals and groups who may never make the leap without some reassurance.

So here’s my proposition: what would happen if you took the Kickstarter strategy and applied it to the city. How could we de-risk new shops, restaurants, cafes, services, institutions, and even government outposts by aggregating commitment in advance of capital investment?

One of Helsinki’s many under-utilized spatial assets.

What would the Kickstarter of real estate look like and how might a similar demand-aggregator offer a productive counterpart to the dreaded “not in my back yard” syndrome? Is there a “please in my backyard” platform that could act as a spatial happiness engine, better empowering individuals to inflect their own corner of the city to meet their personal desires?

Could a platform such as this translate land use and zoning decisions into terms that are more personable, assessable, and ultimately arguable? Would that make the city more or less democratic?

Using a database of vacant real estate in a given city and a platform for collecting propositions or pitches, we allow entrepreneurs a marketplace of ideas that is able to match their own predilections and interests with “please in my back yard” demand. Individuals vote on the future land use and spatial assets that they want to see in their own city and their own backyard. If that voting is done with the wallet, similar to Kickstarter, would it be enough to usefully bootstrap entrepreneurs?

In practical terms this might translate into giftcards or other pay-in-advance schemes which would then be converted into a debit account if a project was funded and realized. There are a lot of very risky “ifs” in that statement, but let’s just see if this pencils out. (Using a hodgepodge of unverified sources, of course):

In 2004 Starbucks sold 21,000,000 gift cards totaling $312,000,000. That same year they had 8,569 stores globally. Assuming that the gift cards were available in all locations, and purchasing was distributed evenly, that’s a total of $36,410 spent on gift cards per store. If we divide it evenly across the 6,132 US-based locations it yields just over $50k per store. Not too shabby.

That might be just enough to change the mind of the future antique dealer who’s eager to move in downstairs.

City of Piles

One year ago.

I was fooled by the warm light, really. Expecting Istanbul to be warm in March was rather shortsighted of me.

It’s hard to imagine a place with a color palette such as Istanbul’s ever being cold, but even Hannibal’s elephants made it to the Alps.

Istanbul was cooler than expected, but every bit as bountiful.

It’s is a city of stacks and piles. Domes, buildings, chestnuts. Histories. Piles and promise.

For LLL.


Two years ago today I moved to Helsinki. Having missed the anniversary last time, I’ve gone out of my way to remember the date this year. I try to compare the duration of my residency to grad school or to the time BB,CS,LB,TE and I spent on DeepLeap. Has this felt half as long as grad school? Twice as long as that time in Austin? Time is a fickle shade.

Some reflections on the city of Helsinki and my life in and around it.

April 2, 2010

Even after two years, Helsinki is still largely inscrutable. In particular, the local habit for covering ground floor windows in shops and various commercial spaces with posters confuses me. You find this walking around the outer fringes of Kamppi or the fuzzy edges of Punavuori. What happens in these protected spaces? In a place with little light and few people, why retreat even more? Opacity is special here in a way I have yet to unlock.

May 7, 2010

My favorite breakfast of 2010 was an ad-hoc assortment of unexpected delights, consumed on a day when the air was crisp with promise. Finland can be amazing at breakfast time. Milk that comes in beer bottles, pea tendrils on bread, a pillow of cheese, and milk chocolate? See also: special opacity. Thanks to Jenna and Anni for this.

June 9, 2010

May and June were a single day. Even looking at (lots of) photos now I have difficulty remembering that period of time in any plural unit. Largely because I was so consumed by the studios that I was organizing with the rest of the team at work. This is a snapshot from one of those studios, on a day when we visited the Aalto house to have a small team dinner. Alberto and I lingered in front of the house taking pictures as everyone else filed inside and I snapped this just as Emily popped her head out to look for Alberto. The simple gesture of looking again is rendered so touchingly here by Emily that this photo is very special to me. These two people had met three days before and yet already they and their collaborators shared a unique amity. It makes me happy to think that our project created moments like this. In its many quiet pockets—the forecourt of a confident house, say—Helsinki can be a city of remarkable hospitality.

July 10, 2010

Petri’s excitement about the fire was only multiplied when I introduced the special delight of smores (with digestive biscuits instead of graham crackers) to our picnic.

August 26, 2010

A tour of the plants at the botanical gardens prophetically ended here. It had been a hectic month of small pieces loosely joined. I was ferrying between desks in Kallio, Ruoholahti, and Punavuori. Working late hours. Working weekends. Pulling things together.

HDL Global 2010: Done
September 3, 2010

This was minutes after we wrapped the event that I moved to Helsinki to put together. Well before this image was taken, even before the event started, I knew that the idea of my moving to Helsinki to produce an event was a conceit. I’m tempted to believe that the reason Marco is smiling because he knew this all along. I was exhausted but proud and all I remember of the dinner that followed this photo is that it was good.

October 17, 2010

Douglas came to visit and we took day trips to Turku and Tallinn, both of which are parallel Helsinkis to a non-native. Geography is surprisingly complicit with the rules of mathematics: (T+T)/2 = H? Fall had settled into the trees by then and the shadows were starting to run long.

November 11, 2010

When a tiny tear of sky rips open during fall it’s a special thing. This morning I was headed to Tel Aviv where the temperature was 20 degrees warmer and the sky 120 degrees around the color wheel.

December 7, 2010

Walking through Plague Park rarely saves any time but it’s hard to ignore during fall, spring, and winter when it’s liable to be beautiful. In summer it smells like a toilet, because it is a toilet. Apparently a significant percentage of Helsinki is not potty trained.

January 25, 2011

Weekend mornings I make a pot of coffee and stretch bits of work out across my long desk. When the sun is low like this is reminds me of Cambridge and the mornings I spent there dull-eyed and unshaven, sipping coffee and listening to Concord avenue wake up. From my apartment in the center of Helsinki I rarely hear any traffic. The soundtrack to this photo is the heavy rumble of the #3 tram lumbering by. To an American that’s what Europe sounds like. Trams.

February 27, 2011

Cities each have their own best scale. San Francisco congeals at the scale of the neighborhood. Manhattan is a place of heroic battles fought within each plot’s zoning envelope. Helsinki is composed street by street.

No one here seems to be able to identify the neighborhoods reliably, and while many of the buildings are interesting few are captivating. Streets here, on the other hand, are artful. Humans are small in a city whose scale is the street. Maybe this is why doorways are often diminutive in Helsinki.