MVPs as antidotes for zombie cities: Lean Placemaking™ Part Two


Last week, I began to lay out my plan to “infect” cities – to unleash an epidemic of Lean Placemaking.

I explained why many cities are zombies – not quite failing, not quite succeeding – but that adopting Lean Startup principles could save them from this fate. I argued that cities have a lot to learn from startups’ new disruptive approach to business development: spending less time writing an ultra technical business plan that investors may or may not read or programming the “perfect” app, and focusing more on figuring out the most optimal way to solve people’s actual problems. For cities, that means “getting out of the building” and digging into the “place” – both physical and social – they are targeting!

Specifically, I outlined how Lean Startup thinking can translate into Lean Placemaking. Last time, we got through the first two of the five key processes. Today, I’ll discuss the third process.

  1. Customer Discovery
  2. Measure/Test
  3. MVP
  4. Pivot or Persevere
  5. Repeat

Build MVP Approach:

In Lean Startup terms, an MVP, or a minimum viable product, is “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” This doesn’t mean the product is “embarrassingly” minimal. The MVP still has to “deliver enough customer value” for the startup to better understand if their solution addresses a customer need (problem/solution fit) and if enough customers have the problem the startup is trying to solve (product/market fit). The MVP isn’t about releasing early and often either: validated learning isn’t about deploying an early version of a product, acquiring customer feedback, quickly incorporating some of the feedback, and re-releasing the product. This kind of feedback loop is not the same as the learn, measure, build loop we discussed last time. The purpose of the MVP is to help you test your specific, falsifiable hypotheses as quickly as possible.

So what does this have to do with cities?

Let’s use the example from the last post: A city wants to build pocket parks in a neighborhood that they believe is lacking in green space. It’s already passed the sniff test – or more precisely, the city has validated an assumption about its “customer problem” by conducting 10 customer interviews. The city validated its assumption, as five of the ten customers interviewed indicated that they didn’t have enough green spaces within walking distance of their homes. Now it’s time to validate the MVP – in this case, the Minimum Viable Project.

Source: ATLUrbanist

Source: ATLUrbanist

Although the city’s proposed solution for its lack of green space problem is a pocket park, the approval process for that kind of project is lengthy and its cost, not insignificant. The pocket park itself is not an appropriate MVP. Instead, the city decides to temporarily transform two parking spaces into a pop-up mini pocket park and invites the five “customers” who felt their neighborhood needed more green space (the “early adopters”) to be part of the process and test out the space (Stay tuned for how State of Place can help with this process!). This MVP still delivers enough of the value the city wants to deliver to its “customers” – green space – to test the its hypothesis and get further customer insight before investing in a full-sized pocket park. Most importantly, the MVP allows the city to avoid spending a lot of time planning and/or building something nobody wants or needs. 

While in this example, the MVP itself was inspired by what has now become an annual worldwide tactical urbanism event – Park(ing) Day – the purpose of the MVP isn’t just about building a temporary green space. In fact, the lean startup warns against falling in love with the product – or in the case of Lean Placemaking and cities, the project. As entrepreneurs – or planners and designers alike – it’s easy to fall into this trap, especially given relative training and expertise. But the MVP is about more than just the P – it’s about saving precious time and resources by gaining valuable knowledge and validating assumptions before moving forward – or not.


tackle the “or not” scenario in the next blog post in this series in which I discuss how the 4th step in the Lean Startup process, Pivot or Persevere, translates to Lean Placemaking

And in the meantime, if you have a question about applying Lean Placemaking, State of Place, or urban design or walkability in general, just grab some time with me and we can personally chat about your needs or situation!

Read the next post! It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to…Zombies” Pivoting & Lean Placemaking™ Part Three

Read the previous post! Why Many Cities are Zombies (and how Lean Placemaking™ Can Bring Them Back To Life

Read the next post!


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