• use of concept: the best proof of concept

    If you’re trying to get a better experience out in the world, the best proof of your ideas is probably just doing it. It can take months and years to plan, spec, and align organizational bureaucracies around a strange new idea. But making your idea concrete enough to be used by real people can remove obstacles, win hearts, and create real traction.

    The San Francisco city government is like other governments, not particularly known for its speed and nimbleness. But recently they’ve discovered the power of calling projects “pilots” to eschew the normal policies and procedures in favor of quickly learning if an idea is in fact a good one.

    Over the past 2 months the city government, in cooperation with business groups and non-profits, has turned a corner of one of the busiest intersections in San Francisco into a public plaza. The 17th Street Plaza project took 72-hours to implement, and is carefully called a “reversible trial.”


    The plaza isn’t made of brick or tile; it’s just paint over the asphalt. The plants aren’t carefully gardened or well-dug; they’re temporary planters made from construction supplies.


    This “use of concept” approach has big benefits:

    • It costs little. The material and labor costs are much lower than a full implementation, and it saves thousands of hours of planning and debate
    • It creates a lot of learning. The plaza isn’t perfect by any means, but it will help answer the important questions: Will people use the plaza? Will there be any negative side effects? What are the requirements for a plaza in this location?
    • It wins hearts and minds. After seeing a real world mock-up, people have a clear understanding of what a plaza could be. It’s surprisingly better than many expected.

    Listen to the words the backers, designers, users, and doubters of the plaza use when talking about the project:

    Next week the plaza will be reviewed for consideration of a 4-month extension. What decisions do you think the government and public will reach about the space? I predict it’ll be extended, and everyone’s input will be well-grounded in observations from the actual plaza experience.

    This “use of concept” approach isn’t new. San Francisco borrowed it from recent similar programs in New York City. It’s also reminiscent of a pliot program IdeaLab! did before launching CarsDirect, the first online car sales site on the Web—they hired a CEO for 90-days, built a simple website, and told the CEO to sell one car. The site sold four cars in a week and answered the question to which no one yet knew the answer: “Will people buy cars online?”

    So if you’re ready to push your own “use of concept” out the door, keep in mind the lessons from the 17th Street Plaza:

    • To get permission, call it a “reversible pilot”. Worst case is you’ll learn a lot and you’ll know the idea you have isn’t worth pursuing. Best case is you’ll have a hot new experience on your hands.
    • Clarify what you want to learn. It’ll help you focus on what to pilot and for how long.
    • Control costs, not details. You can learn what you need to without a perfect implementation.
    • Plan the next step. Have a wrap-up date when the pilot is over and it’s time to make the right next decisions.

    There are 13 thoughts on this idea

    1. Brandon Schauer

      Yes i did… it’s now corrected. Thanks cb.

    2. Re/Creating Tampa - Reversible Pilot Programs for

      […] Schauer at Adaptive Path writes about an innovative new strategy for urban design being rolled out in San Francisco. “Over the past 2 months the city government, in […]

    3. cb

      Did you mean “win hearts” in the first paragraph, last sentence?

    4. Invasiones Bárbaras » Blog Archive » E

      […] sobre la “peatonalización” de los espacios públicos, que tanta falta le hace a Lima: una nueva experiencia piloto en la implementación de espacios públicos, que experimenta con los espacios de una manera rápida y de bajo costo para probar un concepto de […]

    5. The EchoUser Experience » Prototyping design

      […] use of prototyping and “agile” development in a field outside the realm of software: urban development.  The project in question is the re-purposing of part of an intersection in San Francisco’s […]

    6. Isaac Weinhausen

      I’m assuming this urban planning concept has been around for a while. Who would have thought that the last leg of creativity required to make it a success needed to revolve around “communication” to stakeholders?!

      Thx for the encouraging post Brandon. Seeing creativity in the most unexpected places makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. =D


    7. The Great California Plaza Experiment | 1-800-Recy

      […] based on praise versus complaints.) According to Brandon Schauer, a senior practitioner from Adaptive Path blog, the movement may just last, as long as businesses keep seeing a rise in […]

    8. More New York-y Goodness - nest maker

      […] 20 years, they plan to add 800 acres of new public spaces in all New York communities. There was a good post about a similar program in San Francisco on Adaptive Path’s blog a couple months ago. The idea was, rather than go through all the […]

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