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.