Monday, 6 June 2011

Hacking the city

Thanks to @robyngallagher for the pointer, a must-read on Newcastle's redevelopment - cities as software.

According to the piece, hackers routed around city regs to make abandoned old buildings useful again.
Renew Newcastle started by hacking how much spaces cost and the terms they were available on. While there were over 150 empty buildings in Newcastle few if any of them were cheap or simple to access. They were bound up in complex rules – from bad tax incentives to complex, costly and long-term commercial leases that made it difficult to access them flexibly. Renew Newcastle traded cost for security. We created new rules, new contracts, and convinced owners to make spaces available for what was effectively barter – we would find people to clean them use them and activate them and they could have them back if and when they needed them. We stepped outside the default legal framework in which most property in Australia is managed and created a new one. We used licenses not leases, we asked for access not tenancy and exploited the loopholes those kinds of arrangements enabled. While such schemes are institutionalised in many European countries they have little precedent in Australia – in Newcastle, the entire scheme was devised, brokered and implemented directly from the community without the involvement of a government or formal development authorities still grasping at hardware based solutions. Only after the first dozen buildings had been activated did any funding appear. More than two years later any changes to rules and regulations – to the operating system – are yet to transpire.

Yet cheap space is not in itself enough. It is not enough to simply change how much space costs, it is also vitally important to change how it behaves in the face of initiative. Renew Newcastle created a whole system to lower barriers to initiative and experimentation. We created another layer – between the operating system and the users to make it simpler and easier to enable experimentation and risk.

Again we followed the path of least resistance. We decided to make things simple that could be made simple and not butt up against what would remain impenetrably hard. We managed to do what is easy rather than get caught up in waiting for the ideal – to find spaces that were usable and use them. Renew Newcastle designed systems – an API in programming terms – that made activation simple. We took spaces, brokered cheap access to them and gauged what could be done in them easily – what they were already approved for – and set out to find it and plant and water it.

In doing so we effectively made a whole system to make space behave as quickly and responsively. To allow people with enthusiasm and passion to direct it into the city. We made it quick for people to try and cheap for them to fail. We removed capital and complexity from the equation and in doing so we seeded more than 60 experiments – unleashing the energy of hundreds of people.
Christchurch's version, GapFiller, faces a rather worse problem. But they're doing a lot to help make the city liveable until the hardware issues are sorted out.

1 comment:

  1. This is awesome. Many of us are talking about the same sort of thinking at the #EduKare twitter strea (also via @edkare).
    You may be interested in another digital analogy at IT's all about the platform we choose to ground our efforts within, I think.
    Cheers from Canada!