Sunday, September 21st, 2008
Ok, so it does take bigtime money to build a bridge, an airport, or a skyscraper. But money is often as much a curse as a blessing. And too often a lack of money is just an excuse for lack of creativity. Great designers embrace constraint. While big projects usually do require big money, great design doesn’t have to cost any more than mediocre. And there’s often a lot that can be done right now, often without any new money at all.
I believe it is clearly realistic and possible to deliver “Beyond Unbelievable” greatness for little to no money. Everyone should put the challenge out to themselves first to figure out how they can accomplish even greater things than they originally thought possible for really, really cheap.
The virtues of really, really cheap are legion and well known.
1. The less money you need, the less money you have to raise. How many startups failed because management spent more time raising funds than tending to the business? Every minute you spend on fundraising is a minute you’re not doing something productive.
2. The less you have to spend, the less you have to build. Less money generally means you’re doing less. And less is more. The less you do, the faster you can do it. Speed to market is the most potent weapon, for a business or anyone else.
3. It’s all about outputs, not inputs. Nobody cares how hard you work or how much effort or money you put into it. It’s the “beyond unbelievable” results the matter.
4. No money, no money management. Money isn’t like other things. It requires proper accounting controls, papers trails, reporting, etc. And it leads to potential questions about conflict of interest, etc. To the extent you avoid money, you avoid all that pain too.
5. The less green you spend, the more green you are. You can’t waste materials if you don’t buy them in the first place. Doing more with less is earth friendly too!
6. The leaner, the cleaner. It’s easier to stick to simple elegance and the “keep it simple stupid” principle when you are spending less. As they say, a design isn’t complete when nothing else can be added, but when nothing else can be taken away. When in doubt, take it out.
7. Constraints amp up our creativity. When you can plow right through problems with money, you probably aren’t doing your best work. Money in excess is a substitute for thought. It’s like Renzo Piano said, “Instead of worrying about the lack of freedom you should be grateful for the restrictions. Creativity doesn’t need freedom, it needs rules, then you can enjoy occasionally breaking those rules.”
Nintendo didn’t have the money to compete with Sony and Microsoft in the game console development wars. So they got creative and designed the spectacular and fun but lo-tech Wii, which left the competition in the dust.
Curitiba, Brazil didn’t have the money to build a fancy metro system like Paris, so instead they built the world’s best bus system, with better than subway frequency – and boosted ridership from 25,000 to 2,000,000 per day.
Money is tight in government today. Competition for charitable dollars is fiercer than ever. To make major civic change, and do it faster and better, calls for us to be more creative and focus on doing more with less – with nothing if at all possible.
That’s not to say you can cost cut your way to greatness. Chopping scope or building a cheaper product isn’t good design, it’s taking the easy way out. Leaving sidewalks out of road projects, using crappy materials in buildings just to save a buck, etc. – these are doing less with less. We have to figure out how to do more with less. Sometimes you need great amounts of money to do great things. Sometimes you can accomplish great things on the cheap. The thing you’ve got to avoid is spending a lot of money on a second rate or inferior product. That’s the worst of both worlds.
I won’t suggest everything has to be done for a pittance. But I believe there is a unlimited potential for the citizens of our cities to make dramatic improvements where we live without requiring an unlimited bankroll to do it. I’ve suggested some ways before, for example, in my “15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis“. And I’m going to try to give more suggestions upcoming, but wanted to set the stage.
There’s a lot you, personally could do, to make your city better, today, with little or no money.