Sunday, September 21st, 2008

The Really, Really Cheap Manifesto

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.

Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Sustainability

8 Responses to “The Really, Really Cheap Manifesto”

  1. Donna says:

    Really enjoyed this post.

    The greatest dang bus system in the country, that’s what I think Naptown should focus on building, while simultaneously looking 25 years into the future and laying the groundwork NOW for whatever the next great people moving technology will be.

    Light rail to Carmel is a 20th Century idea, and far to expensive to be spending money on now.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks, Donna. Let me just say, stay tuned till later this week. I posted this specifically as a warm up to my “Things We Can Do to Improve Transit in Indianapolis Right Now” post that you’ll see shortly (I hope).

    In the meantime, I highly recommend reading up on what Curitiba and Bogotá have been able to accomplish with their bus systems. It is unbelievable.

  3. Graeme says:

    I like the idea of spending less and demanding more. You’ve got a great idea and I hope to see more soon. To a large extent I do agree that we can do more with less.

    I think the bus system is under-appreciated but cost-effective. I think the main problem with the bus system is that it is not guaranteed to be permanent. The city is just as likely to change the routes or alter services as they are to keep it the same. With a light-rail system you have dependability because the city is committed to maintaining the line and the service. If the city were to commit itself to building appropriate bus stations with clearly understandable charts (or electronic time trackers) then I think the public would put more faith in them.

    I don’t think you have to look as far as South America to find great bus systems, there are many here in the US. Pittsburgh has invested heavily in their bus system and has dedicated bus lanes, bus highways (from old rail lines), and other features that allow people to get around town even during rush hour.

    Of course, when you get into the public project arena, there are many costs that increase the price tag. Traffic studies, environmental studies, and other “compliance” issues can be very expensive time-consuming and must be completed before your application can be stamped by the bureaucrats. It’s just the cost of doing business with public money. But creative minds can often find ways to save money with ingenuity and good project management.

    But once again, just wanted to say good post and looking forward to follow-ups!

  4. Jim Russell says:

    Is the Curitiba bus system all that?

  5. Katrina says:

    Actually, I think you should look at the bus situation in Santiago, Chile. They had a wonderful private bus system that actually netted $60 million a year, though it had a few flaws. Now the new public Transantiago system is coughing up huge losses, frequency is low, and ridership and service have drop precipitously.

    I’m about to read a book called Curb Rights by GMU professor Dan Klein. I came across this book while reading an article about Transantiago, but had known that Prof. Klein had planned to write such a book after reading The Voluntary City, which was released by The Independent Institute. It’s exciting to think that the framework of a privately-funded, profitable and reliable bus system can be found – and is waiting for Indianapolis to take hold of it.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “Light rail to Carmel is a 20th Century idea, and far to expensive to be spending money on now.”

    Roads are a 4,000 B.C. idea, and far too expensive to be spending money on now.

  7. Donna says:

    Um, anonymous? 6,000 years ago roads were traversed by animal-powered vehicles. There have been *some* advances in vehicle technology since then.

    It’s my belief that people-moving vehicles will change radically in the next 20 years, including mass transit like light rail. Look at the canal system in Naptown for a perfect example of what I fear (and correct me if I’m wrong here, as I’m getting my info from the historic marker signs along the towpath): the canal system was begun right as a competing technology, railroads, was coming online. The canals end up being useless in the face of the newer technology.

    I fear a light rail line that STARTS in the next few years – not being operable for, what, a decade? – is a short-sited and really expensive solution unless some really, really compelling evidence exists that no new technology can possibly come along to render it obsolete a few years later.

  8. thundermutt says:

    I go back and forth on this. Rail transit can be an economic development tool, as it creates valuable real estate.

    However, since “we love our cars” in Indy and will keep building roads, why not invest in clean biodiesel hybrid busses that can go anywhere that there is demand?

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