Friday, March 11th, 2011

Replay: The City as a Platform

I’ve seen and heard a lot about the notion of a “city as a platform”. I haven’t seen a lot of great definitions of exactly what is meant by it though, so I thought I would explore various dimensions of the concept a bit.

Let’s take a look at the actual definition of the word platform, of which there are several:

  • a raised horizontal surface or stage
  • a document stating the aims and principles of a political party
  • the combination of a particular computer and a particular operating system
  • a military structure or vehicle bearing weapons
  • a section of pathway, alongside rail tracks at a train station, metro station or tram stop, at which passengers may board or alight from trains
  • a woman’s shoe with a very high thick sole

It is immediately obvious how we can think of some of these as applicable to cities.

The City as a Stage

In this view, the city serves as a place for personal performance. Like a speaker or actor mounting a platform in order to be heard, people come to a city to get noticed. This is simple, but powerful. Cities are where the action is. Even if you perform your work or live your life elsewhere, if you want people to know about it, you generally have to come to the city or somehow get someone in the city to pay attention.

The bigger and more prominent the city, the bigger the stage. This creates a positive reinforcement cycle.

The City as a Manifesto

The political platform version wasn’t something that originally came to my mind when thinking of this, but it too has applicability. What is your city all “about”? What does it stand for? What is its ambition? I’m reminded again of Paul Graham’s piece “Cities and Ambition“:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.

Think about the great cities of America, and they all seem to have something of a point of view on the world and what it should be like, even if it isn’t totally clear. Especially for those cities where the civic ambition and POV is murky, a process of reflection on this is clearly warranted. Going back to the notion of a stage, since not everyplace can be New York or London, the question might be how you can create a premier stage or environment in which to attract notice for a focused set of activities or ambitions.

The City as a Computing Environment

It strikes me that today when people talk about the city as a platform, they are often making some variant of an analogy to computing. See, for example, “The City as Interaction Platform“.

As a tech guy myself, I find this one particularly of interest. A computing platform is collection of capabilities, services, and constraints that is generally shared among multiple users. In this sense, the platform defines what can and can’t be done, how easy or hard it is to do things, and mediates between users and activities.

You can think of a classic hardware/operating system combination like Wintel. But you can also think of applications like Twitter or Facebook. Some platforms, like the ones I mentioned, were and are extremely powerful and durable. Others either flourish then wither, or never get much traction to start with.

What factors affect this and how might they shape our thinking about urban success? Some that I would suggest include:

  • Platform power. Ultimately how much can your platform do? Does it have constraints that limit it? (Sometimes, a city might consider constraint a good thing, however). What services is it providing that make your life easier?
  • Network Effects. As with William H. Whyte saying people attract other people, users attract more users, more R&D, etc. That’s obviously a huge factor in the success of major social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. People go there because other people are there. This implies that scaling quickly is important.
  • Timing. First mover advantage is sometimes key, but often the first people to pioneer a market fail, and it is only the second or third generation that gets it right. (Friendster, anyone?)
  • Adaptability. The Unix operating system was easily adaptable to many different hardware platforms and architectures. This has made it one of the most successful operating systems in history, and one that has stood the test of time. Operating systems tied too closely to particular hardware platforms or particularly technology problems typically fail once technology moves on.
  • Openness. In a related note, how well does the platform interact with others? Companies like Apple and IBM thrived with “closed platform” systems. But notably Apple stumbled once and easily could again. IBM also went through struggles. I tend to think that standards compliance, interoperability, and multi-vendor approaches are more robust over the long term
  • Ease of Programming and Use. One of the computer systems I worked on in college ran an operating system called VMS, which was extremely baroque. If you wanted to change your directory, you’d have to type some obscure command like “$ set default $disk54[arenn].” Everyone who worked on VMS system had scores of “utilities” that made the system usable. The greatest epiphany of my computing life was when I got an account on a Unix system, went to port over my VMS utilities, and found they were superfluous.

How do these apply to a city? Again, easy to see. Your city has to offer a set of “services” and it has to be easy to access them. Your city needs to be able to adapt over time. Etc.

This is something I think deserves more study. What makes a platform like Twitter so successful? What lessons can we learn? This might also make a useful framework for comparing cities.

The City as Weapons System

What I find interesting about this is the notion of power. Cities are powerful places. This is true for good or ill. Cities can be a “force multiplier” for people who are working in harmony with them, but they can also be a force that squelches people. Depending on what you are trying to do, a powerful city or a weak city might be more appropriate.

The City as a Train Station

Again, I even find merit in this. We can think of the city as the place we access networks that give us the ability to travel to or interact with other places and things. They are our “network access point”. Just as some train stations or air hubs have better service that others, so to with cities. How many networks does it give you access to? How can you improve your connectivity?

The City as Stripper Heels

Cities have always alternately attracted and repelled by the little bit of Sodom they all contain. “They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.” Cities define worldliness. They have always drawn those who long to be free of the strictures of their origins. They’ve long been the target of ire and suspicion from those who fear their unholy influence.

This post originally ran on March 14, 2010.

Topics: Urban Culture

9 Responses to “Replay: The City as a Platform”

  1. brett says:

    I started reading this and wasn’t sold at first. I don’t like the idea of using the analogy of a platform to talk about something as richly complex as the city.

    However, there several a few things that jumped out at me. I love your quote from Paul Graham “the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder”. This has been my experience. Perhaps it easier for me to notice this effect since I grew up in a small town. I’ve also lived in Columbus, San Francisco and now Chicago. I notice this message more in Chicago than either of the other 2 cities. It’s also a lot bigger. Yes, I receive a stronger motivating message from Chicago than I got in San Francisco. In Columbus I felt I needed to get out before I withered and died.

    That sense that you should try harder plays in to the network effects you discuss as well. You try harder, that ups the bar for everyone around you, more things happen because everyone is trying harder and that makes the city more attractive. Others move in to take advantage of that attractiveness. There is a virtuous cycle at work.

    Comparing the city to computer platform is interesting but in a way inverse. Our computer and networking technology have allowed us to extend the city over nearly the entire planet. Those network effects that are so powerful in the city are now available everywhere to a degree. Computers have amplified cities (civilization) and allowed cities to conquer the entire world. The factors you identified, and that the computer revolution put a name to (network effects, adaptability, openness, etc.) were there all along in cities in some latent or at least unnamed form. These factors undoubtedly reflect something underlying in human nature.

  2. the urban politician says:

    The city of Racine, Wisconsin tells me:

    You should be fatter. You should smoke. You should eat things with a lot of fat in them and you should be more into the Packers.

  3. Matthew Hall says:

    Cincinnati tells me to mind my own business.

  4. Rod Stevens says:

    There’s a wonderful book on some of these themes by the poet laureate of Toronto, a former priest. It’s called “Urban Manifesto”, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, for those of us who love cities.

  5. The Borough of Brooklyn tells me to be more ironic; drink more Pabst and ride fixed gear bikes…I kid, I kid, sort of 😉

  6. Jamie says:

    @Matt . . I tell people BK is comprehensive – one can find everything and anything on the Island. I learned about the dark side of human psych in BK while watching Manhattan turn into a sterile sitcom . . .

  7. The television show Portlandia tells me that I ought to serve dinner to houseguests plucked out of garbage dumpsters (both the food and the guests), in the name of sustainability.

    However, the city of Portland, for some strange reason, says no such thing. :)

  8. Alon Levy says:

    My segment of New York tells me that I ought to publish more papers. Making more money is for other people, in finance or law or real estate.

  9. KennedyJP says:

    If Microsoft Windows is a platform (a collection of services that enables others to creat value) then Microsoft Word is infrastructure (a collection of ubiquitious servcies that provide value for those that use them). If you were looking at “Automated City” software it is much more Infrastructure than a platform. A good example of Infrastructure are port, roads, trains and bridges; while, yes, they enable others (e.g. a trucking company) to build a businesss providing much higher services. This analogy shows the essential heirarchical structuring of services – i.e. others use the trucking company to provide even higher level of services. The key to to a viable city is to provide as high a level of servcies as they can at a low price so that they can attract the businesses of the future.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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