Urban Architects

Union Square, New York City.Image via Wikipedia

Jack Dorsey, who came up with the initial idea for Twitter and co-founded the company often talks about his fascination with cities, mass transit, and bike messengers. He says it was this fascination that led to the inspiration for Twitter.

Dennis Crowley, the founder of Dodgeball and Foursquare, shares that fascination. When I first talked to him about Foursquare, he told me that he "tries to build things that make cities easier to use".

Steven Johnson, the author and co-founder of Outside.in was inspired to create that company when he was writing the Ghost Map which is about the urban scourge of cholera and how a map of the Soho neighborhood in London solved the question of the source of cholera.

Steven's co-founder of Outside.in is John Geraci, who I first met at ITP's senior project show when he was showing off a cool service called Found City which I blogged about at the time. John is now running an incubator for entrepreneurs that want to reinvent how cities and urban governments work called DIYCity.

And one of the crowd favorites at TC50 this past week was a company called CitySourced, which built "a free, simple, and intuitive tool empowering citizens to identify
civil issues (potholes, graffiti, trash, snow removal, etc.) and report
them to city hall for quick resolution". This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about in my "public channel" post earlier this year.

These and many others are our new urban architects. I am not suggesting that the traditional roles of urban planning and architecture aren't still important to our cities. They are and will continue to be.

But there is something new afoot in urban life. And it starts with the mobile phone, a computer in our pocket or purse, that is with us at all times.

Services like Twitter, Foursquare, and Outside.in are changing the way I use the city and I am certain they are changing the way many of us use the cities we live in. And we are just at the very beginning. Think about what happens when we get true augmented reality services on our phones. Think about what happens when we get real social networking services on our phones. Think about what happens when we get new interfaces on our phones that don't require us to be looking down and typing when we we are out and about.

This is an area, the intersection between mobile, local, and urban life, that we are particularly excited about. You can see it in our portfolio and you'll be seeing more of it soon. If you are working in this area, please come talk to us.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. William Mougayar

    Very inspiring trajectory. I wonder if you see this being restricted to the consumer space. Is there a rubbing off or trend affecting b2b?

    1. fredwilson

      i see it largely as a consumer play, but local merchants and local governments should be the customers here so from that angle there is a b2b play

      1. ShanaC

        I disagree with you. We’re still building our inner Internet core city. We don’t have institutions like “Banks that only deal in Karma points/WOW money.” That bank, when built, will probably act more similarly to one in the Age of Mercantilism, despite the fact that we’re dealing with propetary fiat monies. If I’m not mistaken- its customers were primarily merchants and business owners. The idea of small time banking is a much more recent development.(In other words, such a bank, if developed tomorrow, would be sort of nichey, charing very little to store your points, exhorbant fees to change/loan you more points, and probably trying to set up exchanges and derivative products based of point systems….even though there aren’t huge amounts of people using large amounts of social networking services. Majority of people stick to maybe 2 right now? who knows?

      2. markslater

        i don’t at all. I see this as a perfect small business and merchant play. Its about texting, its about real-time and its about elasticity. If a lite weight service can be created that pulls merchants in as consumers real-time needs are expressed, then it flattens the competitive landscape that often is the biggest challenge for the community merchants and SMBs.i don’t believe it is APP native either – i believe its command line native – thus text.this is the single area where i struggle so much with Twitter. Its action not status that will pull in the SMBs and create thousands of light weight micro markets.

  2. gregorylent

    reflecting on the difference between my first day in shanghai, a totally new city/country/culture for me, and how i feel now after being there several times for a few weeks each ….and it is that learning curve that tech/apps/services endeavor to speed up …

  3. Mark Essel

    One of the barriers to this innovation trend is restricted wifi. New players have to ask Apple and AT&T for permission to potentially compete or disrupt their service.A pretty far out fantasy of mine has been to code while out walking, without staring at a screen (HUD?). Going hand in hand with that is a need for high level, easy to understand, web friendly out of the box, programming languages (that’s a mouthful). Any businesses that spearhead these types of projects will open up some powerful creative/constructive time. Instead of hopping on an elliptical glider or walking in the park, we can redesign our social interface or catch up on a deluge of email.

    1. fredwilson

      I agree about the need for more open wifi

  4. andrewparker

    Another entrepreneur I’d put into this post is Will Wright. The emergence he modeled in SimCity is inspired by cellular automata, but, with a proper rule set and some nice graphics, nearly perfectly emulated city architecture/planning.Also, if emergence city design is something of interest to you, I’d point you to the Berkeley professor Christopher Alexander. He wrote a number of books on the subject, and two of the best were: “The Timeless Way of Building” and “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.” Here’s a quick summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wik…It’s interesting to focus on web services that narrowly serve urban areas, because it means it is applicable to the lives of 80% of Americans: http://factfinder.census.go

    1. fredwilson

      And maybe growing to 90pcnt in our lifetimes

    2. Mark Essel

      Thanks for the shares Andrew, hadn’t read any of his work before.Whoa, after reading the intro I wonder if the type of pattern language he developed would be applicable to domain experts with specific software needs, in effect diminishing reliance/changing the role of pure coders (in his case architects). Very applicable to my earlier comment…

    3. Vik Advani

      It is interesting that Andrew mentions Sim City and city design above. The examples Fred gives (twitter, foursquare, outsidein) are focused on content creation, social structures and communication. Another area that will be important to look at in this evolving space will be interfaces. Fred touches upon this with augmented reality but there are many directions that this can go. One area in particular is maps/cities interfaces optimized for mobile devices by focusing on speed, connectivity and touch interfaces. This is what we’re trying to do at UpNext.

    4. Ethan Bauley

      Andrew, you should try to get a meeting with Fred. Sounds like you could really add some value at USV

      1. andrewparker

        I know, right? Despite working 30 feet away from him and being on payroll,it’s still tough to get a meeting πŸ˜‰

        1. fredwilson


      2. fredwilson

        Thankfully he did that a few years back!!

  5. gregorylent

    and definitely, typing has to go .. my gosh

    1. ShanaC

      Not gonna happen, I like all three input medium -writing, typing, and gestural movement: typing is by far the fastest to get something done if you know what you are doing. All three have their place as input, which is why none are going away any time soon. (Speaking of which, why is my drawing not showing up….)

      1. kidmercury

        yes. typing is probably the most valuable thing i learned in school (not saying much because i didn’t learn much else in school, aside from how to waste time and money, but typing continues to be extremely useful).

        1. fredwilson

          Considering I can barely write with a pencil or pen, typing was a godsend to me and probably the reason I fell in love with computers

          1. Carl Rahn Griffith

            Lol, ditto.At school my handwriting was described as “a spider, dipped in an ink well, let loose on a blank piece of paper” … ironically, English was always – by far – my top subject, but my handwriting has always been appalling. When I do write (and ironically I collect Lamy pens/pencils – sad, I know) I get cramp in my wrist within minutes. That’s what some 30yrs of using a keyboard does for one.I am not sure whether I should be proud of the fact that I touch-type as fast as most classically-trained secretaries .. :-/

  6. amonle

    As an architect I couldn’t agree with you more. Social media is changing everything about how we interact with each other – and why not where we (probably) interact the most – our streets, parks, front verandahs and other open areas.Great post!

    1. fredwilson

      One of the great mantras is scott heiferman’s ‘we need to use the web to get off the web and into the real world’Mobile social media can do that and get us back to enjoying all that great cities have to offer

      1. Danny Moon

        That is a great mantra and that stop motion animation commercial that meetup produced a while back definitely captured the idea.It is interesting how quickly the local space has evolved with the emergence of mobile device that can bring the power of the web to your palm. I like how you guys have added urban life into the mix with local and mobile. These are definitely the areas we are trying to combine at UpNext.

        1. fredwilson

          Yeah that meetup animated video is great

      2. William Mougayar

        I like that. Increasingly, the web is being used as an invisible back-end, doing its magic & supporting the mobile apps & devices. I’d like a mobile device that senses things around me and gives me early warnings on things. The “next smartphone” will be more sensory, combining “what’s out there” (real-world) with “what’s in here” (web database).

      3. Mahmoud Arram

        Actually, Fred, this mantra has inspired us as well. We’re building a service that uses the mobile ubiquitous web connection to help people meet their friends more often using the context of casual social events.Discovering the city is much more fun with friends. So we’re trying to make that much easier to organize. Sponty is like twitter+Facebook events.thesponty.com

  7. Venkat

    I agree with you that this is a very important area. I also believe it is one of the sectors where the 2.0 crowd’s tendency to live in a bubble is strongest. The innovators seem to pick up on the obvious social dynamics, especially the ones they personally participate in, and design somewhat naive and direct ideas around that. A good deal more study and fieldwork and subtlety in design is called for since the most important design input information is not readily apparent in this sector. Casual observations of the romance of bike messengers will not suffice. Unlike other sectors, in this one, the best first guesses of engineers are likely to be pretty lousy, and the mix of slightly higher capital requirements (since there is an element of click-and-mortar infrastructure engagement) and lower use case guessability might make for an unnecessarily high failure rate/Darwinian inefficiency.There is a lot to be learned from outside the bubble. Especially from the social sciences and art. Anybody thinking of investing or innovating in this sector should read the works of Richard Florida (Who’s Your City), David Putnam (Bowling Alone), William Whyte (parts of The Organization Man as well as his later work, “City”) and Lewis Mumford. They should take time out to watch movies that track the evolution of the modern city, from Walter Rutmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of the City” (1930) to the Coen Brothers’ “Burn after Reading” (a hilarious look at DC life). They should study paintings like, say Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and ponder the meaning of Parkour (“The Office” had a hilarious parkour opening joke last week) and movements like “neo urbanism”. They should wonder if they’ve been programmed to believe idiotic views of city life by unrealistic shows about rent-controlled camaraderie like “Friends.” They should wander into, say, the Ethiopian neighborhoods of DC and watch how social life is really organizing itself there and if there is more opportunity there than in the over-serviced Beltway happy-hour crowd. They should know why Georgetown isn’t on the DC Metro system, and what that implies for any virtual social engineering.I’ve been using meetup, one of the better social-engineered attempts, (which I believe you’ve invested in, and which just turned cash flow positive I am told) for a few weeks now and am learning about the issues first-hand. I am part of a a demographic I am sure is growing (remote-working trailing spouse with no professional or social network in the area I now live, DC). It quickly became obvious what the big practical issues are: parking, power-outlets and the paucity of commercial locations with large group tables. Then there are the less obvious psychological issues (meetup could use a version of eHarmony’s “29 dimensions of compatability” test :).Anthropologically-oriented engineers are needed to figure this stuff out before the first urban superhits appear. (Pure anthropologists are too stick in the mud to help directly… they tend to be so intent on observing that they lose all synthetic imagination and ability to see beyond what is to what could be).Some of the more interesting work in this sector is actually being done accidentally by the 2.0 crowd in “non profit” mode, rather than in direct for-profit mode. I am talking about Barcamps, Jellies and Coworking of course. This is unintended anthropological experimentation. Maybe there’s a way to connect this to the for-profit innovation efforts.If I weren’t already too busy with with 2 other projects that are nearing launch, this is the sector I’d be dabbling in :). Venkat

    1. ShanaC

      Correct. I just met someone recently (and not that I think he is wrong for doing so), who is selling an iphone app for where to stand in the subway. There is definitely a bubble a brewing. I’m not totally sure who is buying this app. And definitely B2b and other really important social structures that are businesses are not being built. And they need to be.I agree with you that you need to be more anthropologically oriented. Unlike you, I think one should compare cultures, as well as take a historical lens. Like you, I happen to like MeetUp. I happen to like it because it reminds me of one of the possible uses of the printing press when it met urban areas. Sort of like the Internet is now. Bring on Neo-Gutenberg.

      1. reece

        I use an app called ExitStrategy – NYC for the exact reason of determining where to stand in the subway so I’m closest to the right exit. It is tremendously valuable to me when I’m on a subway line with which I’m not familiar.

        1. ShanaC

          It’s valuable yes. I met the guy, he seemed pleasant. However, that app is not in the category of “gutenberg printing press” valuable. Your life will not be shattered and radically shifted if you don’t have it. It isn’t the kind of application, IMO, that should be venture backed.one of the major questions to ask is what kind of digital objects actually shatter and really change the way you behave if it that item was or was not built. That sort of item really could shift economies and societies, whether we like it or not. Factually there are hundreds of these small little applications entering the market- it isn’t clear how many of them are really radicalizing the way you behave significantly. For me that’s the fundamental question of value. Just a personal thought of what I would choose to build long term.

          1. reece

            I hope you didn’t think I meant that Exit Strategy is akin to the printing press or worthy of venture backing. Though valuable to me, it is neither.What it is, though, is a simple, mobile app that allows me to better navigate my urban surroundings, and I wanted to speak up as a user.Moreover, I think it’s great that we are seeing applications built at all levels – those worthy of venture backing and those that aren’t – because the creativity of all these developers will only continue to improve our lives (particularly in urban centers), as they are augmented by our mobile devices.

          2. ShanaC

            No, and it’s hard to tell on the internet. Hence I thought you deserved a real answer to some of the underlying issues.I also think its wonderful that all sorts of things are being built, I just worry that since if if you head over the Chris Dixon- that we may be too awash with money. I’m not an investor: Yet I worry because you see the investors hang out with the startups and the techies as places like NYTech Meetup. As a semi-outsider looking to learn- it looks like a place to semi-pitch, and hence can be a bit confusing as to what roll people should play.I also admit to being a worrywart.

          3. fredwilson

            Worrying is generally not helpful. I do it too and it has not paid off very much

          4. ShanaC

            I know the feeling. I work hard on what to do about it. Oddly, being here helps. Something about productivity rather than the waiting game. (even though sometimes all you can do is wait.)

          5. Carl Rahn Griffith

            The waiting game is somewhat frustrating, but as you say, sometimes all one can do is ‘wait’. Main thing is to keep one’s self-belief, with sanity-checks as often as possible.There’s lots of pompous, patronising people out in this world – thing is to seek out intelligent debate, such as you often find here. I don’t want the company of ‘Yes’ people but neither do i want the company of ‘No’ people.I also worry way too much – especially when time seems to be ticking by with tangible progress in what I am trying to do/achieve seems too slow – life is short, and time being ‘wasted’ by waiting is worrying. 2009 for me has been a pretty negative year in many ways. I am damn sure 2010 won’t be the same – starting now. Well, tomorrow ;-)I think there will be a huge shake-out in this sector during 2010 – if something is not sustainable, it’s not sustainable. Simple as. Heck of a lot of people riding on the back of Twitter, Social Media/Network, etc, at the moment and the numbers just don’t add up – combined with an awful lot of pretentious babble out there. Pseudo-intellectuals have never before had so many platforms to Vox their Pop. Thankfully, this place is generally a haven for pragmatism and optimism. And learning.

          6. reece

            I’m aware of the sentiment on Dixon’s blog, and Fred’s said similar things here, but I honestly think the system will/is shaking itself out. Investors/VC’s can’t afford to throw money at every deal they see.Regard-more, you shouldn’t worry about any of it. Just do what you do – if you’re providing value to a good market, you should find success.

      2. Venkat

        I certainly agree about the importance of history here (most of my book recos reflect that), but am not so sure about “culture” in the obvious sense. Though I threw in the example of going into an ethiopian neighborhood, I think services targeting specific well-defined cultures aren’t a good idea (like say black/white etc.) since they will repeat the social engineering mistakes of the past, including colonial times, of oversimplifying and freezing complex realities in social architecture (see Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”).Rather, the lessons of individual cultures should be interpreted and applied more broadly. Not quite sure how to do that. For example, younger women and girls these days seem to have sparked a revival in knitting as a social activity. Figure out THAT mystery and you might have a general insight.

        1. ShanaC

          πŸ˜€ So I wrote a post here a long time ago analyzing knitting and craft culture among women in relation to Etsy. I’m smart enough not to repost the entire thing. (but it is here: http://www.avc.com/a_vc/200…The short answer: Womencraft redone in a feminist context. We want to feel like women doing womanly things, and like men working on motors, we want to feel like we made something. Further we want to encourage social bonds through our act of making. You asked :-p And we complain about the men in our lives, among other stuff, besides Why else do you think it is named, Stitch and Bitch? Women love to talk among themselves. It’s how we construct our bonds of power. (I’ve been asked to learn to knit/expand my measly crochet skills and do a stitch and bitch thankyouverymuch)As for the culture question: Looking at well defined cultures leads to many questions as to answers. Especially from those which claim to have clear views on tech. They often don’t. There are way too many questions to be asked. This is due to the march of time with the march of technology. Even though the ancients are wise, and give excellent answers, to apply them to the future causes real radicalism. It rarely cause a social freeze, more of a social backlash, or total liberalization. Their memes are just too complex. From life experience. I also agree that social engineering rarely works as planned (having grown up in a community that regularly tries lots of social engineering, some of which works, some of which doesn’t). I think it’s hard to define what is a mistake, especially when it comes to the extremes of ethnicity/culture. Many people are happy living lifestyles that you would not like (I happen to be related to some of those people, and need to blog about them and their choices, and from what I understand why they made them)I think you are getting closer when you talk about the need to take a good look at the nonprofit arena: It is as much about that classic “jumping the gap” problem of tech. Somehow that Gap jump, that gap jump bothers me. There is more to it. How do they jump, why bother. The old method works. Why trust Tech in the first place? Someone or something, or somebodies had to go in and do a little social tweaking in order to get the tech to jump. And that’s the real question, how did it happen? (I read the book) I did briefly work in the nonprofit arena, as well as analyzed specific user groups. Love to talk to you about it, but it requires a lot of backend cultural knowledge. Even with what I found, I’m still not 100% sure. I still will forge ahead, because that’s life.What I’ve found to be true is the following: Users hack tech and change it into means of cultural transmission and meme. It is the best way to get older messages across. As a result, the message being transmitted gets shifted by the technology.Food gets a whole new meaning to it once you introduce “Plow.” Weights and Measures, Coinage (sometimes we forget how old coins are), etc. The truism though is that tech gives verve to an old cultural meme through the method of mediation. It makes it happen “better” which is why it was taken up in the first place. Really strong ones, last, and become permanent in our culture beyond the original meaning (coins for example are just stores of value, not stores of literal weight of precious of metal anymore).

          1. Yule Heibel

            Also great points – you and Venkat are having an interesting conversation here!Re. my reference (in reply to Venkat) about reading Jane Jacobs, and what you wrote, ShanaC: “What I’ve found to be true is the following: Users hack tech and change it into means of cultural transmission and meme. It is the best way to get older messages across. As a result, the message being transmitted gets shifted by the technology.” You might want to take a look at Jacobs’s book, Dark Age Ahead (the one she published shortly before her death). Check out the editorial reviews.

          2. ShanaC

            Took it out from the library- it’s interesting. I’m in the middle of reading it now. I feel a bit odd in it for a combination of cultural reasons and time reasons (she discusses a housing collapse, I grew up in what most of the US considers a Traditional community, yet I can see what she means by loss of transmission)It’s a book that seems to raise more questions than answers. Sort of like reading Jermiah in the context of the Hebrew scriptures. Is she a failed prophet if no one heeded her warning? How true is she? Very troubling book.

          3. Peter Renshaw

            “… As per a lot of criticism (and counter critique) from parts of the current forms of Feminism out on the Internet- Etsy has mostly female buyers and sellers, mostly college educated, mostly with part time jobs or not working at all. They are relatively young, in their young, in their 20s and 30s. I would hedge that in some ways, they flock to Etsy as a result of the early 90’s boom in books and ‘zines that outgrew the Stitch ‘n Bitch movement. That itself was born out of the editor of Bust! Magazine creating the first sets of easy DYI projects, primarily knitting, that were campy and cool rather than proper, in the magazine, because she was bored of what Vogue knitting/crafting types were offering. …” [0]ShanaC this is the best background explanation of the kind of person who inhabits the Internet craft scene I’ve read. [0] cf: “Need Some 15 and 30 Second Spots? Hire Your User Base” (in reply to joseph bellow)

          4. ShanaC

            Thanks, it worked out on that day that there was a lot of heat being generated about Etsy.Though I have met one male buyer. He found someone making classy looking cufflinks for a buck. I’m a girly girl, I don’t get the male shopping mind, and there is something about the Etsy layout when you get search results back that reminds me of a Bazaar or a Mall, it’s a gathers’ place….

    2. fredwilson

      you are right that i should have included meetup in this post. it was a failure on my part. they are another important company working in this sector in our portfolio

    3. Yule Heibel

      Good points, Venkat …but, oh-no!, you left out Jane Jacobs. Lots to learn from her, that’s for sure!

    4. Daniel

      I’d like to second your recommendation of William Whyte’s “City: Rediscoving the Center”. I found this book fascinating and full of solid data that was not at all what I expected about how people deal with cities.

  8. Vladimir Vukicevic

    The dynamics of urban interaction translate very well into the digital realm. Density, transportation, communication, and proximity are all concepts that can be augmented by a connected device.I think that NFC will be the technology that bridges the gap between the real and the digital – as it has in Japan.

    1. fredwilson

      i’m not sure we need NFC. i think we can get their in a lighter weight way. more on that later.

      1. Vladimir Vukicevic

        Maybe. But NFC solves problems that location-based services can’t solve yet – e.g. placing person at a specific location inside of a building, etc.I don’t believe that NFC is as infrastructure-heavy as some think it is. Every NYC cab is ready for it already.

  9. reece

    I love the possibilities in front of us right now… It’s such an exciting time. I know I am one of the early adopters among my friends/family, so I tend to use these services (Twitter, Foursquare) on an island for a bit – and I do find tremendous value in them – but once my social network catches up, these services are infinitely more valuable.Conversely, the value is largely in an urban setting only. When I retreat from NYC to my hometown on Cape Cod, most of these services aren’t as valuable – my network isn’t there (yet). But for now, that means I am the Foursquare mayor all over town!

  10. Tom Labus

    I’m always amazed when I see a zipcar on the highway. Cars on demand, it’s such a great idea to get cars out of the city. Maybe the government can go on demand. I believe FL lets (demands) that some departments outsource services if they can’t do them in normal time frames.

    1. Dave Pinsen

      Sounds like a convenient service, but they’re not making any money yet, are they?

  11. andyswan

    My tidbit of advice for entrepreneurs in this space is to get out of the “standard” big cities as quickly as possible (with your product, not your life…live where you want).It’s much easier to solve problems or take advantage of the masses of potential customers associated with living in crowded areas….but there are only a handful of those areas.On the other hand, if you can make your business/app change lives in Tuscon, Indy, Daytona and Green Bay…..then you know you’ve created something special that is more about the customer than the city.

    1. Dave Pinsen

      An interesting thought, Andy, and I wonder if it applies to offline businesses too.

    2. markslater

      i really don’t get this.

    3. kidmercury

      agreed. it’s also an issue of efficiency….if you have enough capital and a solid product, you may be able to force your way into dominance in a big market like NYC. but the payout for some of these small towns is going to be a lot smaller, and so the businesses that target them will need to be a lot more efficient. this will also help immensely in creating scalable solutions, i think. i’m half-expecting one of the big local players of tomorrow to start out making local stuff for very small, almost suburban communities.

      1. fredwilson

        Foursquare’s experiment in crowdsourcing a new city, vacouver, was a big success. So in theory there is no reason andy can’t bring it to his town/city. Foursquare hasn’t implemented full blown croudsourcing yet but I suspect it is just a matter of time

  12. arno

    Urban Architects in future; it will be Ka-Ra one of the most incredible start up i ever met. An terrific tool which can modelize a town in one file. Incredible technology and great team. See it work : http://www.dailymotion.com/

  13. Carl Rahn Griffith

    Apps such as the ones you mention, Fred, are going to be key to a re-emergence of civic pride – many of our towns and cities (and countries) have lost that over recent decades, for various reasons. A sense of community and accountability.In an increasingly secular world, it’s good to see how such apps show how many people actually do want to positively converse with strangers – showing how acts of altruism, humour, affection are all around us – when we look.Bi-directional dialogue is key to success in one’s personal and business life, and any mechanisms that encourage that are to be applauded.

    1. fredwilson

      I totally agree carl

    2. kidmercury

      i wonder about the re-emergence of civic pride. i take more community pride in being a member of the AVC community than in being a resident in Miami, FL. i love miami but i love it the way i love my favorite t-shirt — like a product i like, not a source of pride i associate with my identity. i tend to think subject matter communities will be a greater source of pride and identity than geographical communities.but, i’m not 100% sold on this, and could see myself changing my mind in the future.

      1. Carl Rahn Griffith

        Interesting perspective, Kid.I believe a lot of our apathy is down to the fact that all the hard work and vision was done long ago by our forefathers – the modern day urban planners have added very little value to the experience of living in a place and many of us have grown apathetic to our environments as a result.For example, thew few times I have been in Miami the area that resonates with me is the Art Deco district – how old is that? With New York it is Times Sq, Central Park, The Flat Iron, Empire State, Grand Central, Chrysler Building, etc – how old are they?Is just the same in the UK – as a very provincial example, my nearest town, Huddersfield, has a typically inept town council and the splendid Victorian square and train station and surrounding buildings is all the town has to be proud of in terms of architecture/a sense of place and identity. They have ‘spent’ some $7m (yes, $7m) ‘refurbishing’ it – it looks utterly bland and devoid of any style or spirit now but has been modernized in a generic, ubiquitous and anodyne manner. $7m worth and after 2 years of building chaos. The Victorians who oversaw the original design and vision – and the locals who appreciated it at the time and over subsequent generations – will be spinning in their graves.Until we have have designers, planners and regional government that has that vision, ambition and sense of pride, I doubt we will ever feel what past generations felt, but if we look, we can see the history and try and filter out all the peripheral crap that has rendered so many of our environments to be devoid of soul and so hard to relate to – and to be proud of.Very few cities have taken this on board and succeeded – Sheffield is one of them and it is a work in progress, but definitely heading in the right direction. This is all too rare.

        1. Dave Pinsen

          Interesting comment, egoboss. I remember years ago the architecture critic of the NY Times wrote an article about his favorite building in NYC. The Chrysler building? Nope. The Empire State Building? Nope. Not Grand Central either. It was one of the rectangles — the Seagram building, I think.Did elites abandon Art Deco for Modernism because regular people liked Art Deco? I wonder.It is hard to imagine anyone building anything like the Chrysler Building today though, as unfortunate as that is. Next time you are in New York, try to schedule a meeting in the building (there’s at least one retail brokerage office there that will work for this) so security will let you into the elevators. The woodwork inside the elevators is worth seeing.

      2. fredwilson

        I love nyc way way more than any t-shirt. It is a deep part of who I am

        1. Carl Rahn Griffith

          I recently Twitter’ed this cool piece in The Guardian: Jane Jacobs’ Urban Village | “Mother Courage”http://www.guardian.co.uk/b…It’s this passion/pride/awareness we need to instill in more people. This new generation of apps will help, if nurtured properly.

  14. Anthony De Rosa

    Hey Fred,Take a look at the company myself and my partner recently founded…http://neighborhoodr.comWe are the first to leverage the tremendous crowdsourcing power of the tumblr platform to help people find out and share what is going on in their local neighborhood.This is only the beginning, we have some really exciting new things to come. I hope you find that we’re working to become one of those urban architects you described here. Check it out and let me know what you think.All the best,Anthony (Soup)

    1. fredwilson

      Nice. A local app for tumblr. I’ll check it out

  15. AndreaF

    I am very interested in the concept of urban architects and i would expand it beyond a city boundaries. What excites me is the way our lifestyles are changing and the way they will change, very dramatically, over the course of the next few years. I think the impact will be more seen in everything we do socially and professionally and the way the two spheres of our life will come to overlap more and more and merge. Because of the changes in technology, social and work related habits more and more people are becoming nomads with not one single domicile. As I can work from anywhere and I can stay connected with everybody from everywhere I can follow the summer season or music festivals or whatever I like throughout the planet while still being very connected and involved with my local issues. As a way of example, next time you post on twitter saying you found a new place for wonderful cupcakes in NYC I’ll probably reply that I’ll be there to check them out in a week, but that I have found the best place for churros in Buenos Aires, I am sure you’d love them.The more global we become, the more ‘local’ will become important as we want to find the places we belong wherever we travel, be it London’s East End, NY’s Brooklyn, Bahia’s Trancoso or Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, etc. all of these ‘neighborhoods’ in fact. It’s not about the physical city but about our personal city which can stretch across multiple continents and is designed according to our specific needs. Will definitely get in touch when we are ready to launch our way of addressing these issues and opportunities, probably in a couple of months.

    1. fredwilson

      I’ll be in BA at christmas time. Where do you get the best churros?

      1. AndreaF

        La Giralda, in Avenida Corrientes 1453 (between Parana and Uruguay). Here’s a couple of links with details on the place plus other good bars and restaurants in BA. http://akworld.net/BAweeklyhttp://www.turismo.buenosai….I have been told, however, that the best churros (Churros Manolo) are found in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in case you happen to get there. Never tried those but my source is reliable.

        1. fredwilson


  16. Nick Grossman

    Shameless plug: The Open Planning Project, where I work, is in this space as well. Our focus is on delivering open source software and principles of open systems to the civic sector. We’re also big advocates for creating more livable cities. No big consumer-facing apps like those mentioned above (yet), but plenty of running code and new projects on the horizon.Fred, thanks for bringing attention to this topic recently.

    1. fredwilson

      Sounds a lot like what john geraci is doing with diycity. Do you know john?

      1. Nick Grossman

        Yeah I know John — in fact we’re neighbors, and we’re both speaking on the same panel at the Open Cities conference next month. His ideas at DIYcity definitely resonate with ours at TOPP. He’s got a lot of great ideas and we’ve got a lot of talented developers, so I’m hoping we’ll be able to work together on more projects in the future (we already started one, but haven’t taken it too far yet).

        1. fredwilson


  17. billc124

    I would have liked to see you mention Yelp here Fred. With the augmented reality addition they have for the iPhone, it makes it the killer App. I use it far more then any other app on my iPhone for recommendations. Foursquare still seems silly to me. I don’t care how often people go somewhere I care about reading a good review and getting other vital information about whatever restaurant, business, etc… I am going to and Yelp gives me that and then some. I have tried all the other stuff out there and maybe I am missing something with Foursquare, but Yelp works great for me.

    1. fredwilson

      certainly Yelp is a bit part of this

      1. billc124

        So tell me what I am not getting about Foursquare. Is it because I don’t know anyone who uses it that makes it seem pointless?

        1. fredwilson

          that is one thingthe second is you may not care about building a database of all the placesyou go. i love that i can do that easily and on the goand third, you may not enjoy the game play elements. that is why many peopleuse it

          1. billc124

            I’ll have to recruit some friends to give it a try and give it another chance. I haven’t taken it off my phone yet πŸ˜‰

  18. kenberger

    I was catching up with Jay Rand the other night, and he suspected that Foursquare was indeed an urban-only service, that he could barely use it in Connecticut.I’m convinced that we will quickly see all these services work better and better in suburban areas as well, and way beyond, as technology improves (eg: ubiquitous wired and wireless broadband) and web and mobile mentalities spread to minds over a greater geographic demographic. It’s already happening in a big way.And none of these services really has the *economic* constraints to limit them to urban-only, as say, Cosmo.com did.

    1. fredwilson

      That’s true ken. My daughter emily is a foursquare fanatic and she went up to connecticut to visit her sister (my oldest) at college this weekend. She added a bunch of places at her college to foursquare so she could check in

  19. Paolo

    Very inspiring post. No doubt this is an interesting area to be explored. When I think about it I can clearly see three different approaches:1- letting people discover and rate local services (yelp)2- letting people share what they’re doing and where (foursquare)3- reinventing the city (meetups…)At the moment only approach 1 is paying off in terms of business and it’s also very useful to the end user, while 2 and 3 are more social & entertaining.Fred, why foursquare doesn’t try to mix 1 & 2? I mean why don’t they introduce a simple rating sistem that makes people find the best places in the area they’re in? Don’t you think that would make it fun + useful = almost perfect πŸ˜‰ ? But maybe there are some very good reasons for not doing it. I’m just curious…

    1. ShanaC

      Truthfully, the number one business that I have yet to see is someone building metrics data on top of apis and turn them into cool charts. Everyone needs a chart. Especially interactive charts. Haven’t seen that. And I have no idea why not.

      1. Dave Pinsen

        Perhaps you could elaborate on this, but I don’t follow. I get the idea behind something like Yelp: you and a friend are in an unfamiliar neighborhood and you want to find a good sushi place or coffee shop or whatever there. Where do interactive charts come in here?

      2. kidmercury

        if i am interpreting what you are saying correctly i believe mashery.com offers that (API analytics).

        1. ShanaC

          Sort of, though I think it could be expanded into- best resteruant right this second (or at least most talked about), and then you roll over your mouse and see the foursquare shoutouts and what people are saying…maybe they dislike the place, maybe it is too busy, or something otherwise important?

          1. kidmercury

            ronpaulgraphs.com might be what you’re looking for. they took the data from the headquarters of ron paul’s presidential campaign in 2008 and made a whole bunch of charts out parsing and processing the data.

          2. ShanaC

            Sort of, now just imagine you are plugging into an API with lots of different kids of information instead of Ron Paul. And then you ran a search so you have the graph you need. And you roll over the graph and it shows you the specifics. I think this would be the only reason I would learn Javascript, to make myself a graph I like….

    2. fredwilson

      Isn’t a checkin a vote and a real vote with your feet and your wallet?

      1. Paolo

        Well, actually the fact that I’ve been there or that many people have been there doesn’t necessarily means that the place is good… and in any case there’s no “popularity index” that lets me easly find the “best places” according to the crowd…

        1. fredwilson

          Yes to the last point. But to the first one I’d agree that one visit doesn’t say much. But a dozen visits a month sure does

    3. Christine Brumback

      Paolo – re: your suggestion on ratings… as a foursquare user, I’ve used (and seen the tags used) to qualify a place, (i.e. “hipsters” or “kid-friendly”) and in a larger city ( NYC, SF) these can be as, or more useful than the giant mass of ratings one finds on yelp. (secretly i wish that yelp would poll people about their meals before their second or third drink b/c I’m convinced some of the reviews are swayed by booze, but i digress…)Tags don’t necessarily replace ratings but I think in some cases they’re just as “helpful”.

      1. Paolo

        Yes, good point, but I suspect that tags are much more familiar to smart users and not to the general public…

  20. Sourabh Niyogi

    “Think about what happens when we get new interfaces on our phones that don’t require us to be looking down and typing” => I think of what Thad Starner looked/looks like http://www.cs.uoregon.edu/r…Thad was able to type faster in the very real thing you see pictured there than most people can type on their phone in 1996. But its jarring in the sense of “Someone riding a Segway looks like a dork” ( http://www.paulgraham.com/s… ) Perhaps there is something in between looking down while typing and the Segway problem that can emerge before the world gets too qwerty.

    1. fredwilson

      If we could allow people to send texts, emails, and twitters by voice, we could address the texting while driving issue which is a huge problem

  21. Jennifer McFadden

    Fred,I would add SeeClickFix to the list. They are one of the newcos that we looked at as part of the New Business Models for News project at CUNY. They are already integrated with a number of media sites, including The New York Times’ The Local blogs, have an excellent iPhone app, and are working with several city governments, including New Haven, where the venture is located, and Washington, DC.Companies like this serve the new news ecosystem in two ways: as a content layer that creates an incentive for local users to visit and engage with a site and as a source for reporters who are investigating stories of local interest. If you look at the SeeClickFix blog (http://seeclickfix.blogspot…, you can see how the tool was used by journalists at The New Haven Register and The New Haven Independent to reach into the community to find sources. The community interest and press coverage led to arrests by the New Haven Police Department, who also confiscated a number of the ATVs.Ventures like SeeClickFix enable communities to have a voice. When 170 people in a city the size of New Haven comment on an issue, the town officials tend to listen. It will be interesting to see how the tool evolves as they gain more traction within town governments and the media.JHM

    1. fredwilson

      Yes. I’ve met with ben and should have included him

  22. Venkat

    Thought related to my earlier one. This entire sector depends heavily on quality local, real-time cultural information and analytics, and ways to integrated that information directly into the user experience.Wonder if there are good ways to crowdsource the former. Crowdsourced ethnography would have huge meta-value to businesses trying to operate here. There is a fine line here: some of the most useful information, if captured without sensitivity, can count as unintended racism or even be illegal, like the historic map of Japanese cities that Google Maps hosted recently, which foregrounded caste divisions that ought to be buried. For similar reasons, the segmentation of DC neighborhoods into “gentrifying” vs. “stable” is incredibly important info to realtors and property buyers (and lesser use cases), but nobody talks about it openly because it is clearly a slippery slope from there to marking some areas “inner cities” and sliding into outright racism and freezing the very cultural boundaries you want to eliminate.Other cultural variables are not so sensitive. A thought experiment I have considered is to have a very simple smartphone app that allows users to geolocal-tweet short timestamped, hash-tagged reviews of coffeeshops (eg. [x,y] #teenagers #latte #bad #crowded #nowifi #goodpoweroutlets). Aggregated and presented right, this would give you a live, real-time, dynamic map of the cafe scene in a city that could serve as input to everybody from meetup organizers to somebody trying to find the nearest WiFi spot. Deeper analysis would reveal structure such as “This coffeeshop is packed with teenagers on Thursday evenings” (which you might then explain by discovering that the cafe tends to host open-mic student band nights at that time).

    1. fredwilson

      I think foursquare could evolve in this direction. Not sure it will. But it couild

    2. Ethan Bauley

      I enjoyed this comment because it goes to something I’ve been thinking about a lot: teaching humans to use machine language seems easier than teaching machines to use human language.Carry on

      1. ShanaC

        It’s a really “unnatural” way for people to think though. Of course we could train everyone to talk like this from birth πŸ˜‰

    3. kidmercury

      IMHO what’s needed is for someone to grab all relevant APIs — twitter, meetup, outside.in, foursquare….half of fred’s portfolio i guess πŸ™‚ — filter/re-organize them into a single destination. IMHO placebloggers will be the transaction point which is the most important part becasue the will dictate the economics and growth trajectory of value chains. so i’d like for a placeblogger to grab and remix all these APIs to create a local community. perhaps something that could disrupt the reigning king of geo-local, craigslist.

      1. ShanaC

        Why for place? There are all sorts of reasons why one would want to aggregate to one place, as well as push out to another. It also determines the method of aggregation.Aggregating is so complicated, so hard to get my head around it. So many different ways I want my information, because information unprocessed is rarely useful. I’m still waiting for it to catch up with me. *sigh*

      2. fredwilson

        This is outside.in’s mission pretty much. They are not delivering against it yet

  23. Nate

    NYC has an advantage in the mobile web and “internet of things/places” because NYC has a high density of networked people, restaurants, culture, and public transit.I first started thinking about this when I was at SXSW. I was in a compact, unfamiliar downtown area, surrounded by Twitter users with iPhones who were eager to share info and meet up. The difference between the SXSW mobile web user experience and my normal LA mobile web user experience was striking.

    1. fredwilson

      Hey, that’s a good one for my NYC talk next week

  24. StephanieSmith

    as an architect and also a tech founder/ceo (WeCommune.com) i think about online and offline as essentially the same thing: infrastructure. a city and a tech platform are both conceived using the same building blocks: networks, nodes, interfaces and so on. and when these building blocks aren’t pre-determined as offline or online but conceived as a mix of both, i think we’ll really be getting somewhere. i’ve been hoping for more dialogue and collaboration between architects and technologists. it is essential, and i imagine it will be incredibly fruitful.

    1. fredwilson

      I wonder what I can do to faciliate that

      1. StephanieSmith

        i love the idea of being playful and creative. bringing architects and technologists into a room to brainstorm about big ideas without economic imperative, but with a tactical orientation. so, for instance, let’s identify a problem/opportunity (or two), and give ourselves the goal of solving it collaboratively with an online/offline solution in a few weeks, just to see what happens…

        1. ShanaC

          I draw, my foundational work is figure…and I tend to be of two minds of the metaphor above. While techically you are correct n your metaphor, the flip side could also be as was explained to me “Space does not exist unless we activate it.” I would hold the same as true for objects as well.Including virtual spaces and objects. If no one came here, would this space fully exist? It has “4d” terms to it, because we come and check. A good architect, if s/he was designing the real life counterpart, would be very aware of the fact that conversation is happening happenstance and not quite realtime, and would do his/her best to either heighten or mute that effect.

          1. fredwilson

            The same is true of web space

          2. ShanaC

            So now my big question is, exactly how similar is this space to “real life space,” and how different? This place is missing a lot of places and things that I’m used to. Granted, some of them are unnecessary (right now I am not drinking coffee from a monitor), yet still, I could expand the metaphor to be that this is a space that needs institutions. That it needs to be as if it were a fully functioning society that we conceive of outside when we close our actual front doors. (Even I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this one, how do you have a web front door?)

        2. fredwilson

          Me too. How do we make it happen?

          1. StephanieSmith

            i’m LA-based but in nyc Oct 9 – 12. do you have time for a quick meet to discuss further? [email protected]

          2. StephanieSmith

            Fred, a quick update: I’m meeting with a few of my architectural colleagues/friends when I’m in NYC next week, one of whom, Kazys Varnelis, Director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University, was already mentioned in another comment on this post. They would be great candidates for the collaboration we’ve been discussing. If you have time for a quick meet with me to discuss, that would be great (anytime Oct 9 – 12, [email protected]). Otherwise I’ll stay in touch via this comment stream.

    2. fredwilson

      I wonder what I can do to faciliate that

  25. Chris Dodge

    I don’t know if you are familiar with William Mitchell. He was the former Dean of Architecture at MIT and now he’s director of the MIT Design Lab. He’s been writing on Technology & Urban Planning/Experience for a long time now. I remember going to lectures of his in the mid-90’s that had these elements that you are discussing.Here’s a link to his bio: http://www.media.mit.edu/pe…Enjoy.

    1. fredwilson

      Thanks. I am not familiar with him. I’ll get familiar

    2. Yule Heibel

      ^ Yes, definitely, re. William Mitchell. The ideas are more mainstream today, though, and a bit less Jetsons-like. I would guess that part of that has to be due to Richard Florida’s enormous popular success. (And Florida builds strongly on Jane Jacobs, too.) Also, there’s bldgblog (also here, on Twitter) and varnelis.net (and here, on Twitter): they’ve done a lot to disseminate MIT School of Architecture-incubated and otherwise-sourced ideas.Oh, and don’t forget the Netherlands-based group The Mobile City.I <3 this stuff… Many many nodes, all busily working away…

  26. Yule Heibel

    Blabbed-off in response to several comments on this thread already, but I can’t sign off without mentioning the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia (on Vancouver Island). They are really making strides in putting all sorts of public-services related things online. Almost exactly 2 years ago, the city was written up as follows:Nanaimo Wins “Spirit of Innovation” Award at MISA Conference(…)Last year the Director of Public Works, Mac MacKenzie, approached the Information Technology Department (IT) to see if a better way of monitoring work and maintaining records for the City’s boulevard mowing program could be achieved using MapGuide, the City’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping product.Then, less than a year later, they struck again: Nanaimo links fire calls to Google MapsNANAIMO — If you hear the wail of a fire truck and want to know where it’s coming from, Nanaimo residents can now go online to track the city’s fire fleet.In what may be a first for Canadians, the techno wizards at City Hall have linked up the daily fire and rescue response report with Google Maps, to show anyone in the city where action is happening.The new service allows people to see where incidents occur in real time.”Pretty much anytime something goes out it will be updated,” said senior systems analyst Chris McLuckie.”We’ve wanted to upgrade the existing system for quite a while now.” Using what’s called an RSS feed, residents can go to the city’s fire response page found on http://www.nanaimo.ca.An article about how Nanaimo has become “the capital of Google Earth” even made it as a reprint in Time Magazine: How Google Earth Ate Our Town. (It’s all kind of embarrassing from my p.o.v. since I live in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and our city’s website sucks and we have no where near the sophistication that Nanaimo managed to bang together in a couple of months and on a budget of less than $2000 (using open source). So, this month for example, we learn the following:City Log: Live camera feed introducedDerek Spalding, The Daily NewsPublished: Wednesday, September 16, 2009COUNCIL CAMThe City of Nanaimo’s information and technology experts just introduced a live camera feed to the city’s website, giving political junkies another medium to keep up on the latest Nanaimo issues.But the techies didn’t stop there. The Shaw Cable feed will also be available through an online archive. And it gets better. Instead of watching the entire meeting or scrolling through to find a particular item, the savvy staff included links to each agenda item so viewers can jump to the issue they are interested in. (…)The city originally inquired about contracting the project, which would have cost about $2,000 each month for the service, Pattje explained. By building it in-house the city spent $2,000 and will only see a monthly bill of approximately $15.The application is the brainchild of Chris McLuckie, acting manager of applications support. He came up with the idea and the team set out to build the program. Each agenda-item link also has feeds to a host of social networking sites, allowing viewers to share information with all their friends. (source)Another article adds: “McLuckie said it’s another tool provided by city hall to enable residents to become more involved in municipal issues, while also providing council transparency. The feature will cost city hall $15 monthly. Each segment can be shared on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter with the click of a mouse.” Even though it kills me to say so, I love how Chris McLuckie has pulled this off for the city of Nanaimo, and how he is leveraging social media like Facebook & Twitter, too. πŸ˜‰

    1. Jane Sales

      A very interesting thread. You touched on UI right at the start, but it’s a point that’s not been much developed in the comments. We’re addressing the question “What’s going on around me” – but we’ve thrown away the usual maps-and-pins interface to develop our own custom UI that we think is much more suited to the mobile device. Would love to show you if you’re interested – http://www.flook.it

    2. fredwilson

      That is great stuff yule

  27. lbret

    I really like the idea of crowdsourcing making the life easier in the city. However, I am afraid it could become an excuse for the local authorities to do less and less. For instance, in Paris, we had to wait for the appstore to have a decent mobile app that displays subway maps and directions (and it’s not available yet on blackberry). CitySourced is another good example to me: shouldn’t the City be proactive enough to spot and solve civil issues? But maybe this is because I am French … we are so used to relying on our government…PS: Foursquare seems to get a lot of hype these days… at least in NYC: http://tinyurl.com/ma9e26

    1. fredwilson

      Foursquare is coming to europe very soon. I am sure it will do great in berlin and london. Less sure about paris. What do you think?

      1. Paolo

        raising hand for the italian version πŸ˜‰ FS main competitor here is http://www.mobnotes.com/ (doing quite well)

  28. millarm

    For me the most interesting thing about cities is the fact that people congregate with a shared purpose or interest. Enabling these shared groups to interact and engage with each other is what brings cities to life – rather than being anonymous transport hubs they become circles of connected groups with shared interests.This is one area that Live Talkback is working on – enabling large groups to interact in real time. Find out more at http://www.livetalkback.com

  29. Philip Ashlock

    The Open Planning project is hosting Open 311 DevCamp on October 24th to help develop an open standard for 311 services. Those working on the 311 service in Washington D.C., Toronto, Columbus Ohio, New York, and other cities will be in attendance. We welcome others working in this space as well: http://open311.org/2009/09/

  30. amonle

    … and this is all happening when the economic situation is causing us to radically re-think how we do what we do = (of course) OPPORTUNITY!Young architects (if they want to) can move to the front of the queue.New directions for young architects in a credit crunch economy http://blog.tropicalismo360