Andrew Price is one of our longest running contributors at Strong Towns and I always appreciate his unique, clearheaded perspective on Strong Towns issues. He often draws inspiration from the place where he lives — the New York City metro area — and this essay was no exception. But Andrew has a particular gift for demonstrating that even a city like New York is not so different from other towns and cities across America. In the following essay, originally published in the spring, he puts forth a vision for what our communities — big and small — might look like and how they might grow stronger if they did a better job of supporting entrepreneurs. Find all our Best of 2017 (and best of previous years) content here. - Rachel Quednau
Everybody has ideas. Perhaps an idea for a film plot, an idea for a restaurant you think will do well in your town, or an idea for what your city should do with that abandoned lot. Perhaps one day you bake something delicious that you think others would pay for. None of these are bad ideas, but the likelihood of seeing an idea through to fruition depends not only on the complexity of the idea and time you are able to put into it, but also the perceived ability to understand what it takes to realize it.
If you have never renovated a house, you would think it would be time consuming and costly to change the bathroom fixtures or to pull down that wall between the kitchen and living room, mostly because you have never done it before so you do not even know what the first step could possibly be. But, if you have renovated a house before—whether you did it yourself or you hired contractors—you either have a good idea of the work involved, or you are at least comfortable calling a contractor to give you a quote. You know if you hate your bathroom faucet, you can just go to the hardware store and, an hour later, you'd have your old faucet swapped out.
There are plenty of things in the world that seem daunting if you do not know where to start. Getting into real estate development, opening a store, manufacturing a product... The people who are able to accomplish these things are not that different from anyone else. Their greatest tool is that, when they want to get something done, they either know someone they can go to for advice, or they know someone who knows someone they can go to.
You can find just about anything manufactured in Brooklyn, NY. You can get locally made soda, chocolate, coffee blends, pasta sauce, dining equipment, handbags, bed linens, lights, light fixtures, guitars, furniture, more furniture, and even more furniture. These are just a small handful of things made in Brooklyn that I found in a quick Google search. I went to a hardware store in Manhattan one day to buy some screws, and when I got home and looked at the box, sure enough, they were made in Brooklyn too. Brooklyn is not a cheap place to live, nor known for cheap labor, yet it is able to produce affordable goods. What makes Brooklyn so special?
Let's switch to the digital world for a moment. People have made a professional careers out of being YouTube personalities. If you read their backstories, most of them started out with a video blog or making music videos, and eventually developed a cult following and rose to celebrity-status. People make a living off eBay, buying and reselling just about anything. Artists can make a living sell their art and handmade crafts on Etsy. AirBnB lets anybody with a spare bedroom become a short-stay landlord. People with a few skills, junk laying around their home, or a spare room and a computer are finding ways to make a living off these platforms.
What do Brooklyn, eBay, and AirBnB all have in common? They all offer the tools to turn an idea into reality and the chance to be discovered. As a result, they encourage the creation of wealth, employment, and local ownership. Let's call these Platforms of Productivity.
Platforms of Productivity
Platforms of Productivity have two things in common:
- They are platforms of entry.
- They are platforms of connectivity.
Being a platform of entry means that they have a low barrier to entry. You do not need much to get started. If you just want to sell doughnuts, you should just be good at baking doughnuts, not need to have half a million dollars. Think of smartphone apps. You can find an app for just about anything, because just about anybody with an idea, some programming skills, and a computer can build and publish an app. Now there are millions of smartphone apps, thousands of companies have been started, and an entire industry has formed. You can upload a video to YouTube with just a handheld camera or a smartphone. In contrast, physical manufacturing has a entry point as it requires tools and machinery, but places such as fab labs, makerspaces, and low-cost equipment and space rentals can lower the bar of entry for small manufacturers.
Platforms of connectivity bring entrepreneurs and customers together. For example, flea markets, farmers markets, bazaars, YouTube, eBay, and Etsy all connect people together and serve as platforms of connectivity. In the most common case, they are platforms on which to display goods and services to be discovered by customers. If you are good at baking, for instance, you can set up a booth at the farmers market and away you go.
When I worked on my Washington Street fantasy design I wanted to do a traffic simulation and 3D visualization of what the street would look like. I am a software engineer so I could write the code for the traffic simulation, and I had an idea how I wanted the street to be layed out, but unfortunately my 3D modeling skills are pretty bad.
I created the virtual Washington St using Unity which has an asset store, so I was able to purchase buildings, cars, and people to populate the scene. Meanwhile, I was able to focus my efforts on the stuff that I do best—the layout of the street and making the traffic simulator.
The asset store acted as a platform of connectivity because I needed something, and the asset store was able to connect me with an artist who made exactly what I needed, and the artist made a sale. It was also more affordable for me to purchase something an artist has made and is making multiple sales from, than if I were to pay an artist a wage to create custom work just for my project. (I also would not have known where to look for this.) It is easy to see how a platform such as Unity can empower a single person or a small team with nothing but a good idea and pocket money for a budget to create a high quality indie game.
I recently paid a visit to Industrial City in Brooklyn. It is a fascinating place with popup shops, manufacturing spaces, flea markets, and a food court. Tech companies like Google have a philosophy that innovation happens when you take a bunch of people working on different stuff and throw them in the same office hoping they bump into each other. Small talk among friends about a great idea turns into calling someone over to join in who knows people who can help make it a reality. Industrial City is designed in a similar way where there are plenty of opportunities for the community to mingle and experiment.
Capitalism needs a constant stream of new players entering the market, otherwise the existing players end up consolidating into a monopoly. The side effects of monopolies are well known: if you have a profit-hungry entity with no competition, there is no innovation, as there is no incentive to improve oneself to survive, and we end up with economic polorization where a few entities have all of the ownership. Platforms of productivity are platforms that help distribute the wealth rather concentrate it.
Where our cities fall short
The way our cities are currently set up — with a myriad of overbearing codes and requirements — prevents so many would-be entrepreneurs from starting businesses.
If our cities require things like setbacks and parking minimums then businesses will need to purchase a lot much larger than the business requires, provide parking for peak hour, landscaping, a drive-through, and a sign along the street.
If our zoning codes do not allow commercial activity in our homes (be it a studio in the basement or a hair salon in your garage), then starting a business has the huge upfront cost of finding a dedicated venue to conduct business.
If labor laws mandate that the employer assumes responsibility for their employees and their employee's families through sickness and health, then it is much more risky to hire help.
If we subsidize an outside employer with tax incentives and infrastructure to come in and open a store or an office, then it is much harder for local businesses to compete.
All of these things increase the barrier of entry, and every time the barrier is raised, fewer people can start their own businesses.
A vision for the future
I would love it if getting involved in your local economy was as easy as selling something on eBay.
I would love it if we lived in cities where those with skills could put them to good use and where, if you had an idea, you knew who to talk to to make it a reality.
I would love it if we could live in cities where we did not fear experimenting and innovating because failure did not mean risking your life savings. Cities filled with low-cost coworking spaces. Public workshops with tools anybody can use. Public markets where anybody can get a booth. Food carts on busy corners. A zoning code that allows anybody to run a home business. Time banks that allow people to exchange labor instead of money. An environment welcoming of pop-up retail that allows people to experiment with new ideas or locations without any long term commitment.
Cities are filled with talent, ideas, and hardworking people. We just need to provide them with the platform to be productive.
(Top photo by Fano Miasta. All others by Andrew Price.)