Can we turn news articles into action? proposal for civic-ideas markets/accelerators

20051009-XPrizeSpaceRace1-CanadianV2-dsc06956this is an idea I’ve been mulling and discussing with people for a while. A recent editorial by Greg Bauman, editor of Silicon Valley Business Journal, “Leaders need to step in on housing crisis,” prompted me to write the below comment describing the civic-ideas market/accelerator concept. Reposting here to add links and share.


> Policymakers should convene immediately to coordinate
> an emergency regional response

Dense new market-rate development near transit is an excellent idea. Instead of an emergency convening of all officials around just one idea, though, how about a convening and open/ongoing forum to propose, evaluate, and refine/develop a range of solutions?

A newspaper is in a good position to convene and develop broad solution ideas, as has been demonstrated beautifully by San Francisco Public Press’ “Housing Solutions” initiative and conference recently. This showcases a wide array of immediate, medium- and long-term proposals (including, full disclosure, my project for modular redeployable housing, Houslets). Some of these have the potential for impact much faster than new dense development would: for example, temporary rezoning of vacant land, or facilitation of accessory dwelling units and backyard cottages.

In the spirit of being business- and solution- and Silicon Valley-like — when in Rome!.. — how might we build an ideas/proposals market and accelerator, like a civic AngelList, to discover and build initiatives from idea to proposal to enactment? The project might be to develop an existing or new idea, and the product a professional-grade policy brief, a legislative bill or campaign, startup, social enterprise, city/county government initiative, grant application, funding drive, etc. Call it IdeaList, or CivicList, perhaps.

I imagine a platform which, like AngelList does for tech startups, allows founders/proposers and project ideas to be registered, linked, and combined; and perhaps good proposals incented by voting, micro-seed funding, ownership stakes, etc. You could think of it as bridging the gap between older media, still focused on one-off “articles” and exposition separated from action, vs the accelerator/venture-capital system which turns those ideas into real projects and makes the money. (also, hires some of the best / most innovative ideas people away from journalism, as at Sequoia and Andreessen Horowitz lately).

There are many prior/existing deliberation and idea-market models/platforms to base on or learn from, such as UC Berkeley’s Opinion Space, California Report Card, Civinomics, Tumml, X-Prize-type bounty models, or ReframeIt (which just launched a deliberative policy project with Knight Foundation, TechCrunch and Silicon Valley Community Foundation). Perhaps SVBJ parent company American City Business Journals might consider prototyping such an idea market here, in view of potentially scaling/sharing it with its other 40 properties.

Reframe it. Scale it. CivicList? Hey, you never know, it worked for CraigsList.

Tim McCormick
Palo Alto
@tmccormick / @houslets

Disrupting Silicon Valley Housing and Homelessness

storify of and notes on discussion July 12-17 about new approaches to affordable and transit-served housing in Silicon Valley:

Brian Davis works for Google in Business Development.

Continue reading

How might Silicon Valley tackle a core social issue like housing?

exploring ideas & approaches for my Houslets project – low-cost mobile modular building. Follow project at @houslets.









@antheaws is Anthea Watson Strong, who works for Google’s Social Impact team in Washington D.C. She launched the Google Civic Information API.

Then another thread joined, via Cameron Sinclair, who co-founded Architecture for Humanity in 1999, and is now senior advisor at the Jolie-Pitt Foundation. He is based in San Francisco.

Continue reading

interview about Houslets by San Francisco Public Press

I was invited by San Francisco Public Press to give a talk at their June 13 event “Hack the Housing Crisis,” about my Houslets project — exploring urban mobile & micro live/work spaces. Leading up to that, they’re also doing a web feature about Houslets, so I was interviewed by SFPP writer Cori Brosnahan about it, on 28 May. Here’s the recording of the interview they gave me.


The Search for Silence: design vs regulation


comment submitted 3pm Thurs on “The Search of Silence” by Allison Arieff, The New York Times Opinion, 20 March. 

great piece, and welcome attention to a crucial issue which, as ARUP’s Cushner aptly (and punningly?) notes, is “often overlooked.”

Sound concerns are still often dismissed as intolerance or efforts at cultural/class suppression — which they might sometimes be in part, but not generally. As you observe, sound issues are highly complex and intermingled with other factors, such as lighting and people’s sense of control over their environment. There is huge opportunity for ahead-of-the-curve companies such as ARUP who understand this and develop leading expertise.

Of particular interest to me is the great potential for “sound interfaces” to devices and information systems. This may be a key to addressing the crucial problem of managing our attention for better health, productivity, and engagement.

I found especially interesting the contrast between ARUP’s Sound Labs/prototyping approach, versus the “highly regulated spaces like hospitals or airports [which] the worst noise offenders.” We might infer a more general lesson there: complex human environments like cityscapes need iterative and adaptive design, evaluated on the total outcome; and conventional regulatory control may prevent this, not work, or even backfire. Many areas such as traffic control, building code, zoning, and parking might benefit from such rethinking, as the “Lean Urbanism” movement, most recently, advocates.

Tim McCormick
Palo Alto, California

Lean Urbanism for Silicon Valley housing affordability

SVBJ-article-screenshotI was invited to write this piece by Greg Baumann, editor at Silicon Valley Business Journal, in connection with their ongoing features on housing affordability issues in Silicon Valley. It ran as “Guest Commentary” on their Viewpoints section, with the title “Housing fix? Think small,” in the print edition and subscribers-only section online. PDF version of article as published

Let’s imagine a Silicon Valley that tackled housing affordability as boldly and inventively as it does products and software. What might it look like?

I imagine it would consider all possibilities, experiment with the unproven, and learn fast. It might well look to the pioneers worldwide exploring how to live well — and maybe better — in small, mobile, shared, and/or off-grid housing.

Frontiers are opening up due to technological advances — think solar power, prefabrication, and online sharing platforms like Uber. And social changes such as more solo households, higher job mobility, and preference for more walkable places are making change inevitable. What can we make of this?

We might, in our mobile cities of tomorrow, compete to attract tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and citizens with the most innovative and affordable housing — rather than letting our cities be shackled and divided by rapidly rising prices.

In particular, we might do this cost-effectively by adapting some of the vast area currently used for streets and parking. Much of this is already disused — for example, the edges of most surface lots — and is likely to become more so as car use declines. In the meantime, car-sharing, biking (and someday perhaps driverless car use) will spread.

Imagine allowing new, tiny houses and modular housing to be built on the area of a few parking spaces on a surface parking lot, at a corporate campus, or through a residential garage conversion. These tiny houses might be movable, to be relocated as longer-term redevelopment occurs on a site, or as market needs change, or as residents move. They might be owned by their occupants, or rented out by a city, developer, or employer.
These “houslets” could be partly or fully off-grid, using solar power, water tanks, and composting toilets. They might be ordered as kits, ready-made from many current suppliers, or be designed by local architects.

This may sound improbable, compared to current building practices. But I believe it’s not only possible. It’s a sensible way to respond quickly to our housing affordability crisis and engage the region’s greatest strength, a culture of creative innovation. If Silicon Valley wants to live up to its rhetoric of dealing with big problems, here’s a handy one to start with.

Such innovation might begin with demonstration projects sponsored by cities, non-profits, or companies. Flexibility in regulations, such as those that govern structures that are mobile or below 120 square feet can facilitate experimentation. To draw on a nearby example, San Francisco is considering allowing new “in-law units” within buildings.

In the longer term, broader change can occur by reforming building and planning codes towards what urbanist pioneer Andres Duany calls “Lean Urbanism” (analogous to the “Lean Startup” religion practiced by technologists). That means allowing us to organize around values and goals, continually learn, and act expeditiously to discover solutions — rather than being captured by received practices.

In a region where rents are skyrocketing, forcing talent out of the market, all options should be on the table.

Tim McCormick is a designer and product developer in Palo Alto, and lives in a 200-square-foot converted one-car garage. @tmccormick /