Reshape Silicon Valley: conversations and proposals for housing

"iTown" proposal/visualization by Alfred Twu, 2014.

“iTown” proposal/visualization by Alfred Twu, 2014.

Recently there seems to be a bit of a crescendo in the flood of discussion about the Bay Area’s housing crisis.  Here are four intersecting threads I saw or joined on Twitter, leading to (#4) a proposal for a “Reshape Silicon Valley” public event & envisioning workshop. Featuring, by section:

  1. Startup incubator heads & venture capitalists
  2. Urban planners & transit advocate
  3. Journalists & filmmaker
  4. Entrepreneurs & technologists


1. Startup incubators, venture capitalist:

On Nov 3, Sam Altman, President of leading startup incubator Y Combinator, based in Mountain View:

there were many responses to this tweet, including creative ideas such as

[note: Altman’s observation is essentially what in urban/planning/housing studies is commonly described as the “homevoter hypothesis” or “homeowner hypothesis,” as described in The Homevoter Hypothesis by William A. Fischel, 2002.]

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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.

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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.

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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