iStone: ceramic cellphone docks and enclosures

Mashable recently did a nice article about “iPhone docks” which convert your mobile phone into a desk phone:

This reminded me of an idea I had previously to design a ceramic cellphone dock:

Heavy, breakable, non-portable…precisely so. I like the idea of marrying the mobile phone’s new, live, hot, emitting qualities, with ceramic’s timeless, elemental, cooling, absorbtive qualities. It connects to ideas of information attenuation, mindfulness, “contemplative computing,” Calm Technology, the Slow Web. More specifically, there is a spreading idea that for multiple health & social reasons, it’s good to leave your phone away from where you’re sleeping, eating, or socializing.

Hiroyuki Wakimoto 脇本博之 (Bizen, Japan; b. 1952): Wood-fired ceramic box No. 8

Moriyuki Ando 安籐百利行 (Gifu, Japan; b. 1944): Ceramic box No. 5 w/ Haiyu Kairagi glaze

A variant on the deskphone-dock as above is the phone enclosure or harbor: a box or object kept near entrance of a house, office, restaurant, where you can place phones to be recharged and kept safe. You might put one there as a ceremonial object and discreet affordance encouraging visitor to fully engage and enjoy their visit. It might be a tasteful and smart executive gift, design gift, etc.

I’d like to organize a campaign, e.g. on Kickstarter or Quirky, to design and produce these: the iStone, or “cPhone”: ceramic iPhone dock.



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Entrepreneurship in the Expanded Field: or, explaining startups to Martians

Sometimes I imagine Martians landing in Silicon Valley and, after looking around at the buildings, signs, and wonders, they instinctively turn to me, and ask one key question. “What,” they ask, “is this Startup religion your people speak of with so mighty and united a voice?”

And I say, “What you mean ‘we’, white man?”[2]

But I jest. When in Rome, do as the Romans, and when in Silicon Valley, start with startups. But “Startup,” I will argue, is just part of something more basic and global, entrepreneurship. This has existed in many forms, places and times, and it’s good to map that whole field and locate Startup within it, to consider all the possibilities, as a guide for the perplexed, and for Martians that may land in, say, France on their next visit.

Geoloqi, a startup in Portland

"entrepreneur" is an old idea from Cotillon

Unlike startup, which was invented recently by Eric Ries[3], “entrepreneur” is a term that’s been defined and explored for centuries, since being coined by the early Irish/French economist Richard Cantillon (1680s-1734) in his Essay on the Nature of Trade around 1730. Cantillon, incidentally, also got very rich through one of the earliest major speculative stock bubbles, the Mississippi Company, thus solidifying his credentials for present discussion.

The economist J. B. Say gave a classic definition in 1803:  an entrepreneur is an economic agent who recombines land, labor, and capital to produce higher productivity. Austrian economist Schumpeter (1883-1950), however, won the Internet by popularizing the term “creative destruction” as a description of capitalist change — adapting a concept from Marx.


early HP PC ("oscillator"), 1939

Silicon Valley has its own history and historians, however, and here, entrepreneurship is generally understood to have begun around WWII when Hewlett & Packard met in a garage at the newly-founded Stanford University, chopped down a grove of cherry trees, and invented the early personal computer (known as the oscillator) with a Series A round from Sequoia Capital. There may have been precedents, but they weren’t here and didn’t scale, so you even bringing it up is frankly kind of amateur.

Key other books in the Entrepreneur testament include Everett Rogers‘ landmark work establishing the field of innovation studies, The Diffusion of Innovation, 1st ed. 1963 [4].

Despite being based in Ohio and initially focusing mostly on the social dissemination of new farming techniques, Rogers developed a universal terminology and theoretical framework, which however is now understood to apply only to technology startups.

Finally, in 1997 Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School produced entrepreneurship’s Book of Revelation, The Innovator’s Dilemma. [5] Christensen brilliantly demonstrated that even the best-run companies can and do often fail, because they become structurally oriented to their current markets and uninclined to invest resources in emerging, unpredictable adjacent markets.  He showed that the stock market most rewards companies that can develop these new products and markets (e.g. Apple), and that the upside to better discovering these “disruptors” is huge.

Meanwhile, American permissive parenting and educational culture was knocking out whole generations of kids readily self-identifiable as “disruptors”; “disruptive innovation” became a central tenet of economic and personal development, counterculture was recast into Richard Florida‘s “Creative Class,”[6] and from the ashes of the Great Society and post-WWII economic equality and security was born Startup Nation. As Marx observed, bitter that his partner Engels was so rich from the cotton boom, religion is the opiate of the masses and entrepreneurship is the opiate of the precariat.

Contemporary Silicon Valley theorists (“wordrepreneurs”) typically synthesize Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” and Christensen’s “disruptive innovation” into the more holistic, if not precisely meaningful “Creative Disruption.”

Look, the point is, people have been thinking of new ways to do things, investing in them, and disseminating them, forever, for as long as they’ve had practices, concepts, and tools, thank goodness. Birds do it, bees do, governments do it, the French even do it, well (“le Startup”). My view is, if we want to explain all of this entrepreneurial-type activity to the Martians, wherever it might occur, and if we want to understand the true properties of, and opportunities for, innovation and entrepreneurship, then we should start with first principles and a general definition like this:

Entrepreneurship is risk-taking innovation activity that produces social and/or economic benefit.

Now let’s break down those deliberately chosen terms:

1. Risk-taking is inherent because entrepreneurship means reallocating resources towards uncertain new opportunities. However, this does not mean that entrepreneurs are necessarily or even typically risk-seekers; research suggests that personality traits only weakly predict entrepreneur success, and entrepreneurs are more typically sociable opportunity-, solution-, or perfection-seekers who confront and minimize attendant risk well (Byers et al, 1998)[7]

Also note, the resource risked by an entrepreneur may not be capital; it may be time, reputation, position or status within an organization, or even self-worth.

File:Microsoft Store Front.jpg

Microsoft Store, 2008. (Wikipedia)

2. Innovation is new (inventive) practices that create higher value. This intentionally excludes non-inventive business activities such as opening a new, duplicate retail outlet (e.g. Microsoft Store, left), or obvious incremental improvements in a product or process.

.3. Activity: following the convention of most innovation literature, I exclude pure knowledge, ideas, invention or creation that doesn’t produce observable social/economic change. Yes, of course we could debate what is social value or change, but this definition helps make a commonsensical distinction.

4. Social and/or economic benefit: entrepreneurship might create pure social benefit (e.g. a new government program or not-for-profit), pure financial benefit (e.g. a new derivatives trading strategy), or any combination of these.

By pointing out “benefit”, I aim to suggest that the scale and distribution of benefit is really what matters. I believe the most significant entrepreneurship is that which produces the largest and most widely shared benefits, not that which creates mere change, novelty, or wealth transfer. I mention both social and economic benefit in part to observe that in practice it’s often difficult to separate them, either in entrepreneurs’ motivations or in the effect of their activities.

5. Words not in this definition: technology, capitalist, Western, modern, consumer, democracy, Internet, product, commercial, market. These all describe realms where entrepreneurship occurs, but entrepreneurship does not necessarily involve any of them.


A map of the extended field of entrepreneurship:  Goals and Structures

We might make an analytic map of all the activities we classify as “entrepreneurial,” to consider possibilities and classify/relate known cases. I suggest one with the two axes as below: theoretically one could identify or envision enterprises at any point on this map, i.e. any combination of goal and structure.


Axis A:  Goal: from pure profit to pure social/personal goal, for example:

  1. public good (universal social good)
  2. social good / enterprise (social benefit to particular group or cause)
  3. sustainability of business / lifestyle / personal opportunity
  4. financial goals
  5. “exit”: e.g. sale of enterprise

Axis B:  Structure: ranging across cases from

  1. Program
    A project/initiative done entirely within structure of a larger org (e.g. govt program, corporate project/product).
  2. Skunkworks / internal spinoff
    Within a larger org, but done in a separate administrative unit with possibly different operating procedures.
  3. Co-entrepreneurship:
    initiative that is semi-autonomous but developed within some structure of pooled equity, e.g startup collectives, accelerator portfolio co (e.g. Betaworks).
  4. Traditional startup (normal / traditional startup model)
  5. Fractional entrepreneurship:
    A given project, at a given time, might be pursued with only part of one or more people’s attention or commitment. In fact, even a traditional startup has fractional involvement of many parties such as investors, lawyers and other professional service providers, friends & family. These fractional involvements are not usually represented explicityly in the structure or equity of the enterprise (although they could be).

An enterprise has a path, not a nature

While entrepreneurial enterprise are commonly talked of having a model, e.g. “startup” or “social enterprise,” in fact it’s typical for projects to evolve across models, i.e. across positions on the above Entrepreneurship Map.

Projects may begin as ideas, market analysis, complaints, failures, accidents, experiments, side efforts, or research & development (R&D); they may migrate to become an official program or product, or a public or open-source project; they may be acquired, or incorporated into another product, or acquired to be terminated.  Organizing a single, independent company devoted to the single project (the typical “startup” model) may be inappropriate, inefficient, or not suit the participants’ or project’s needs.


So What?

I believe that existing attention, tools, services, assumptions, thinking, policies, investment, etc. are highly concentrated in just a few areas of this map; but innovation and social/economic needs are served by enterprises from all areas of the map.

If entrepreneurial enterprise, and entrepreneurs, are more diverse than our standard practices assume,  then that means we are probably missing a lot of opportunity.  I would suggest that by overconcontrating on particular, even exclusionary notions such as “startup”, we may waste human resources, misallocate investment, increase risk and inefficiency, miss innovation opportunity, and fail to meet human needs.

Advocates, experts, or beneficiaries of particular entrepreneurial practices often assert, explicitly or implicitly, with or without necessarily offering any evidence or argument, that their way is generally the best or only one possible, or is synonymous with entrepreneurship or “innovation” or “risk taking” or “startups” or “startup culture” or “technology” or “Silicon Valley”, or that all of the above are more or less the same thing. There’s a good chance that what they advocate grows out of their particular experiences and economic interests, rather than analysis of what are all the possibilities, which might best meet your needs, or what the world needs. Or less sinisterly, it may be that just by engaging with a certain person or organization, e.g. entering a hackathon or entering investor discussions, you are assumed to be following one particular model, but this isn’t articulated or analytically derived.

For one thing, this is a fast-changing map, with entirely new areas emergent such as B Corps (corporations with social-benefit provisions mandated by charter) and all kinds of crowdfunding / crowdsourcing being invented or legislatively enabled by the JOBS Act. Basically, nobody out there is an expert on all the possibilities.

So, advice to people and to projects: consider all the angles, and find the way to do what you do best — what best suits your circumstance, values, and assets.  It’s a big world, a  universe of possibilities, so don’t just follow local dogma.



1.  the title “Entrepreneurship in the Expanded Field” alludes to the essay by Rosalind Krauss “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (PDF). October, Vol. 8. (Spring, 1979), pp. 30-44.
2. “What you mean ‘we’, white man?”:
A 1958 comic in Mad magazine by E. Nelson Bridwell depicted The Lone Ranger and his companion Tonto surrounded by hostile Indians, the Ranger saying “it looks like we’re finished!” Tonto replies, “What you mean… WE?” The punchline has often been retold as “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”, as in the 1974 top-40 soul hit “The Lone Ranger” by Oscar Brown, Jr. , or in a 2008 blog post by Paul Krugman.
3. Ries, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. (New York: Crown Business, 2011).  Ries, to his credit, actually articulates one of the broadest contemporary notions of entrepreneurship I’ve seen, defining “startup” in his book as “A human institution designed to create something new under conditions of extreme uncertainity.”
4. Rogers, Everett. The Diffusion of Innovation. (Glencoe: Free Press, 1963). .
5. Christensen, Clayton. The Innovator’s Dilemma. (Harvard Business Review Press, 1997).
6. Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002).
7. Byers, Tom, and Heleen Kist, Robert I. Sutton. “Characteristics of the Entrepreneur:
Social Creatures, Not Solo Heroes
“.  in Dorf, Richard C., editor. The Technology Management Handbook, CRC Press, 1998).


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Parking Houses and Houselets: Critical Followups

My post on “Parking Houses” from earlier this week got some great responses from people including Shannon Spanhake of the SF Mayor’s Office of Innovation, Steven Price of Urban Advantage, and Allison Arieff of SPUR (San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association) and contributing architecture editor at the New York Times; also Lloyd Alter of Treehugger, and Joy Ceilidh Dunlap of The Liberated Kitchen, Portland.

Allison sent me some questions, and I answered them in a sort of follow-up essay. I and some of the quotes were featured in her New York Times feature, “How Small Is Too Small?” (October 19, 2012). The story opens:

Most people see a parking space and promptly back up into it; Tim McCormick sees one and thinks, “I could live here.”

Below are Allison’s questions and my full answers (from email interview):

> Why a parking space? Why not a small lot somewhere?
It could be done on a small lot, or as many units on a large lot — for example, if a corporate campus or convention center wanted to add accommodations, like Snoozebox popup hotels in the UK.
However, what’s particularly intriguing to me about parking spaces is that, unlike land lots which are expensive, scarce, irregular, and owned, parking spaces are standardized, ubiquitous, easily accessible, and available practically for free.

Andrew Maynard’s Corb 2.0 housing

In dimensions, I was struck by the fact that standard parking spaces are around the same as standard shipping containers, so a 10′ container can drop right on one space or a 20′ (1 TEU) container footprint onto 2 spaces. There’s of course a whole existing infrastructure to very efficiently handle every aspect of picking up, storing, shipping, delivering such units to street sites.

What’s powerful to me is the potential great efficiency and adaptiveness of deploying housing and other facilities this way.  Rather than just thinking of a typical 800 square-ft apartment space vs. an 80- or 160 square foot houselet space, what’s more relevant is to consider a scenario where you could easily buy or rent one of these units as you would a small car, tailor and decorate it to your liking, month-by-month move it to a spot close to where your current work or project or wintering spot is, put it in storage when you don’t need it, and avoid much of the huge risk, cost, and hassle of fixed housing.

I’m suggesting that this alternate scenario could make a lot of sense to many people who currently struggle with the housing system, such as new arrivals to the city, recent college grads trying to start careers, single people generally, low-income, freelance & contract/project-based workers, people who may wish to spend some nights in the city instead of commuting to a distant home, etc.

> Have you approached this thru official channels and if so what > has the response been?

well, I’ve just sprung into action with this project, but so far my sense is that officials and most everybody else probably see it as unhinged raving or some kind of Burning Man gypsy agitprop. But I find this creates an interesting communication problem as part of the project — how to get people to even think about or take seriously this apparently preposterous and alien idea.

However, I did bounce it off the good people at the SF Mayor’s Office of Innovation, and Shannon Spanhake nicely retweeted my article and proposed the name “Houselet” which I think is perfect. I’m trying to get Shannon and Jay Nath (director of the office) to entertain the idea of doing a houselet design contest, then giving me and the winners parking spaces to live in for a year as the prize.

I say, quite honestly, that at the moment this is my “dream house.”So I’m trying out different angles with the agitprop. One is to observe, as Shoup does in “The High Cost of Free Parking,” that currently cities are giving away all this precious public space to support car use, even though this runs counter to just about every smart-urbanist goal; and meanwhile we have pressing issues such as inadequate/inflexible housing supply, and creating walkable environments, which we might apply this resource to. Arguably, what’s preposterous is to still be exclusively privileging street parking, in a place like San Francisco that’s crying out with other needs.

Second, I propose an experiment: what if we just took away the constraints that current forbid alternate uses of this streetside space, and let people propose what they’d do with it and how much they’d pay? Let developers, housing advocates, cranks, armchair urbanists like me, and anyone else examine housing prices, rents, what facilities are needed, costs to make these modular units, etc., and see what they’d like to propose. If it turns out that in many places, people would value other uses more highly than parking, then we can ask, why should the city forbid that?

Sure, people want and need to park, but they can express that need through willingness to pay, and the market could provision parking accordingly.  People also urgently need housing, small office/work spaces, storefronts to start businesses, etc., why would we just totally rule out even considering these uses for those spaces? In that respect, I feel that I’m suggesting, with a certain deliberate naivete, a sensible radicalism.

Really, I wish to ask people, how well is this system working for you, if you’re not in the lucky portion of people with a lot of income, home equity, or good stabilized rent?  If you’re trying to move to the city, or grow a company, or start a family, the housing situation is a colossal problem. The mayor wants San Francisco to be the world capital of innovation, but most innovators can’t afford to move there, and the current tech boom is already helping to drive housing prices sky-high, which chokes the city’s creative potential, let alone its everyday residents’ needs.

> How do you account for the resistance not just to something really
> unconventional like your Houselet idea but the presumably less
> controversial idea of living in a small space.

>  People begin to get flustered when you get into the triple digits
> (say 400, 300, 200 square feet). Why do you think that’s so?

Clearly housing is a deep taproot into people’s emotions, psyches, cultural expectations and aspirations, and economic status. It’s so elemental and deeply rooted that people are often extraordinarily conservative in their notions of what appropriate housing is — even tech titans are often that way, as you noted in your recent article. I believe that, as Bachelard argued in The Poetics of Space, our notions of comfort and spatial relation are rooted in deep cultural and early-life experience, which continues to shape how we perceive and inhabit space life-long.

Americans, compared to most people in the world, tend to be born into and inhabit huge amounts of space, life-long. I have a certain continual sense of disjunction with that, perhaps because I grew up in smaller spaces in London — a 6’x8′ bedroom in a there-typical 1000 sq. ft. semi-detached family home — and I recall that when I came to the U.S. at age 10, houses seemed just enormous, as did many things.

Much later in New York, I lived in various small apartments, and for some time shared a 500 sq-ft apartment with my girlfriend; many Americans would consider this implausible, but she observed it was vastly spacious compared to the 100 sq. foot apartment she shared with 5 family members growing up in Guangzhou. (250 sq. ft/person vs. 15). I speculate that there’s a geopolitical dimension to this: that Americans’ expansive inhabitation of space relates to the nation’s long history of territorial expansion, and more recently, global imperium. I think that many of the ways Americans are characterized by foreigners — for example, blundering, loud, oblivious, insensitive — are the same things that were often said about the British in their great imperial era, before they retrenched and became Greece to our Rome.

When you ask people to consider spaces smaller that what they’ve normalized to, I think it tends to trigger elemental associations of constriction, claustrophobia, a sense of being like a trapped animal. Also, associations of degeneracy and depravity, and class fear. But other than that, there’s no problem at all for Houselets!

No really, I think you have to find ways around all those acculturated and visceral reactions, and for example observe that we often inhabit small spaces like bedrooms, bunk beds, dorm rooms, hotel rooms, tents, cabins, RVs, and we’re usually ok with that for certain times and purposes. Then you might ask, how well is our current system working, from the standpoint of human needs?  There’s this great paradox that people are obsessed with, utterly invested in homes and housing, but at the same time, our housing system often fails terribly. It creates huge economic burden, risk, and inequality, is conspicuously mismatched to trends in household makeup and employment patterns and healthy lifestyle and environmental needs, etc. The housing industry and system is so driven by ideology, dreams, received practices, and reactionary bourgeois fear that it is tremendously shackled from evolving to meet our changing real needs.


Conclusion: Soft(ware) Urbanism.


from Archigram, 1960s

I think the Bay Area today could, just possibly, be a place to break some of the shackles of urban land-use dogma, and allow radical experimentation to occur — because here there are  resources, the culture of innovation, local genius, and need.

I’d like to see buildings and urbanism explored here with the same radical inventiveness and confidence that characterizes our business and technology culture, and explore how the built environment could be developed as software is, in radically agile, adaptive, scalable, continuously innovating ways.

It could become a capital of future humane urbanism — a “soft city,” in Jonathan Raban’s phrase — as well as of venture capital and software.

What do you think? got some new items, projects, examples, or patterns to suggest? Let me know via comment box below, or email me: tmccormick at gmail dot com, or Twitter, etc.

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