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Long time, no see! I’ve had some changes lately (including leaving my day job) that have taken me away from writing. I suspect my cadence won’t be as regular as it has been in the past. But it’ll be better than last month!
A Job Opportunity
A Startup Cities reader in the civil engineering space is looking for a full stack developer with Python and JS skills. The app focuses on bridge construction. Send me an email ([email protected]) if you or someone you know might be interested!
Now, onto the essay.
Platform & Product: Analogies for Cities
In the Startup Cities space you’ll often hear analogies that frame cities as a "platform" or "product." Such-and-such a new city will be a "platform for innovation," a "platform for growth," a "platform for urban life," a "platform for good governance." Cities are also described as "products" that deliver value to customer-residents.
These analogies are healthy. Cities lack product thinking. So attempts to frame cities in the language of startups, however imperfect, are probably good. But I often wonder if this "platform" and "product" language also hides something important: two different visions and strategies for Startup Cities.
Platforms vs. Products
Platforms are enablers. The classic example is Facebook. Facebook (at least in its early days) said, "here’s a bunch of tools to easily share your life with friends and family. Do as you please!" Customers liked it. The platform enabled wildly diverse behaviors: arguing politics, humblebrags, flirting, digitally stalking your ex, asking for advice, and wishing Grandma happy birthday.
Products are journeys. They’re structured experiences and workflows. Pretty much any typical business software-as-a-service app is a good example. There’s a "right way" to use Trello or Gmail or Jira. You follow a prescribed journey.
Platform City & Values that Scale
The platform analogy suits the city. Real cities are more like the chaos of a Facebook feed than a typical SaaS app. Cities give their customers enabling tools: physical and social technologies like roads, sidewalks, rules, and police. People then do as they please. There’s not a "right way" to use a city.
The Platform City is the default strategy in the Startup Cities space. For example, Próspera markets itself as "A Platform for Sustainable Growth." It focuses on tools that enable its customers: an arbitration center, regulatory flexibility, and low tax rates.
The charter cities movement also focuses on building platforms with enabling tools (usually termed "institutions"). If we can "get the institutions right" then good things will follow. Like their digital counterparts, Platform Cities build for a broad customer base to pursue diverse interests.
The Platform City is a sensible way to build, at least for the city scale. Is there any way to build a big city without enabling many people’s diverse behaviors? I doubt it.
The logic of the Platform City is also why I’m skeptical of projects focused on ideological/religious/political/identity alignment of residents. Can you achieve city-scale dynamism and have widespread ideological agreement? I’m not sure.
The values that scale seem to be some variant of bourgeois liberalism: trading and tolerance. This is certainly true in the history of cities like New York, San Francisco, or Hong Kong. But even much older cities, like Venice or the members of the Hanseatic League, were marked not by some deep alignment, but by their bourgeois practicality.
The Platform City begs the question: what would a Product City look like? What would it mean to strategize around very specific customer journeys.
Fitopia: A Thought Experiment
Like all good products, a Product City would start with a well-defined customer.
Let’s pick a group: "Adults under age 45 who attend the gym at least 3 times a week and adhere to an explicit diet." With this definition, we’re already far from a Platform City. Our customer isn’t "everybody." It’s a very specific person.
Our Product City needs to craft an urban journey appropriate to this particular customer type. I’ll call this product: Fitopia.
Fitopia is the best place on earth to be ridiculously fit. All elements of the product — the city — support fitness fanatics.
Fitopia is walkable because, duh, walking is healthier than driving. Fitness installations litter the sidewalk, so you can get in a few extra chin-ups on your morning commute. Fitopia surrounds a massive central gym, with all the equipment that your lame apartment would never include in their "fitness center." 24-hour gym access is bundled in your rent. Fitopia has a spa and a night club, because young fit people like to, ahem, mingle with each other.
Fitopia hangs positive affirmations about fitness on posters throughout the city. Fitopia negotiates bulk discounts for residents on whey protein and vitamin D supplements. Fitopia puts mirrors at random spots throughout the community, because there’s never a bad moment to admire your six pack.
Fitopia is not in the business of building general tools to enable "everyone." In fact, Fitopia blocks many reasonable things that would suit a Platform City. Fitopia management will never permit a fast food chain to lease restaurant space. But it does have Paleo, Vegan, and Carnivore restaurants as business tenants.
Fitopia courts Lululemon and Nike to open retail space. Fitopia enjoys a premium price for billboard advertising space because brands know exactly who they’ll reach.
Is Fitopia a realistic business? Maybe not. But this is a very different strategy and vision than the Platform City.
Scaling the Product City
The economics of a Product City like Fitopia differ from a Platform City.
A Platform City would likely pursue affordability, because more users tends to increase a platform’s value. But Fitopia would go upmarket and pursue higher-value customers at a premium price: more "enterprise SaaS" than Facebook.
To accommodate a diversity of people and interests, a Platform City must pursue neutrality. A Product City like Fitopia? Not so much. Like in all good products, customers want an opinionated experience — which is why Fitopia curates businesses, advertising, amenities etc. for the ridiculously fit. Brand matters more to Fitopia, which would likely invest more in a particular aesthetic than a Platform City. It would probably offer more upsells and have more "tiered" experiences to capture value from customer whales.
I doubt Fitopia could ever reach city-scale. But is it unreasonable to imagine a neighborhood patterned on a product strategy like Fitopia’s? While there’s not likely ever to be a "Fitopia City," perhaps there could be "A Fitopia in Every City." So Fitopia looks more like replicable themed retail business or a franchise than it does a single large-scale city.
I think the Product City strategy has been under-explored in the Startup Cities space. It seems less ambitious and perhaps more narrow and boring. But, to me, it’s exciting to think about the value a Product City could create for customers. And it might be a more plausible strategy for the early stages of this industry.
The Product City strategy is also a healthy antidote to some of the grandiose visions we find in the Startup Cities space. "Gym membership included and no fast food" is much more grounded than the promise that all problems and inequalities will miraculously vanish after we lay the final brick in some dreamy megaproject.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget: startup should build cities!
Love the platform vs product dichotomy...and wrt the latter, exclusive gated communities start to sound more like the product description you lay out. They're certainly smaller scale, more limited in scope, usually marketed at least in part via their exclusivity, etc, etc.