This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 57: The cold equations,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York City on the 10th of February 2012.

Week 57: The cold equations

Adam Greenfield on 10 February 2012

This is one of the more difficult weeknotes I’ve had to write — but they can’t all be good news, now can they?

From the outset, I positioned Urbanscale as a hybrid proposition: a chimera forged of equal parts “visionary” consultancy, boutique design practice, and resolutely pragmatic development shop. The logic behind this was that, ideally, each one of these activities would inform the others, generating that all-important synergy, and ensuring that the whole would give rise to more value than the sum of its parts would imply. In practice, though, it’s become obvious that the diverging requirements implied by these different ways of approaching the world (and, particularly, of trying to offer full-scale technical development and integration for municipal clients, without losing focus on our other activities) pulls a studio of five people in too many conflicting directions.

This tension is in itself interesting, and it’s probably productive in a bunch of ways. But one in which it’s clearly not productive is the single way that happens to matter for a business enterprise, and that is financially. I’ve always been conscious of the fact that the studio was undercapitalized for the sort of projects our ambitions dictated we should be taking on. Equally — municipal bureaucracies being known neither for the rapidity of their decision-making or the transparency of their procurement processes — we understood that anyone playing in these particular fields had better be prepared to tolerate drawn-out negotiations and lead times that are often measured in years. We made a bet that our relatively high-margin consultancy activities would generate sufficient short-term revenue to support the other facets of the practice while our more ambitious and capital-intensive projects gestated. This was a hedged bet, but a bet nonetheless.

Unfortunately, it’s now clear that we’ve lost this bet, and there are consequences for the practice and its projects that I need to share with you. The most obvious, immediate and frustrating consequence is that we’re suspending development work on our Urbanflow and Transitflow projects indefinitely. There are also some implications for the way we’ll structure the studio and its ongoing activities. The best way to describe these changes would be to say that we’re reformulating the studio as a rather looser network of associates, who will continue to work on some projects together under the Urbanscale banner, and take on other opportunities as they present themselves.

None of this will affect our ongoing consultancy work in any way. We’ll continue to serve our existing clients, and (we certainly hope) take on new ones. I should also make it clear that we’re not abandoning the work we did on Urbanflow/Transitflow — if nothing else, we’ve generated a significant amount of code, cartographic and other assets, and we’re currently exploring ways we might return the value locked up in these to the City of Chicago and the broader open-source development community.

There’s a much longer post to be written about what we’ve learned by trying to bootstrap our way into municipal-scale production immediately, but the time for that consideration is a little later on, after I have enough distance to put things in their proper perspective. For now I’ll confine myself to noting that, in retrospect, a wiser course of action might have been to concentrate on producing the design fictions I tend to dislike so heartily, in the hopes of securing the longer-term institutional buy-in that might have led to more successful outcomes. (This may in fact be what’s in the process of happening with Urbanflow, given the spate of recent and favorably-received coverage, but only time will tell.) But, y’know, sometimes it’s hard to see past one’s ideological blinders, to say nothing of one’s own ego and ambition.

I want to thank the whole extended family — Mayo, Jeff, Leah and J.D., Nurri, Benedetta and Justin at GROUNDlab, ace coil man Todd Bailey and our West Coast co-conspirator Ryan Sullivan — for all of their hard work on our slate of projects over the past year. (Actually, what I really want to say is otsukaresama deshita, which is the customary way of thanking Japanese colleagues for a collective effort; ironically enough, I hated having these compulsory and merely performative-feeling ritual greetings expected of me when I actually lived and worked in Japan, but have come to miss having a handy figure of speech to acknowledge consciousness of the debt one owes to one’s coworkers and their diligence.)

A heartfelt otsukaresama deshita, then, to them and to those of you who did so much to support us during this never-anything-less-than-engaging process. As you might expect of us by now, we’ll be ringing the changes at Temple Bar tonight. I think we may even have one or two Year One t-shirts left, so bring cash if you’re inclined to pick on up. And I’ll check back in next week with some more thoughts on where we go from here. Endmark