On time, fragility and why gov is no startup

“Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.”
Hunter S Thompson

Just like most people, you’ve likely been flooded by startup overhype. In a morose world stuck in Great Stagnation, where the best political analysis you can read is those customers reviews for a Giant Meteor 2016 bumper sticker, startups feel like a breath of fresh air. Once upon a time entrepreneurs built infrastructure and govs went into space. Today president elect wants to build a wall and Elon Musk makes the world move forward. I personally look upon Ali Baba’s Jack Ma better than the Chinese president, and there are more diplomatic tensions between Facebook and India than there are between POTUS and India.

I’m not totally sure that this is something bad. Startups are decentralized, agile, opinionated and determinate-optimists. Though, I do think running a local government as a startup would be an (honest) mistake.

Oh, and just to be clear about what’s a startup, let’s forget about size, age or tech and agree on Steve Blank definition:

“a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model” while “a company is a permanent organization designed to execute a repeatable and scalable business model”
Steve Blank

Building an antifragile gov architecture

First, if you are not familiar with it, let me introduce Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragility. When you think about what fragility is, you on contrary think about something robust. Anything fragile breaks when there is volatility or disorder. Robust things are durable and resist to volatility. Antifragile things go beyond that and gain from volatility and disorder. A glass is fragile, we know it’s going to break at some point. Your immune system is clearly antifragile as it learns from every germ it encounters.

Regarding our governments, empires appear to be fragile, centralized states robust, but cities are antifragile. You’d have a hard time finding a consequent city totally destroyed. There are powerful network effect in cities that make them gain a lot from volatility.

Tons of phenomena can be analyzed through those axis. Souks are much more robust and resilient agains terrorism than common western business buildings. Churchill is quite clear on city resilience :

“You may rest assured that we should fight every street of London and its suburbs. It would devour an invading army, assuming one ever got so far. We hope however to drown the bulk of them in the salt sea. It is curious that the German army commander charged with the invasion plan used this same word “devour” about London, and determined to avoid it.”
Winston Churchill

Instead of freaking out after some not anticipated elections, maybe it’s time to make our democracies more anti-fragile. Actually, an anti-fragile architecture may be the prerequisite of a real democracy, at every level.

Silicon Valley antifragility

Silicon Valley as an ecosystem is antifragile. That’s because tons of enthusiastic people go there every year believing they’ll change the world and become rich doing so. Every startup is clearly fragile though and most of them die really quickly. Very often, this is a really painful moment for founders but the Silicon Valley ecosystem make that process quick and useful for the rest of the community.

When cities are inspired by startups they confuse Silicon Valley’s ecosystem with the startups that constitute that ecosystem.

Before trying to mimic startups’ methods, city administrations must understand that those methods are what make both the startup themselves fragile and the startups ecosystem highly effective.

Cities should aim to develop their own highly effective ecosystem. It implies re-thinking the way they handle resources and people. Understanding what makes a entrepreneurial ecosystem is not that easy, and until now, I guess, only Silicon Valley, and maybe London, NYC and Israel’s startup nation have managed to do so. Building a smart city is about as difficult and there is not any recipe to do so.

From our experience, building an Open Data foundation on the city organization (even if that can take time and it can start with the foundation of only one department) is a good way to go. It allows the city to progressively become more agile, more flexible. When data moves easily, a lot of good things can follow. And the best way to create an anti-fragile ecosystem is by allowing anybody to help and fix problems by themselves.

Niches and monopolies

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential urban planner

Startups build monopolies on niches and then expand to other, bigger, niches. That’s exceptionally clear in Tesla’s 2006 famous Master Plan :

  1. Build sports car
  2. Use that money to build an affordable car
  3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
  4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
  5. Don’t tell anyone.

Facebook started on the Harvard’s students niche, Google on the scientific publications, Amazon used to sell only books before expanding to Giant Meteor 2016 bumper sticker, Uber started on limo rides. So for a city to adopt startup’s method the question become :

Can a city democratically decide to focus its policies only on a niche of people?

Furthermore, even if I am really, and on the most ridicule and mimetic way, admiring people like Musk, Thiel, Zuckerberg, Sandberg, Jobs or Kalanick, I really don’t think my city should be run their ways.

I don’t expect my city to “move fast and break thing”! I do expect my representatives to take the time to build inclusives policies. To take time to tackle global and important problems. I agree that government’s lack of efficiency is still a blindspot for a lot of people. Clearly governments have to rethink their process, they probably have to adapt the hierarchy and let much more places to experimentation. If I think there is no tech bubble, I’m pretty sure there is a tech vocabulary bubble right now. Governments wont be fixed by startup style management and aggressive trial and error policies.

Wouldn’t govs be more efficient if they instead develop an ecosystem allowing anybody to implement a niche’s scale trial and error policy to fix the city’s issues?