Six Reasons I’m Excited About Starcity

I am thrilled to announce that I have recently joined Starcity as Principal Software Engineer. This article collects my observations, thoughts, and aspirations having completed my first week on the job, meeting with a range of people across the organization and diving into technical collaboration with my new peers. Importantly I do not speak on behalf of Starcity in writing this — I speak here from a personal perspective. The audience is presumed to be engineers as well as non-engineers who see engineering as a means to improving the world.

Reason #1: A Focus On Community

Every business, especially in startup-land, claims to care about community, but some execute on it better than others. What makes Starcity special on that count is that as a business it is deeply incentivized to care about community. Community is the product that Starcity sells, and the success of the business depends on members and the general public experiencing the brand of community offered as authentic and welcoming. This includes both the community within a residence, and the relationship of that residence to the surrounding neighborhood.

Being in the business of community means the business prioritizes cultivating the same values in its own workplace, and has the resources to be highly competent at it. Coming to Starcity, this was evident from the interview process to my first experiences working at the office and meeting a number of people in different roles across the company.

Those who know me know I love Clojure, for its immutable data-first simplicity, its expressive lispy power, and its get-it-done pragmatism. Starcity uses Clojure, and has begun to contribute to the Clojure community, for example by hosting meetups. Developers of the language, its library ecosystem, projects, and businesses, have from the beginning aspired to being a welcoming, helping, and open community. But ultimately each person, each forum, and each company culture is responsible for living up to that reputation to ensure that it continues to hold true. Starcity and Clojure are an ideal match in that respect.

Finally, it’s no accident that a company that prioritizes community has a very diverse engineering team. It is a known fact that engineering cultures for a number of reasons fail to recruit and retain women and people of color, among other categories of people, but Starcity refreshingly breaks from that mold.

Reason #2: Making Cooperative Living Easier

One of the reasons why Starcity has an engineering team is to develop systems that distinguish the quality of its brand of co-living from the usual experience of communal living. From the architecture and interior design of common areas to the path to membership, day-to-day living, and more, the experience needs to be optimized for effective co-living. In a traditional co-living situation, residents live in a world of incessant house meetings and passive aggressive note-writing dealing with everything from coordinating chores, the rent, interviewing prospective housemates, etc. Starcity in contrast reduces the need for members coordinate on mundane drudgery as much as possible, freeing up more time and energy to be put into more meaningful social interactions.

Reason #3: Changing the Owner/Renter Relationship

From my conversations with colleagues in engineering and on the community operations team, something that struck me as remarkable is how different the interaction of members with the community team is from the usual tenant-landlord relationship. It is much more personal, and geared toward creating a positive experience for members. Because this hospitality industry model of private residences has typically only been seen in very high-end permanent hotel units, and not in middle-income housing, it has led to creative characterizations such as “dorm living for professionals” and that might not be too far from the truth (though many are surprised to learn that the range of members’ ages is quite diverse) I’ve heard of members characterizing the community team as more like the role of RA than landlord.

The difference in the relationship is in part due to the human element and in part due to software support for better interaction, in the form of property management and CRM tools tailored to the experience. Another consequence of leveraging engineering to improve community operations is that few other companies have such well-aligned incentives to make property management effective and scalable from a property owner’s perspective. From a software engineering perspective, retaining the highly valued human touch of member interactions with the community operations team as we scale up to larger and larger numbers of homes, translates to a need for operational efficiency and automation of everything that doesn’t need to be done by people.

Reason #4: Socially Situated Computing Systems for Built Environments

A big personal interest of mine is the potential for instrumenting environments, particularly from the perspective of instrumented events being resources supporting effective cooperative communication. I have written about this extensively, for example here and here. I will not go into detail on the specifics of what is in the works, but it suffices to say that Starcity is exploring how best to equip homes with infrastructure uniquely supporting social interactions. Most work in IoT and home robotic automation is geared toward individual users in isolation, but the Starcity platform presents opportunities to design for individuals to coordinate socially more effectively and comfortably.

Reason #5: Metroforming the Urban Environment

One colleague introduced himself as a “metroforming engineer”. Metroforming, he explained, is analogous to the terraforming (of formerly inhospitable planets) but for cities. Cities like San Francisco have become increasingly inaccessible as the cost of living has skyrocketed in recent decades and years. Creating affordable middle-income housing options is one of the main motivations for why Starcity exists to begin with. I’ve learned that Starcity’s real estate developments have been welcomed by communities in San Francisco, in stark contrast with the usual resistance faced by other categories of housing development such as luxury condominiums.

Another aspect of Starcity’s efforts to ameliorate and open up cities is its investment in setting up communities to be contributors to the local neighborhood economically, socially, and culturally — by organizing regular events at residences (free for members), community service, and relationships with neighboring business. Like other aspects of what Starcity does, this involves both human practices and the engineering of systems to facilitate them. And as I mentioned early, this is not just the right thing to do, it’s fundamentally incentivized by real-world requirements for the business’s success.

Reason #6: Pioneering the Cybernetic Future of Intentional Living

Starcity is one business creating a platform and an emerging lifestyle brand poised to enable a potentially vast franchise of independently owned co-living communities in years to come. What Starcity creates therefore has further implications in terms of its broader societal influence. What promises and challenges does the next 100 years of trends in technologies of intentional living hold in store?

Starcity’s introduction of thoughtful sociotechnical engineering to the renter-owner relationship, the resident-resident relationship, and the resident-neighborhood relationship seems likely to have rippling effects on what is possible in these areas in the future.

Today we’re working on designing environments and systems that work for all involved parties better than other presently available options. We have no choice but to build the future incrementally within the shell of existing systems and the opportunities they afford us. Who can really say what the next 10 qualitatively distinct increments of technological support for more intentional and effective ways of living will bring? What matters is that we initiate efforts such as this in ways that can be successful today, creating an environment the next generation experiences as its status quo, permitting yet further innovations to be imagined and can be realistically achieved.