Getting Good At Cities

Nick Crocker
Nov 18, 2014 · 4 min read

Every week from now until 2050, more than a million people will be added to the global ‘city’ population. In 2006 more than 50% of the world’s population was urbanised. This number will rise to 75% by 2050.

Getting good at cities (GGAC) is a skill that’s going to matter more and more. It’s a skill lots of people will try and improve. Entire industries are going to emerge because our smartphones give us real-time, location aware, socially aware, filtered information that helps us in GGAC.

The problem.

When you’re new to a place, your ability to differentiate quality experiences from others is one of the primary factors in your enjoyment of life.

How do you find good coffee? A good place to work? A good place to run? A good place for a meal, for a drink, for a dance?

Often you’re only in a place for a short space of time, so the pressure to get it right is pretty high. And even if you’re somewhere for a long time, the pain of a bad experience isn’t one you want to regularly replicate and the stakes are much higher (which suburb? which ISP? which telco? which school for my kids?).

How we currently solve it.

Most of us start with friends. That’s the A1 way to hack GGAC.

Sometimes it comes down to luck. We go somewhere because we have to and it turns out to be amazing.

Some people pick patterns. Like, there’s a lot of young people who are dressed and look a little like me here, I must be somewhere good. Or you see a Gucci store and a Lacoste store and you know you’re on High St. Or you see retirees in white New Balance with cameras and bumbags and you know you’re in the wrong spot (or on 42nd St). But patterns are deceptive. And depending on the city, patterns sometimes don’t apply. Tokyo just stretches forever and most of it is really good. Being in a good area doesn’t mean you’re in the best one for someone like you.

But it’s when these fail us that GGAC matters. In some cities, Foursquare is a great solution. But at some point, the challenge for any recommendation service is going to be not turning into Yelp or Lonely Planet where a recommendation means a little, but not a lot.

The Volume Conundrum

The problem is that volume is a poor indicator of quality. Two and a Half Men isn’t better than Friday Night Lights, but volume would say it is. Ditto Starbucks and Bluebottle Coffee. And yet, we have very few filters that don’t rely almost entirely on volume.

Two notable exceptions are iTunes Genius and Netflix’s recommendation engine, with Netflix being the standout of the two. For most people, Adam Sandler movies are 3.6/5. For me, they scrape .7/5 and Netflix knows that.

At some point, we will have a world where I can find out what’s good, not just because everyone says it is, but because it’s what someone like me would like. Both Facebook and Twitter are somewhat limited in that they represent of cross-section of your connections, but not necessarily a cross-section of the connections you trust so they aren’t going to be the easy solution you think they are. And furthermore, you might trust someone’s movie taste, or their video game recommendations, but that doesn’t necessarily make him your guy for finding the best bookstores in town.

I know the downside of filter bubbles and I know that some things are more rewarding to discover than to be handed on a platter.

But friction is the difference between a good city and a great city and a good life and a great life. And there’s a long way to go before we reduce even the first level of GGAC friction that exists today.

Most people going to New York for the first time stay somewhere near Times Square or the bottom end of Central Park. But anyone who knows New York knows that’s the worst of Manhattan and rarely ventures there except for necessity. So how has the message not got across, with millions of tourists every day realising this, that the best bits of Manhattan are between Canal, 23rd, Hudson and Avenue B?

If we’re not solving that kind of friction for New York, you can be sure we’re not solving it in every other city too.

GGAC is a skill that’s going to matter more and more in the coming years. Travelling today makes you realise how close were are to making GGAC easier and just how far we still have to go.

Anyway, in the words of J Dilla. Working on it.

For interest’s sake.

Originally published at nickcrocker.com on August 26, 2011.

Nick Crocker

Things I’ve Written

    Nick Crocker

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    General Partner @BlackbirdVC. Supporting Australian startups @Startmate. Sequencing the journey to build strength along the way.

    Nick Crocker

    Things I’ve Written