Lean Startup

What can urban project learn?


The lean startup is an approach to business development that is based on the principles of lean production, a manufacturing methodology that values a business’ ability to change quickly. Where long development cycles are changed for shorter iterative ones that focus on three phases; build, measure and learn.

Find out more at the Lean Startup

Urban development projects and startups can be perceived as being similar, as both are essentially: “human institutions designed to create something new and create value in order to improve the lives of people under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” (Eric Ries). Both are ultimately about creating value and although the focus is often on the value for the investor or the developer, they ultimately aim to improve people’s lives be it through; a product, an innovation, living conditions or the built environment, and all this is done in the midst of uncertainty, be it economic or social. By looking at urban development and creative projects through the lens of The Lean Startup we can start to reimagine how they can be developed in order to see uncertainty as an opportunity and not as a threat.


The convention when starting a business is to create a business plan, a static document that describes the opportunity, the problem and the solution. Similarly our urban realm is designed by the architect, landscape architect or urban planner who creates a set of drawings, and visualisations that describes their proposal for the space and the opportunity for the client. But as The Lean Startup advocates this way of thinking is erroneous because it assumes that most of the unknowns can be figured out in isolation. It is only after the product is built and launched or the space or building is constructed that there’s any substantial feedback from the end users, and the entrepreneur or designer can find that they don’t need or want a large proportion of the design. Instead by focusing on shorter iterative cycles, testing ideas with the end users urban development and creative projects can begin to behave as The Lean Startup advocates; developing a process of nimbleness and increasing the value the projects provide.


Development models The Lean Startup favours are;

Experimentation over elaborate planning.

For a startup this is about determining which assumptions or guesses you’re making and creating an approach based on this. One framework designed to enable this is the Business Model Canvas.

In the case of an urban project it is about understanding and highlighting the assumptions about the needs of the community and the way people use spaces. By highlighting these guesses, a method of piloting can be created to test these ideas and the end users can become collaborators.


Customer feedback over intuition.

Currently the designer of a building or public space has little or no contact with the end user and if they are consulted it can sometimes seem like a token gesture, The Lean Startups’ “get out of the building approach” otherwise called customer development can be used to test an hypothesis.  Instead of waiting until a project reaches the planning office or is even built, the designers of our urban environments can go out there to meet the potential users of the space, finding out what their needs and wants are, be it through consultation or even working for a day in the environment. By getting feedback from these acts and understanding them, the question becomes ‘what intervention can the designer make’?


Iterative design over linear approach.

It’s not only about finding out their needs and wants but also testing ideas quickly, simply and cheaply. With each stage of customer engagement being iterative, testing ideas in reality instead of on paper and using the feedback gained to make changes, can create a faster process. This is the principle of the Minimum Viable Product which can be as simple as turning a parking space into a park, taking away the current linear approach where lots of time is spent developing a project in isolation, only to have it fall through. Encouraging projects to grow more iteratively and incrementally can eliminate wasted time and resources.


By using The Lean Startup model, creative projects and projects in the urban realm can shift their focus from product to process. This takes away the often slow moving and development time that current urban development favours, instead focusing on a nimble approach that puts the end user at the centre and creates a longer term more holistic approach.