A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is the most pared down version of a product that can still be released in order to test the ideas, in this article we explore two examples of a MVP in the urban realm; the New York City Plaza Program and Open Field at the Walker Art Centre, Minnesota. These projects show that policy creators can also act in a bottom-up way by testing ideas quickly and iteratively.
“A minimum viable product is the most efficient, minimum product or service that can be developed to test a hypothesis about how users will interact with the innovation.” The aim of working with a MVP is to test ideas and solve potential problems early on, aiding the process of learning instead of waiting till the end of the design process.
Both projects started with a problem and had a potential solution which needed to be tested. In the case of the New York City Plaza Program, the problem was that the streets made up 25% of the city, yet there was a lack of places for people to sit, rest and socialise, having conducted surveys the New York City Department of Transportation found this lack of seating was an issue – they knew that people in the city needed and wanted more places to sit and rest. For Open Field, at the Walker Arts Centre, the question was what to do with an empty field after development was postponed due to the recession, their hypothesis was that visitors to the gallery could be engaged in a more social way with the artists and the institution.
These hypothesis were then tested with a pilot project. In New York, they transformed Times Square into a series of temporary pedestrian plazas, literally done overnight, simply using paint and planters and lawn chairs as a last minute addition. Open Field was also started with little investment and simple tools, they used physical methods like creating the space by adding shaded spots, a stage area and a tool shed and along with digital tools like creating a website and google calendar. Both were done using simple materials with little investment.
Key to this methodology is creating a build-measure-learn feedback loop and a metric created in order to measure the results. The Times Square pilot chose to measure the success using data where the information collected showed that the plazas were better for mobility, safety, business and traffic, for example pedestrian injuries were down by 35% and 5 new flagship stores opened. They also discovered surprising reactions like how quickly people adapted and the way the plastic chairs became a talking point for the summer. At Open Field they chose to measure the impact by the expression of sentiment instead of the number of people that attended the activities. They tested methods of engagement, for example they realised waiting for people to come up with ideas wasn’t working so they created a range of activities to stimulate and encourage people to come up with their own ideas. The build-measure-learn loop encourages ideas to be ‘pivoted’ or changed when they’re not working.
The final element of the MVP approach is creating a management model, allowing the project to be scaled up when a successful model is found. In the Time Square development the policy makers partnered with local groups that would be responsible for the maintenance of the spaces and through the program’s success the plazas have become permanent and have since been redesigned by Snohetta, similar pilot projects have been replicated across New York and other cities have started similar initiatives. At Open Field, the success has meant it’s repeated every year and has become a space for the community, Walker Arts Centre and artists to test ideas. A particularly successful example is The Internet Cat Video Festival which brought an unexpectedly large audience and is now a global touring festival.
Both these projects show how possible a MVP can be in the urban realm; identifying the issues in our cities and testing solutions quickly and cheaply. They allow a proposal to be tested in the real world, with little financial cost and create an interaction with the public that is vital for the positive development of our urban spaces. Particularly with the Times Square project, it is conceivable that the reaction to a permanent development, closing of the entire area and causing major traffic delays would have caused an uproar. But by piloting the project, people could adapt and be more accepting of the changes. The benefits of a MVP are not just the reduced risk, cost and scalability but also the focus on the end users, letting them direct and influence the project. It’s a move towards a more proactive model.