Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Work Environment Redesign and Cities

From as far back as I can remember, I've loved studying organizations and institutions. Cities, in all their density, diversity, elbow-bumping, and grimy cosmopolitan-ness are one of my favorite examples of such things. Cities are super interesting (and fun).

While serving as a Research Fellow at Deloitte's Center for the Edge, we aimed to understand the heart of how to create organizations which accelerated talent development and performance improvement (here's a link to our paper, Work Environment Redesign: Accelerating Talent Development and Performance Improvement).

While we were researching the paper, I always wondered...would the design principles we developed apply to designing systems within cities? We were studying companies, but I figured it was possible since both cities and companies are forms of organization. Here's a go at applying the design principles we developed at the Center to New York City (a city that's touted as one of the worlds great cities, and one that I'm decently familiar with).

In the paper we outlined three goals that a "work environment" should have, and outlined three "design principles" within each of those goals. I've applied the same framework to New York City. See the paper itself if you want clearer definitions of what each design principle actually means. Also, if you have insights into specific examples from New York (or other cities), please share them!


Goals for Work Environment Redesign

Goal #1: Define high-impact challenges
  • Meaningful challenges and impact - This design principle seems to typify New York. As Jay-Z says in Empire State of Mind about New York, "If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere," which demonstrates that one of the reasons to be a New Yorker is to achieve and aspire to the best in ones field whether it's finance, ballet, or food-trucking. It's perhaps not "meaningful" to pursue a challenge simply to best other people, but living in New York definitely stretches one's skills and abilities. What I'd be curious about is how city systems support this instead of just "the culture" of New Yorkers supporting it. At very least it seems like Mayors of New York set aspirational goals to encourage citizens to be excellent so New York can be the best city in the world.
  • Rapid experimentation - New York seems to do this pretty well too, even if unintentionally. Think of the quick turnover of restaurants and public performance art that happens in the city. Restaurants are supported by permitting processes in a city and if those processes are onerous or slow it's a big hurdle to rapid experimentation. I imagine that New York is probably pretty good at doing all this quickly, given how fast restaurants open and close in New York. And, they probably rebuilt their processes for food trucks and pop-up restaurants (can anyone confirm this?). There's also a lot of tolerance and acceptability by New Yorkers (e.g., by police), it seems, to random people panhandling and performing on the street. This opportunity is probably one reason that artists in New York are able to refine and improve their skills quickly.
  • Real-time feedback and reflection - New Yorkers are very candid...some would say they are rude. Whether or not this true you get feedback from New Yorkers all over the place when you're there because communication is frank. The city of New York also seems to solicit feedback about things to repair in the city through the use of apps these days which is pretty cool. Instead of the common belief that cities make people rude, maybe some cities with cultures of "rudeness" outgrow other cities because they're more likely to have feedback systems through direct, honest human communication.
Goal #2: Strengthen high-impact connections
  • Challenge-specific teaming - I'm going to defer to the cloud on this one...are there organizations (government or otherwise) that form teams around specific challenges? Not being a New Yorker, it's really hard to know the dynamics of how ad-hoc teams form throughout the city and how city systems support this.
  • Relevant connections - I think it's very intentional that New York City's taxi medallions are displayed prominently outside of taxi cabs. Also, restaurants all display their licenses prominently. Maybe it's not deliberate that critical service-providing institutions have to display their expertise prominently, but it's nicely incidental. On top of that, New York has made a big deal about opening its data which surely helps with making relevant connections.
  • “Chance” encounters - New York is always having public events in different places like street fairs, public markets, etc. These sorts of broadly accessible events (read: cheap or free) and transportation to access them presumably helps "chance" encounters happen.

Goal #3: Amplify impact
  • Adaptive environment - This is one of the things I like most about New York City. There are different kinds of development types in different parts of the city. Times Square is touristy and densely packed. Wall Street is very business like. Central Park is a wide open space in the middle of a bustling metropolis. Every neighborhood has different traits which can be used for different purposes by citizens. More than that, the City government allows the cityscape to evolve as needs change. Think of High Line park which was one a freight rail line platform and is now a (really fantastic) park.
  • Smart capture and share - I can't really think of how this applies to cities except for maybe different people filling this role outside of city systems. Different people probably have curators for different parts of their lives like a personal shopper, a "shoe guy", or a real estate agent. This seems to fit more in a knowledge-driven environment so maybe that's why it's lacking when applying this design principles to New York. Detroit's D:hive attempts to be this sort of "air-traffic controller", I suppose.
  • Mutual ownership - From a few things I've read, neighborhood groups have real power in New York and the administration of the city is allowed to flow down to Wards, in earnest. This probably gives New Yorkers a sense of "mutual ownership" and autonomy when conducting city affairs. Letting people make decisions in their own neighborhood isn't just lip service, from what I can tell.
A quick conclusion
Overall, it seems like the design principles in Work Environment Redesign seem to map to city systems and processes pretty well. What I'd be curious about if there are other true design principles which help accelerate the growth and prosperity of a city. "Diversity" is one that comes to mind, but I suppose in the paper cognitive diversity is assumed.