Rework and the city

Two slim books, each illuminated in the light of the other.

I just finished reading Rework, 37signals‘ song of themselves; by my watch, it took me fifty-four minutes start to stop, including bio break. Was this an hour well spent? Hard to tell yet. Whatever you think about 37signals — and I’m not a fan, particularly, but so what — you can’t deny that they’ve built a highly successful enterprise by epitomizing “small, fast, ruthless…all Edge.” This is a shop that does very well by surfing (and in a few cases forging) the zeitgeist, so if they have meaningful wisdom to impart, I’m all ears.

Given this very quality, though, I’m less interested in their advice on building successful businesses than in what their own structural decisions might imply as a bellwether. Between certain traits of their core audience and the brash self-assurance with which they issue advice, the way 37signals does it now is likely to influence the way any number of startups choose to do it next year, so I paid particularly close attention to those passages in the book that described the company’s spatial and temporal organization. Here’s a rough map of their world, from the chapterlet entitled “The best are everywhere”:

Our headquarters are in Chicago, but more than half our team lives elsewhere. We’ve got people in Spain, Canada, Idaho, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.

Five, six locations, then. This may not sound like a lot…but they’re talking about a shop of sixteen people.

And these sixteen people — flung around the globe, working to their own schedules, unbound by meetings and the usual corporate inanity — clearly generate an impressive power-to-weight ratio. Between them, they make Web-based tools that are easily competitive with, and frequently enough superior to, anything the market has to offer otherwise.

Compact elements, relatively loosely coupled. Global reach, from ludicrously few actual points of presence. Refusal of size for its own sake. All this put me in mind of another slender volume I devoured recently, over a barely longer interval: Frank Duffy’s Work and the City. As Duffy has it, “A map of the spatial configuration of many businesses has become a global network of interactions. Core physical space is diminishing while interactions that transcend and spill beyond the walls of office buildings are multiplying.”

Here’s Duffy on what happens when work is something that can be accomplished just as easily from a Starbucks (or a smartphone, wherever it should happen to be) as from a dedicated office:

The big, open-ended question is, “Why should empowered and self-reliant people, equipped with increasingly powerful information technology, ever come to work at all?”

37signals’ answer is clearly that they needn’t. Why would anyone sane want them to, when they can accomplish many times what a traditionally office-bound worker can, without exposing the enterprise to the overhead and liability of maintaining physical plant?

Eventually, of course — this is one of Duffy’s central points — decisions made by institutions about how to organize themselves in space and time fold back onto the form of cities, and how it feels to live in them. For example, institutional mass generally means headcount…and headcount means that it’s far too expensive to house your workers in city centers, so they wind up stashed in built-to-impress digs on the highway out of town.

And the Möbius loops: the way an enterprise is housed, and especially where it is located physically, significantly inflects what its employees can achieve. Whether we’re talking about Redmond or one of those interstitial exits on the NJ Turnpike, whenever scale compels an organization to flee the city center, I make this a lose-lose. The urban core misses out on the dynamism, the ancillary business and, yes, the taxes thrown off by hundreds or thousands of workers; while the enterprise forgoes the vitality and daily inspiration that only truly come from engaging metropolitan surge.

There may be industries where this isn’t so relevant, but I think you’ll find that those currently thought of as “creative” are not to be found numbered among them. The quality that has latterly become the focus of so much interest depends on having the street and its currents ready to hand, almost by definition. That there’s an affinity between creativity, new organizational forms and high-quality, service-dense urban life is implicit in both Work and the City and Rework — occasionally breaching the surface in the latter, as when a passage on sticking to principle is inspired by the get-’em-while-they’re-fresh dogma of Vinnie’s Sub Shop.

Between them, the texts limn a world in which smaller, faster, lighter organizations (Robert Fripp‘s “small mobile intelligent units”?) all but effortlessly out-innovate competitors many times their size, both driving and requiring changes in the way cities are organized to support them.

If you’re an MBA, this shouldn’t come as any surprise a’tall: you’ve been prepared for this moment by years of rhetoric about creative destruction, disruptive innovation, “rightsizing” and refactoring, to the point that you’re more dedicated to the Body-without-Organs than any actual Deleuzian I’ve ever met. In this light, Rework‘s just another collection of sonnets to the asymmetrical threat.

If you’re running a city, though, there’s stuff here you probably ought to be paying attention to. The message is that in the long run you’re clearly better off underwriting a vibrant ecosystem of these than shelling out one tax break after another in the hopes of enticing (or retaining) corporate headquarters. Beyond the pecuniary, the payoffs are many, whether they show up as improved robustness and resilience, enhanced quality of life, or a reputation for enabling healthier work/life patterns. And I, for one, would be delighted to see that happen.

8 responses to “Rework and the city”

  1. Andrew says :

    I actually like going to the office to work, and being I the same physical place as co-workers. I’ve always kind of hated working at home or at a coffeeshop. Though I’d like the office more if I had a door I could close once in a while.

    Re: city corporate campuses, Amazon’s moving from one part of downtown to another this year and next. We’re moving from a few bug buidlings to a number if small ones that run down a street among other businesses. Now, the whole area (South Lake Union) is a gentrification project of 2006-era ambition and money (and I’ve heard it’s the biggest single construction project in the US at the moment), but it’s also being done pretty well, and should be a lot more integrated into the area than the current anonymous spaces.

  2. Andrew says :

    Wow, the iPhone really is not the right tool for writing long comments, is it? I rilly kin spel rite most of the time.

  3. AG says :

    I probably wouldn’t mind going to the office myself…if it had been designed more sensitively, if it was set up in such a way as to allow me to get any thinking or reading whatsoever done on its grounds, if it didn’t compel me to take my lunch in a high-schoolish cafeteria (and pay for the privilege), if I could walk from there to anything, anything at all…

    But Duffy throws this kind of griping into really stark relief. He points out that the problem isn’t really with how comfortable we find our offices, but with how incredibly inefficient they are at doing what they’re supposed to — an index of inefficiency that we’d accept virtually nowhere else in society. (Consider that under conditions of absolute peak load, most offices are only about 60% utilized, and that is at most during eight of twenty-four hours, during five of seven days.)

    You know that “sustainability” has never been particularly close to the top of my concerns, but that strikes even me as obscene.

  4. Klintron says :

    I’m not entirely sure how seriously to take this sort of thing, as of yet.

    The “information economy”/creative industries/knowledge work/whatever is not an insignificant component of a city’s economic, but if you consider the sorts of critical work that is to be done over the next few decades – rebuilding infrastructure (especially in the States, but this applies everywhere), manufacturing and installing new sources of electricity, reconfiguring transit systems, localizing agriculture, etc. etc. – how much of this can be done “remotely” or by workers who choose their own hours?

    37 Signals advice may well for small software development and graphic design firms, but I can’t really see it applying to wind turbine factories, light rail maintenance crews, autoshops, restaurants, elementary schools, and many other businesses and organizations that make up the economic and civic life of a city.

  5. Fred Scharmen says :

    Adam, I’m curious about how you would link up this post and the Harvey Milk writeup above it. Given the kind of continuity that’s increasingly smoothed out between work -> cultural production -> affect -> and politics, what is it that makes Harvey more effective on the streets, in a specific place with constituents, that doesn’t apply to a spatially distributed startup?

    Also in passing, there’s a striking contrast between this type of communication-technology-enabled decentralization and the kind of sprawl predicted in something like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre. If Broadacre is a move from city centers to total dispersion and dissolution, the 37 Signals model goes from one center to *many* centers.

  6. J.D. Hollis says :

    I think it’s noteworthy that 37signals has since built themselves an office.

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