Model City: Rule of Innovation

Model City: Rule of Innovation
John Elrick and Will Payne

Under police escort in the dead of night, a specially equipped truck was poised to patrol San Francisco’s Market Street. Its objective: Transubstantiate the thoroughfare by showering it with lasers.

Rather than a plotline from a cyberpunk paperback, this was the scene painted by the city’s Department of Public Works early last year. In November 2015, the DPW outlined its plan to create a “fly-through model” of Market Street by deploying light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology. “The lasers hit things,” explained project manager Simon Bertrang, and “the machine will take the readings and convert it into a cloud of 3D information.” Though postponed due to weather, the DPW’s survey—pursued on behalf of the Better Market Street renewal plan—points toward a broader project reconfiguring the relationship between public and private in San Francisco. It casts light on the construction of a new model for urban life.

Market Street, cradle of “Web 2.0,” offers a window into dynamics unfolding across the Bay Area today. Since 2008 a new crop of tech-driven investments and enterprises specializing in “disruptive innovation” has proliferated throughout the region. In 2011, Mayor Ed Lee’s administration began cultivating growth along San Francisco’s Mid-Market corridor by pushing through the Central Market Payroll Tax Exclusion, a policy that slashed payroll taxes for firms planting roots within a designated archipelago of urban parcels. The area now hosts Twitter’s new corporate headquarters, which shares the ground floor of the Art Deco Merchandise Mart building with a gourmet food market, the Market on Market, and a burgeoning cohort of startups. These tax incentives, along with firm expansion in residential growth-restricted Silicon Valley, have triggered an influx of tech workers into San Francisco, a development boom, precipitous gentrification, and periodic protest.

Much ink has been spilt on the city’s transformation, but relatively little on the political vision animating it. Today, a network of civic innovation advocates seeks to apply the principles of the tech sector to the city’s management. While proponents of civic innovation encompass a range of actors—from new media entrepreneurs to urban policy think tanks—the movement’s strongest institutional expression can be found in the mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. Created by Lee in 2011 to “embed startup DNA into government,” the office aims to encourage the city’s “innovation ecosystem” without intervening in market effects. Besides building public-private partnerships and promoting a culture of innovation within City Hall, the office’s main goal is to put public resources, data and space, to more entrepreneurial ends.

At the level of political reason, civic innovation entails redefining the role of city government and re-envisioning it along the lines of an enterprise. Not only should government be lean and flexible, it should also be transparent and competitive by providing open access to public resources as part of a strategy to attract human and financial capital. Modeling government on a startup calls for re-imagining the relationship between residents and the institutions of collective decision-making as one in which customers ostensibly co-create with market suppliers by receiving services from and providing input to them via web platforms. A crucial distinction exists in this vision between government-as-startup and startups themselves. Though the former should be modeled on the latter and evaluated as such, its activities should be limited to fostering market conditions. Tim O’Reilly, the tech-publishing entrepreneur and coiner of the term Web 2.0, suggests that “In this model, government is a convener and an enabler rather than the first mover of civic action.” Rather than pursue social welfare through redistributive policies, government is relegated in this view to laying the groundwork for market competition. This bears real-life resemblance to Bay Area game developer Will Wright’s massively successful SimCity series of urban simulations (themselves based on the work of system dynamics pioneer Jay Forrester), in which one can lower taxes and bulldoze slums, but public housing and community land trusts are impossible.

In practice, efforts to enable civic action have focused on making the landscape into a stage for innovation. As investments began to blossom in the tax exclusion area after 2011, planners and policy makers – along with local businesses, bike advocates, and social entrepreneurs – attempted to “reclaim” Market Street through a variety of public initiatives. With its Living Innovation Zone program, a pilot started in 2013 to facilitate the installation of exhibits on Market, the Office of Civic Innovation took the lead. By demonstrating how technology and design might be mobilized to “activate” space, these “innovation zones” effectively serve as test sites for the Better Market Street project, a multi-agency effort to turn Mid-Market into an innovation district and the driving force behind laser-mapping expeditions in the city. Premised on a spine of “street life zones” along the corridor, Better Market Street offers a model for urban living that yokes everyday conversation and discovery – social life writ large – to the dictates of market innovation. And as web-based technologies render the boundary between production and reproduction as porous as the space between buildings, the sparks of interaction among specks of human capital appear to offer the stuff of market value.

The transformation of the city at large into a lab for innovation has taken hold through processes of exclusion. Indeed, the current administration has targeted Mid-Market with heightened policing and public health measures, such as nightly sidewalk hose-downs, to clear the street of undesired elements. At its root, civic innovation is based on an inclusive, if narrowly defined, notion of participation. As long as individuals follow the rules, they are welcome to play. But rubrics must be learned. “In the past,”  suggested Greg Niemeyer, “monuments were made of bronze. In the future, monuments will be made of code. They will continue to instill civic values, but they will use different strategies.” Whether a real-time digital display encouraging passers-by to “see” themselves in remotely sensed data, “whispering dishes” inviting intimate conversation amid the bustle of the street, or a mobile art workspace emphasizing flexibility as a condition of production, these monuments or innovation zones enroll socio-technical forms of interactivity to impress upon city dwellers the benefit of acquiring new skills, relations, work habits, and ways of seeing. They are the design equivalents of workforce training programs. With the city figured here as a workshop for innovation, public space becomes a terrain upon which to mold urban subjects themselves into lean startups or self-investing bits of human capital.

Given the DPW’s charge to power-wash homelessness off Market Street, it’s ironic that its laser-mapping excursion was scuttled by rain. Precipitation throws off LiDAR scans, generating patchy data. Undeterred, the department made plans for future expeditions; by combining data from several surveys, it hopes to build a near-perfect representation of the thoroughfare. For civic innovation advocates, the importance of such a model lies in its character as a tool with which to remake the city into a site of market innovation. This political vision has as much to do with the nature of individual and collective life as it does with the built environment; remaking the latter offers a means to reconfigure the former.


  • Anti-Eviction Mapping Project <>
  • Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Zone Books (2015).
  • Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner, “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America,” Brookings Institution (May 2014).
  • Tim O’Reilly, “Government as a Platform,” Innovations (2011).
  • Katie Palmer, “Bombarding San Francisco with Lasers to Create a Perfect 3-D Map,” Wired (Nov 18, 2015).
  • San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, A Startup Called Government: Our First Year in Retrospect. InnovateSF (2013).
  • John Stehlin, “The Post-Industrial ‘Shop Floor’”: Emerging Forms of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Innovation Economy,” Antipode (2015).