What if Steve Jobs was a housing developer?

A recent Urban Land Institute (ULI) conference posited a question to a panel of developers: “What if Steve Jobs had been a residential developer?”

steve jobs as developer

This question attempts to get to the root of disruptive technologies which could be applied to the housing industry, a business sector which has remained relatively unchanged since the mid-20th century with the commercialization of the suburbs.

While Steve Job’s innovations helped to ultimately revolutionize the public’s consumption of technologies, I’d argue it’s a bit more complicated translating this thought-process to housing and development: for example, the suburbs were created based on a combination of disruptive innovations in financing, transportation, manufacturing and infrastructure. But nevertheless, I tried.

Instead of rehashing what the panelists spoke about (you can watch the video above), I wanted to use Steve Jobs’ Six Pillars of Design Philosophy in an awkward attempt to apply them to urban development, city planning and the housing industry.

1.       Craft, above all

Quality, finish and aesthetic must be carried all the way through a product. A growing trend is Architects-as-Developers; initially started as a way to provide a steady “client” stream for out-of-work architecture firms, architects are now finding themselves providing a quality (and popular) product from conception through to delivery. Crain’s just published an article this December about three architect/development firms finding a growing niche for themselves. The big difference between a high-end tech product and a home is that shelter is a necessity. While architects will have to focus on craftsmanship, they are going to have to also make advances in creating a product that the masses can appreciate and afford; just like Steve Jobs did.

2.       Empathy

As a perfect segue from architect/developer trends, Steve Jobs recommends finding an intimate connection with the feelings of the customer, including people who are not your existing customers. A Steve Jobs developer wouldn’t take existing customers demands or acceptance-levels for granted, they would try to understand the consumer’s needs before they actually need it, and find out how they will behave heading into the future.

3.       Focus

Steve Jobs also recommended eliminating all of the unimportant opportunities. As developers and planners, this could ultimately lead to a focus on the “big picture” items: resource consumption, affordability, equity, and climate resiliency. I’d like to think of this as Maslow’s hierarchy; we can’t meet our true potential until these concerns are met first.

4.       Impute

People form an opinion about a company based on the signals that it conveys; a.k.a. they do judge a book by its cover. The truth of the matter is, that even if you don’t own an iPhone, you know what it is. In fact, you may even call all smartphones an iPhone, the same way one may call all plastic-wrap SaranWrap, or all soda Coke. So why don’t we all call apartments Trumps, or all condo’s Toll Brothers? Well one Brooklyn developer is attempting to brand a complete style of urban condo’s, called HelloLiving.  While not incredibly innovative, their attempt to impute a brand in Central Brooklyn to a lay-person could lay the groundwork for a customer to ask for a developer by name.

5.       Friendliness

Job’s thought tech could be friendly, something initially unheard of, and geared design towards novices and those easily overwhelmed. It can be difficult to master all of the technologies of a house (even one that is 100+ years old): think of all the plumbing, HVAC, and electrical systems, not to mention the craftsmanship required for plaster, carpentry, and glazing. As green-tech, smart-homes, and grid systems are increasingly introduced to homes, these systems will only further complicate and overwhelm the user/homeowner. Maybe there’s an app for that?

Ironically, Steve Job’s design inspirations were originally drawn from household appliances.

An urban planning example is the growing use of “big data” in order to understand and predict trends. Unfortunately, data can be hard to access, difficult for the public to use, or just non-existent. MIT Media Lab professor César Hidalgo is attempting to simplify and democratize big data with his Brazilian project DATAVIVA.

6.       Simplicity in metaphors from the past

They should be easy to use and intuitively obvious, and they should be based on things that people already understand; arguably skeuomorphic interfacing and the range of physical and gestural metaphors. How does this translate to homes? Well, for one thing, the form and function of development may not have to look like traditional architecture (I’m not anti-contemporary), but should at least function in a human-scale and in a way people have interacted with each other and space for thousands of years.

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