Not-So-Real Estate Suzanne Gibbs Howard

Flexibility and rapid change in the rigid urban landscape

We’ve grown accustomed to the Internet as a platform built around behaviors of rapid adaptability and user responsiveness. Within this paradigm, businesses and individuals take action and capture large audiences at a pace that would seem impossible ten years ago. Now there is an increasing desire to enable that same flexibility and speed of responsiveness in the physical public space of our cities.

However, unlike the online world, there are rigid constraints in urban real estate with limitations from property laws, city ordinances, and the length of time, effort, and capital it takes to rent, purchase, or modify property. Despite this, many companies and individual initiatives are recognizing that the way to capture an audience “in real life” is to create constantly evolving and participatory spaces that do not yield to the limitations of the traditional-built environment.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

Pop-up for the people

Pop-up retail has been a great way for major retailers to create a temporary presence in a new urban market or for new companies to gain public awareness. In 2007, before launching its first store in New York, Japanese apparel company UNIQLO deployed several shipping-container stores around town with merchandise tailored to each neighborhood.

Now creative entrepreneurs are getting in on the action. Geraldine and Wayne Hemingway got their start as designer/retailers working out of “easy in/easy out” stalls in London’s Camden neighborhood in the early 1980s. Fed up with the challenges entrepreneurs face in creating a retail presence, they started KiosKiosk in 2009. The system of portable stalls, located in some of London’s busiest and trendy pedestrian shopping districts, has garnered support from even the mayor.

Like a physical version of, KiosKiosk gives individual entrepreneurs access to the same shoppers many larger retailers attract, without the large up-front investment or overhead of commercial real estate.

How can campaigns and experiments gain access to large audiences via a physical presence?

Pay-to-play collaboration

Jonathan Robinson had worked on social ventures from London to Soweto and Barcelona. Thriving on interactions with like-minded people, he wanted to build a network where people could collaborate and share more frequently than the occasional conference or online forum allowed. So he created The Hub, a network of social innovation incubators located in London, Bristol, Johannesburg, Sao Paulo, and a growing number of other cites.

The Hub provides space-on-demand, giving members a place to work and connect with potential partners and clients. Tiered membership levels allow some startups to drop in for meeting space, while others become permanent fixtures for an extended period of time.

“We set out to create places that borrow from the best of a member’s club, an innovation agency, a serviced office, and a think-tank to create a different kind of innovation environment,” Robinson says.

How can real-estate-on-demand provide better access for individuals and small businesses while increasing the efficient use of the urban space?

One ’hood at a time

Adrian and Mark are Zipcar members living in New York’s Upper West Side, where the car-share company has an abundance of Mini Coopers, each with its own name. Many Friday nights during the summer, Mark surprised Adrian by saying, “Let’s take Bosco up to the Catskills.”

The little roadsters are perfect for the neighborhood’s mostly two-person households. But other areas have other needs. Mark often splits his time between his management consultancy’s Financial District and Midtown offices, where client-friendly BMW 328s through Zipcar are in ready supply. In Soho, Adrian notes a lot of Scion xBs and Honda Elements — again, through Zipcar. These cars are perfect for small business supply runs.

Zipcar’s decentralized car allocation lets the company put specific cars where demand requires. By taking advantage of underutilized parking lots and gas-station parking, Zipcar can quickly adapt to the demands of its clientele, neighborhood by neighborhood. And the company’s “Zipcars Live Here” signage helps market the message of convenience right in the backyard of potential new members.

How can businesses make the most of physical resources? How might tweaks in the use of space and resources create massive impact
for customers?

One space, many programs

When Muicca Prada needed a unique temporary exhibition space for the Prada Foundation in Beijing, she teamed up with long-time collaborator and visionary architect Rem Koolhaas to create the Prada Transformer. For the first few months, the Transformer housed Miucca’s “Waist Down” exhibit, after which four cranes flipped the tetrahedron structure onto another side. The structure’s four facades (cross, hexagon, rectangle, and circle) each became the footprint for a cinema, fashion runway, and art exhibition. Presently located on the grounds of an ancient Palace in central Seoul, the whole structure will soon be packed up and resettled somewhere else on the planet.

By any means necessary

San Francisco’s Proposition G limits the use of billboard advertising in the city. But that hasn’t stopped many companies from advertising. Intel convinced the landlord of a vacant Disney Store to clad the entire Market Street storefront with a blue advertisement for the processor company. Although the practice may challenge Proposition G, it shows that public space is still valuable for getting a message out to a wide audience.

Restaurant on the move

For Pizzaiolle restaurant-chain-owner Daniel Noiseux, investment costs were getting in the way of a new venture. So he created Müvbox, a gourmet fast-food restaurant based out of a modified shipping container. It can go from big metal box to open restaurant in 1.5 minutes with a push of a button. Best of all, the restaurant’s portability allows it to be relocated wherever demand takes it. It weighs only 6 tons and fits on the back of truck (unlike most restaurants).

Fuel to see cities as fluid

Underground restaurants such as Atlanta’s RogueApron keep the restaurant scene fresh by nomadically shifting locations.

Enabled by T-Mobile, FlashMob advertising helped shape London’s busy Liverpool station on January 15, 2009.

New York’s ImprovEverywhere has created large-scale, viral performance art.

Guerilla knitters in Brooklyn tag public street furniture with their craft.



June 8, 2010

While working in Chicago, I continue see more evidence of unique participatory hybrids in retail.  Transistor, located in the Andersonville neighborhood, is a phenomenally participatory space that goes beyond “just selling stuff” to become a community center for those of us who geek out about sound + vision. In their own words, Transistor “is equal parts art gallery, book and magazine shop, CD & record store, electronics boutique, and more, broken into two halves: sound + vision. We feature free film screenings (Tuesdays), live performance events (Fridays), workshops, pingpong and a weekly webcast.”
I saw a local artist perform on a home-made electronic didgeridoo, played with a theremin, browsed some photography books, and got tapped into a local subculture in a little over an hour.

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June 11, 2010

And here’s another one from CHItown, Chicago’s Legal Cafe. Mazie Harris is a lawyer who wanted to create a different setting for legal counseling. The Legal Cafe is a pretty standard coffee shop from the front with the exception of the quotations from the Miranda Rights and other laws hanging on the wall. But in the back, Mazie and her colleague have a mezzanine level office, and they have 30 lawyers who take time during the month to meet with customers in the the casual cafe setting. An interesting hybrid that takes from an existing experience and adds a whole new way to gain value.

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June 25, 2010

Seems likes many opportunities for these new experiences (retail, education, professional services) arise from changing ideas about the “ownership” of spaces (and the information, products, services within them).  When traditional views about mine vs. yours change, it enables new things to happen like writing/retail at 826 Valencia ( or banking/meeting/working at ing cafes ( or ad hoc collaboration at coworking sites ( By rethinking ownership, there is then potential for people to share resources, ideas, and experiences.

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July 5, 2010

Many companies and individual initiatives are recognizing that the way to capture an audience in real life is to create constantly evolving and participatory spaces that do not yield to the limitations of the traditional-built environment.

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July 13, 2010

Thanks, Elliot! We are definitely experiencing a shift in the definition of ownership of semi-public spaces. I love the New Work City example! Especially interesting that they even made the location hunt a participatory experience.

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July 13, 2010

Thanks, Kattima. It would be great to hear more examples of these phenomena in India!

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Beau Trincia

November 2, 2010

For a constant feed of recent examples of these phenomena, including some recent posts from Brazil!, please visit my blog.

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Beau Trincia

November 30, 2010

If I wrote this article today, I would have probably traded out the Zipcar example for Getaround, a San Francisco startup that will soon allow car owners to rent their car to their neighbors on an hourly basis!

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