The Agile Architect

Beyond Development: The Agile City

Agile doesn't just apply to software. Cities around the country are experimenting with agile practices to change how they govern. This is the story of one such unbelievable town.

The word "agile" has broken out of the software community and is in common use across multiple industries. The agile message of responding to change  and adaptability, decreased delivery cycles to increase learning and effectiveness have transcended software development and become common buzzwords across a multitude of industries. Search the web and you will find agile construction, agile plumbing, even agile lawyers!

The government is also going agile. The DOD announced in 2014 that agile is a key component of its DoD Modernization program.

Now, U.S. cities are getting into agile. For an incredibly audacious story, read on.

San Joaquin, Texas: A New City Created from the Ground Up with Agility
While cities like San Jose, Calif. are impressively on the cusp of agility in governing, they pale in comparison to the experiment being performed by the founders of the City of San Joaquin, Texas.

San Joaquin is an experiment in building a city from the ground up. After the Texas legislature realized that they needed a new city to act as technology hub and incubator for the state, they commissioned the San Joaquin planning committee to design a great IT city from scratch.  And to do that, the committee decided to use the same agile techniques that make IT great.

But while the scope of the experiment is ambitious, San Joaquin has started out quite small. Starting with the principal of early delivery, the city founders opted to open the city to residents as soon as they had a minimal viable city. With almost no infrastructure and few stores (just enough to buy essentials like groceries), San Joaquin was open for business.

Rather than creating a large city plan up front, the founders embraced the concept of a self-organizing city. Would people want to live in suburban areas separate from the business districts or intermixed throughout? The city founders have been silent on this, allowing businesses and residents to decide for themselves. While the city property has been divided into small lots for easy sale, anyone can buy as many lots as they desire and build across lots with no zoning restrictions.

And now, you are probably wondering how they build roads when there is no planned city structure. That was sure my big question. The answer is even more audacious. There are none! The book "Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems" by Beyer and Holtzblatt introduces the concept of building software based on how users want to do their work, not on how software developers think it should be done.

One example in the book turns out to be particularly prescient.  It describes a hypothetical planning process for a new city park. In this process, the park is created, trees are planted, statues and other features are added but no paths are paved through the park. Instead, they advocate having the park visitors walk across the grass. Once this happens, wear on the grass becomes visible where people are commonly walking, revealing where the paved walking paths should go.

And now back to San Joaquin. They have taken this particular lesson to heart. Since the city is located on hard soil -- which is relatively easy to drive on and difficult to wear down -- they are taking advantage of this feature to delay building roads. (Although there is an interstate nearby.) Instead, they have teamed with Google to track driving patterns throughout the area. Once these patterns are known, city planners can determine the best locations and types of roads to build. Truly a brilliant application of the agile "last responsible moment" principal.

The philosophy behind city government is even more interesting. Initially, the city founders intended to have the citizens create a city charter. However, that turned out to be a long and tedious process with most citizens less interested in making a working charter and more interested in, as one anonymous citizen put it, "Getting the damn thing over with!" In the end, the consensus was that an anemic charter provided little or no value, and perhaps stifled agility. Instead, the citizens agreed that current technology, as proven out in San Jose, could support a true democracy, with each citizen able to vote on every issue facing the city. Indeed, they decided there was no need for a mayor or city council since they were not forming a representational government. This made political parties obsolete as well.

For taxes, the citizens decided to take a page from Kanban with a continuous flow approach. By the power of their pure democracy, they have instituted a continuous flow of funds from the citizens, not to exceed the TIP (taxation in progress) limit. In this way, the city government can pay its bills without creating an excess inventory of cash.

Another fallout of the self-organizing city approach coupled with the principle of making decisions at the last responsible moment is that there are, as of now, no city laws in effect. Without the need to enforce local laws there is no need for a city police force or court system. Instead, the citizens have opted for a cadre of agile coaches that help them work through any issues that arise. The coaches also facilitate a city-wide series of bi-weekly retrospectives. Of course, state and federal laws are still enforced by their respective agencies.

But perhaps the most interesting part of this agile urban experiment is how the city founders and citizens decided to handle the sewage problem. You see, while we may not think about sewage in our day-to-day lives, it turns out that city managers and planners do. Sewage processing is quite expensive and the kinds of sewage a city generates can determine the best method of processing and disposal. With San Joaquin being a new city, there is no way to know what the sewage composition will be. And so, the decision was made to wait until the last responsible moment, deferring the decision on what kind of sewage processing infrastructure to build until there is enough evidence to choose the most efficient and cost-effective method.

Final Thoughts
At this time, I'm happy to say that the city of San Joaquin is thriving, building on their agility and providing living proof that agile principals can be applied to any situation at any time. While there is still the question of what kind of sewage plant to construct, the evidence is building. Literally. And so you can clearly see that the entire story of the City of San Joaquin is really just a load of...well, you know.

About the Author

Dr. Mark Balbes serves as Vice President, Architecture at WWT Asynchrony Labs, and leads multiple Agile projects for Government and Fortune 500 companies. He received his Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics from Duke University in 1992, then continued his research in nuclear astrophysics at Ohio State University. Dr. Balbes has worked in the industrial sector since 1995 applying his scientific expertise to the disciplines of software development. He has led teams as small as a few software developers to as large as a multi-national Engineering department with development centers in the U.S., Canada, and India. Whether serving as product manager, chief scientist, or chief architect, he provides both technical and thought leadership around Agile development, Agile architecture, and Agile project management principles.

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