If you want creativity, take a zero off your budget

A Bus Rapit Transit station in Curitiba. Source: Spatial Agency.

“If you want creativity, take a zero off your budget. If you want sustainability, take off two zeros.”

This quote belongs to Jaime Lerner — architect, urban planner, mayor of Brazilian city Curitiba, and revolutionary thinker. He passed away last week.

Lerner’s most famous urban planning inventions came from necessity. For example, when he didn’t have the budget for a subway, he simply dedicated road lanes to buses and called it “bus rapid transit”. His BRT system was able to 2 million passengers around every day, at 1% of what a subway would have cost.

Thinking about Lerner’s innovations in urban planning reminds me of the Innovator’s Dilemma.

In technology, it’s widely understood that disruptive innovation comes from the bottom and not the top. To be an innovator you need to find customers who are willing to take the risk on new technologies that are still unproven. The only customers who are only willing to do that are either too budget-conscious, too few in number, or too crazy for big businesses to bother with. That’s why startups get a head start in new technologies, and that’s they end up disrupting industries. It’s how Amazon killed Borders.

Similarly, cities that are too successful are subject to the same risks of stagnation as big companies. San Francisco attracted too many technology companies and ended up pricing out essential workers. New York City attracted too many wealthy people and ended up with luxury condominiums that are half-empty because developers thought they should build for Chinese or Russian billionaries instead of for locals. Singapore is filling up with ultra-high net worth individuals who buy Bentleys sight unseen over Facebook Messenger, but the city-state might be better off trying to attract foreign students and refugees.

Cities thrive because of creative energy, which comes not from the superwealthy but from youth, immigrants, students, scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs. The great cities of the next 50 or 100 years will be the cities that can attract people who are willing to take risks, be nimble, and innovate. In other words, people like Jaime Lerner.




I write about real estate development, real estate investing, urbanism, cities and sustainability.

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Julia Zhou

Julia Zhou

I write about real estate development, real estate investing, urbanism, cities and sustainability.

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