Making cities easier to use

I always have a hard time explaining what we do at The Open Planning Project.  The front page of our website reads: “TOPP is a catalyst.  We empower civil society through software, media, and smart urban policy.”  While this makes sense if you think about it for a while, when I first say it to people I’m usually met with blank stares.  I don’t mean to dig on TOPP — a lot of effort went into writing that tagline, and believe me, earlier versions were more abstract and less punchy.

Prior to this current version, we had a different tagline: “Virtual tools for real-world change.”  That’s what our t-shirts still say on them, and I don’t mind it.  It has a skyline above it, implying a connection with cities, which I like.

But still, I don’t think we have a compelling enough elevator pitch — a description that doesn’t take five minutes and a walk-through of our org chart to explain.

So recently, I’ve been trying out something new.  I’m experimenting with the following explanation:

(standard disclaimer)  “We’re a non-profit software company; yeah, it’s a bit strange, I know.”

“We build software that makes cities easier to use.  You know, like, making it easier to get around, to interface with your government, and to connect with your neighbors.”

This morning, I tried this on a friend at the gym, and I got an “Oh, cool!  You mean like public transportation?  My friend in Seattle was telling me about GPS on buses there — how come we don’t have that in NYC?”  Bingo.

So, I’m going to test this out a little more.  Making cities easier to use.  I like it.  I just updated my twitter description with that; we’ll see if anyone notices.

To get a little more specific, here are some of the questions I think we’re trying to answer that fall under this larger goal:

How can we make it easier to…

  • get around? (ideally by foot, bike, or transit)
  • interface with government? (who reps me? who supports me?  how can I help?  how can I be heard?)
  • connect with neighbors? (who lives on my block?  what do we have in common?  how can we help each other?)
  • be involved in shaping the future? (combining the two above: connecting with neighbors and interfacing with gov)

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to make a city easier to use, that lots of creative projects (many of them NYC-based startups) are already addressing:

How can we make it easier to…

Given all of these questions and more, it’s highly likely that Making cities easier to use is still too broad; but there’s no question that it’s easier to explain, which is a start.

And for those of you struggling with similar issues of tagline-choosing, see Seb‘s brand-spanking-new conjoint.py decision-making tool, which OpenGeo has been using recently during its own tagline discussion.

// Photo of crumpled city map by Emanuele Pizzolorusso via MoCo loco

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