Making our digital cities walkable

There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. -Jane Jacobs

I am obsessed with the teachings of Jane Jacobs – ‘What would Jane do?’ is a question I often ask myself when scoping a new digital community project. When Walkable City was published in 2012, I was immediately drawn to the concepts author, Jeff Speck, championed because they were a modern interpretation of the community principles Jane Jacobs advocated. Walkable City  is a book that inspires me to think about how we can make our own digital spaces – workplace and consumer communities – walkable.

What do I mean when I advocate for walkable digital spaces within an ecosystem? Make it easy for your consumer to find the right content/community at the right place and right time. Perhaps, if we consider the digital ecosystem instead of individual pages, microsites, and communities, we can increase the value of the whole. I challenge you to look at your company’s website or intranet or community space – who owns the space(s)? You may immediately answer: sales, communications, human resources…, but do they really? In reality, the space is most-likely subsidized by many business units and communication/marketing campaigns with competing interests and varying levels of funding and executive support or interaction. Sleek landing page design may be hiding a multitude of sins…drop-down and hamburger navigation menus that trigger panic in a new hire or an employee on a deadline seeking information or personal contact. Rather than reflecting a healthy digital ecosystem, your digital spaces look more like urban sprawl complete with digital deserts and highways cutting off one space or community from complimentary resources.

The digital workplace is part of a greater ecosystem. It is a mistake to think or plan for the digital workplace as a standalone node within a digital wasteland of failed microsites and intranet redesign projects. Cutting corners does not result in making better places for connection, community, collaboration, communication, and creativity. Yet, aspiring for greatness is not enough…we need to see the path and all that is required to make decisions for, prioritize, and invest in the future. There is no single front door to the workplace, just as there is no one path to navigate the physical halls. We cannot forget the lessons learned from physical urban planning as we design our digital spaces.

We are building digital cities.

Similar to physical city planning, digital urban / community planners or architects need to be armed with how to sell walkability to receive consistent and ample funding to invest in the economics, health, climate, equity, and community of their desired digital space. This is no easy task because there is a false sense of simplicity to digital, social, and community projects. Companies of all sizes are swept-up in thinking there is a one-time cost to design or underestimate the time and energy needed to foster connection.

Over the next several months, I will be reflecting on how Speck’s recent book, Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places, may be applied to the digital frontier. Let’s cut through the marketing consultant jargon and frame the scaffolding you will need to structure your vibrant digital space, by:

  1. Understanding the digital ecosystemWhat does the digital city include and how do I sell this concept to management, peers, and consumers?
  2. Establishing zonesHow do I take on the role of a place-maker and create safe spaces for engagement, creativity, innovation, and collaboration?
  3. Building crosswalksHow do I easily connect digital neighborhoods?
  4. Developing green spacesHow do I create free-range activity and interaction that is not stifled by management or short-term engagement bribes? 
  5. Packaging experiencesHow do I learn from community interactions and experiences to continuously refresh company intranet/website/community design and navigation?

It is time to go beyond theory, begin shaping strategy into action, and forge pathways connecting our digital neighborhoods into a thriving digital ecosystem.

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