Remaking a city by rethinking its design

Jennifer Magnolfi is an expert in designing workspaces that maximize effectiveness by increasing interaction among their inhabitants, but she had her hands full when it came to redesigning downtown Las Vegas. “This was the equivalent of the Wild West in programmability,” she¬†told the audience at our Roadmap conference on Tuesday.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh brought Magnolfi on for a stint to help on the Downtown Project, his $350 million attempt to revitalize a largely decrepit downtown Las Vegas by building a community around small businesses, communal areas and technology startups. Her work has largely been centered on building programmable spaces that can users can adapt to their own needs, but usually there are predefined expectations of what needs to happen in those spaces and who the users will be.

Among the co-working spaces, abandoned buildings and second-rate casinos that make up the area where the Downtown Project is focused, Magnolfi said “there were unpredictable design patterns that I did not expect to emerge from the system.”

She spoke about how people’s digital interactions were manifesting themselves in physical spaces, how an abandoned church became a Sunday morning yoga and health experience, and about how a team of volunteers armed with $10,000 and 48 hours turned a block of boarded-up buildings into neighborhood demonstration of what a green city would look like.

For me, the best thing about Magnolfi’s talk was its inherent promise. Is it possible to take a city where a sense of community — much less any actual neighborly interaction — has historically taken a backseat to cinder-block fences and staunch individualism, and program it into one where people meet, share ideas and thoughts, and come together to make it a better place? As a resident of Las Vegas, I certainly hope so.

Check out the rest of our Roadmap 2013 coverage here, and a video embed of the session follows below:

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A transcription of the video follows on the next page