What Chicago Can Learn from Apple

The City of Chicago and Apple Inc. have more in common than you might think. Chicago is America’s Second City, while Apple manufactures the world’s second computer, the Mac. Both have experienced periods of innovation and periods of stagnation, rule by inspirational leaders and rule by inept bumblers, days in the limelight and days in the shadows. They both pride themselves in being a bit more human than their competitors, with Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods and working-class roots, and Apple’s longstanding opposition to corporate groupthink.

Right now, however, Apple and Chicago are headed in different directions. Perhaps no company in history has been more consistently successful than Apple has over the past decade. From the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad to the MacBook Air, Apple has continued to defy skeptics’ low expectations and produce vibrant computing and media platforms. And Apple’s first developer conference since the death of Steve Jobs has shown that the loss of their charismatic leader has not slowed them down one bit.

Chicago is a much different story. In the past decade, as a new article in the City Journal tells it, Chicago has failed to live up to its lofty promise. Today’s Chicago is characterized by job loss, declining population, bureaucratic corruption, and looming fiscal catastrophe.

Now, one could easily chalk up Apple’s success and Chicago’s failure to Apple’s being a tech company and Chicago’s being a Midwestern city, but that gives far too much credit to Chicago’s leaders and far too little to Apple’s. Instead, I’d like to explore a few reasons why Apple has thrived and how these might translate to running a city.

  1. A friendly, easy-to-use development platform
    Critics have demonized Apple for making the iPhone and iPad’s operating system, iOS, a closed platform, where developers have no choice but to offer their wares through Apple’s own App Store. A criticism of a similar nature is directed at both iOS and Apple’s desktop and laptop operating system, OS X, for being restricted to run only on hardware devices manufactured by Apple. Indeed, Apple’s seeming propensity for absolute control of its software and hardware was often cited as a reason for Apple’s flagging market share during the 1990s.

    Yet today the iOS platform is booming with this very same formula. In the extremely fast-paced world of mobile app development, the ease of having to develop for only a small range of hardware configurations has won the hearts of developers, as a recent New York Times article asserts. Development on Google’s rival Android platform is complicated by the myriad of possible screen sizes, processor speeds, and hardware variations. Apple, by keeping things simple, has won over developers. There is also a benefit to end-users: you can be reasonably certain as an iPhone or iPad user that any app you download has been thoroughly tested on your particular device, if not by the developer, then by other users. With Android, it’s much less clear.

    Chicago can learn a lot from this. Developers face not only burdensome regulations but the necessity of winning aldermanic support. Consequently, the only way to develop in Chicago is to spend a lot of money working the complicated bureaucratic system. Just as having to deal with complicated hardware variants drives developers away from Android and makes it harder for end users to tell what they’re getting, regulations and the necessity of political patronage drive developers away from Chicago and make it unclear whether the residents of Chicago are really getting their money’s worth with new developments. Apple has shown that providing simplicity for developers is good for everybody.

  2. Mastery of the user interface
    One of the hallmarks of Apple products over the years has been a fantastic user experience. After pioneering the consumer-ready personal computer in 1977 with the Apple II, the company, under the guidance of human-computer interface pioneer Jef Raskin, began to look beyond mere functionality for a user interface that would be not just useable but intuitive. The Macintosh was what emerged from these efforts, and ever since, Apple has focused on perfecting design over eking out megahertz. This is why Apple has had so many devotees through good times and bad: most people prefer a computer that is natural and familiar to use rather than one that is the most technologically impressive.

    Cities, however, are all too frequently not built to human specification. A good operating system should be stable, reliable, clean, responsive, and easy to navigate, and it should be built to keep you and your things safe. So should a good city. But the modern American city fails at many of these tasks. Their patterns of building make it harder to get around without buying an expensive and dangerous third-party peripheral. Their bureaucracies are often unreliable and unresponsive. The excesses of outdoor space are often unsafe and unclean due to underuse. Judging by these criteria, Chicago looks less like OS X and much more like Windows Me.

  3. Willingness to disobey the loudest voices
    Perhaps the most perverse consequence of the status quo bias is that the very nature of the status quo imbues its supporters with plenty of strong arguments. Defending the status quo is almost mindlessly easy: just point to anything anybody likes, and there’s your argument. Backing change (by which I mean specific change, as opposed to Obama-esque Hope and Change) is much more difficult, since one must often rely on far less tangible evidence. As a result, proponents of the status quo are gifted with the loudest, most memorable arguments, the unshakeable assertion that things are fine just the way they are.

    Since Steve Jobs’s 1997 appointment as interim CEO, Apple has exhibited a tenacious desire to buck the status quo. Jobs pulled the plug on the Macintosh clones, third-party hardware licensed to run Apple’s operating system, which had been permitted a few years earlier in an attempt to grow their software’s market share by replicating Microsoft’s model for distributing their Windows operating system. The move had worked—Apple’s share of the operating system market grew rapidly in the clone years—but Jobs understood Apple’s potential as a combined hardware and software company, a venture that could not be sustained with the clones around. This move drew criticism from the tech world, and it indeed lost the company quite a bit of market share, but it set the stage for all of Apple’s successes to come.

    Apple’s introduction of the iMac in 1998 was a revolution in the personal computer business, a kick in the rear of the status quo. The iMac was widely criticized by tech pundits for lacking a floppy drive, which at that time was the primary means of sharing personal data between computers. But the rapid rise of the Internet was already well underway, and Apple understood that in a few years, nobody would be using floppy drives. They could have put a floppy drive in the iMac to silence the critics and make it a bit more adaptable to people’s current usage patterns. But by leaving the floppy drive out, Apple took the lead in the Internet revolution and hastened the abandonment of the antiquated floppy. In subsequent years, Apple would play the same game with other technologies. I’m typing this post on a MacBook Air with no ethernet port for physical network connectivity and no optical drive. Just a few years ago, such omissions would be unthinkable, but again, Apple knew when it was time to leave the past behind. Yesterday, Apple introduced a new flagship high-end laptop, also without ethernet and an optical drive. No doubt we will hear some grumbling on these omissions, but Apple has gained enough credibility over the years that when it decides to leave the past behind, others follow.

    Cities change much more slowly and last much longer than computers, so the status quo bias is even more pernicious. While everybody in the tech world waits eagerly for the next innovation, few people care about innovation in urban design. I can hardly blame them, for innovation in urban design is so rare. Chicago has taken some small steps, such as the installation of protected bicycle lanes. But such projects are a far cry from the Burnham Plan. Nobody would even consider such a massive change to city infrastructure today. But if you give the status quo an inch, it will take a mile. People will fight for inches on a street with six lanes of traffic and four lanes of parking and for the amount of parking available on their block.

    Steve Jobs’s true genius was to recognize that no amount of catering to the status quo will ever be enough. To progress and thrive, bold new ideas are needed. One of Jobs’s first actions upon his return to Apple was to commission the Think Different advertising campaign. While it may not have sold many computers, it vividly crystallized Apple’s philosophy about change and progress by celebrating those who “see things differently” and “have no respect for the status quo.” “You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them,” the ad continues. “About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward.” This is one of the main reasons I began this blog. As I stated in my first post, I don’t necessarily believe that my somewhat radical ideas will ever be implemented. But by putting them into the public sphere, I can hope to change the nature of the debate about our neighborhood and our city, and that alone can have enormous consequences.

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About Evan Jenkins

I am an algorithmic trader and occasional writer living in Hyde Park, Chicago. I recently received my PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago.
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