The Potential of Platforms

"Find other rooms which exist in the space." - Yoko Ono, Serpentine Gallery, London 2012
“Find other rooms which exist in the space.” – Yoko Ono, Serpentine Gallery, London 2012

I’m often asked for my opinion or direct assistance to increase engagement in cities and their spaces or services, or even across a company’s existing offering. Frequently, the thing being discussed is quantified as a “product”, a fixed end result of the effort. There’s nothing wrong with the word in itself – shipping product is an attractive notion, but it is limiting. But my first advice is that there is always more value in thinking about creating platforms instead of products.

Products have a finite ability to engage. Platforms are much more resourceful, agile and dynamic. Products tend to be the end result of a creative process. Platforms are more often the beginning of another one. If we embrace areas and services of the city – and the city itself – as a platform instead of a fixed product, and design as catalyst for platforms open to development after the designer steps away, our future possibilities for engagement are wide open.

People Want Platforms
There are plenty of examples of opportunities that open up once products are reconsidered as platforms. Apple’s iOS was never originally intended to be a platform at all. When the original iPhone was released in 2007, Apple wouldn’t allow independent developers to create native applications for the device. If people wanted custom apps, said Apple, they could be created as Web apps and accessed on the Web using Safari, but that there was “no need” for developers to create applications beyond what was shipped with the phone. Five years later, the need and desire among consumers and developers for the iPhone and its OS to be a platform and not a standalone product is clear with 1 million third party applications developed so far, producing $4.9 Billion in revenue for the company in 2012 alone.

We can find parables today in design hacking, urban intervention, street art, and many other examples of DIY actions being taken to transform a fixed environment into a platform for independent development.

Going a bit further into the story of the iPhone as a platform, a lesson can be found that is applicable far outside the tech world. When the original “iPhone OS” was first introduced with the iPhone, developers looked under the hood and found Unix. Beneath the new exterior was a familiar, common interior language which gave developers the intellectual platform to start developing their own apps. As noted, Apple at first refused to allow them into the system, so the early developers jailbroke their phones to allow their own custom applications to run on it. We can find parables today in design hacking, urban intervention, street art, and many other examples of DIY actions being taken to transform a fixed environment into a platform for independent development.

Platforms turn users into developers
A platform mentality enables independent development at a much more agile, micro scale as well. Twitter, for example, was launched with few of the engagement features we now consider to be its core functions: #hashtags, @replies, and retweets were developed by users organically as the service grew. This user-developed functionality bakes-in value as features aren’t rolled out to users, but created by users during use of the service.

Discussions are shifting from “what’s your product”, to “what’s your platform?”

Even outside of technology, or perhaps especially outside of it, embracing a platform mentality can be equally rewarding. The popular DIY design / hacking activities at the heart of the “Ikea Hacker” trend that reached critical mass a couple years ago transformed Ikea in many people’s eyes from a retailer of defined projects to a platform for personal design possibilities. By taking one or more products and assembling them based upon personal needs and preference instead of according to the set instructions, the company’s product line became a platform of opportunity.

As part of my longtime working with and writing about design hacking, I spent a lot of time researching and exhibiting Ikea Hacks, which lead to me being invited to Oslo, Norway several years ago to give a talk about Ikea Hacking at one of the company’s get togethers. After my talk, I met some Ikea execs from the mothership in Sweden, and asked them their thoughts on Ikea Hacking. “We know about it,” said one executive, “we’re just watching and enjoying.”

In the few years since, open approaches to urban planning, tactical urbanism, open design, 3D printing, hackerspaces, open source hardware, and many other cultural and creative developments have shown what a platform-based mentality can have on design, cities, space and consumer engagement. It’s an exciting time, and a long-overdue moment when discussions are shifting from “what’s your product”, to “what’s your platform?”


  1. Am responding here because this is a great post to encourage alternative ways of thinking, particularly when it comes to thinking about the future of our traditional institutions. Here at Street Lab, after experimenting with a number of different things, we have decided that the library is an ideal platform for any number of non-profit, urban improvement/community development “apps.” Hence our Uni Project, a portable, pop-up library. Others are increasingly exploring libraries in this light (see We’d love people to design some apps for our mobile street library, the Uni! (Think of it as interventions within an intervention).

    (Scott, I actually met you back in Manchester about 10 years ago (!), when I was interested in getting a network of pop-up storefront museums about cities going. Would love to reconnect.)

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