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Is laneway housing a good idea or a bad idea?

As a follow up to my recent post called “Disrupting everything”, I thought I would share this talk by venture capitalist Chris Dixon at Y Combinator’s Startup School. In it, he talks about why good ideas often seem like bad ideas at first.

Chris frames the discussion by saying that when you have a good idea—that everyone else thinks is a bad idea—you effectively know a secret. But by a secret, it’s really that you believe something that nobody else believes to be true. So much so that when you try and tell everyone else about your secret, they all think you’re crazy, which is frustrating because it seems so obvious to you.

He then provides a number of characteristics that can help you identity good ideas that seem like bad ideas:

  • Powerful people dismiss them as toys.
  • They unbundle the functions done by others.
  • Did it originate as a hobby?
  • Do they challenge social norms?

Now, he’s obviously talking about startups, but I think the framework can apply outside of the technology world. I think it can apply to cities. 

To give you one example, let’s consider laneway housing. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a big supporter of laneway housing in Toronto. But that it’s something the city generally does not support.

However, there are laneway houses being built and they’re being built by architects and progressive urbanists. Some might even call it a hobby, because it remains a pretty tough business model at the moment.

Personally, I think one of the main reasons the city is unwilling to formally allow laneway housing is because it challenges social norms. I’ve read the staff reports and the meeting minutes: people think it’s weird to live off a laneway. In fact, in one case somebody asserted that since laneways are generally undesirable urban spaces, anybody who would want to live off one is almost surely a social degenerate.

But there’s absolutely nothing inherent to human beings that says we can’t live off a 5m wide street or that we can’t have a “house located behind another house.” Those are simply constructs we’ve created for ourselves.

So the next time you hear about an idea that you think seems like a bad idea, ask yourself: Is it really a bad idea or does it just make me feel uncomfortable because it contravenes the norm? Taking yourself out of your comfort zone is a good thing. It’s how we grow.

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