Tony Hsieh and the power of human ecosystems

Hsieh cites the work of Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser, whose book, Triumph of the City, declares that cities are the healthiest, greenest, and richest (in both cultural and economic terms) places to live. Hsieh cites research showing that “every time the size of a city doubles, productivity or innovation per resident increases by 15 percent, whereas when companies get bigger, productivity per employee goes down. So, part of our goal is to avoid that fate and kind of create this virtuous cycle between corporation and community and city so that we’re all benefitting from kind of a rising tide.”

Hsieh described the “three C’s” of his Vegas vision:

  • Collisions — “those random conversations when you run into someone at a bar or whatever, and it’s not someone that you necessarily talk to in your industry every day. And it just spawns new ideas or insights or patterns that they’ve discovered work in other industries.” He used Zappos current headquarters in Henderson, as an example. “In the building I’m in right now, there are doors all around the entire building. The previous tenant left all the doors unlocked so that employees can exit in and out of any side of the building. We decided to lock all the doors and force all of the employees through the front door in order to maximize the number of collisions among employees. The same type of thinking occurs at the city level when we think about how do we get people out on the streets.”
  • Co-learning — “the long-term vision is we want learning from external sources, but we also want the community to be teaching itself, and making itself smarter. And so, for example, we’re planning on investing in 100 to 200 small businesses that help build a sense of neighborhood and community. Maybe the florist is really good at marketing and the person who runs the coffee shop is really good at interviewing. So, ideally it’s something that they would all share with each other, within the community, and instead of everyone just being an island.”
  • Community — “the serendipitous encounters that you see from what’s happening right now in the Fremont East area [of downtown Vegas]. If you go to lunch or drinks or whatever for an hour, it’s normal to run into ten different people that you know. And that definitely helps that ongoing sense of serendipity and familiarity. It definitely helps in contributing to that sense of community. I guess it’s a widely overused word, so I try not to use it as often, but I guess we’re thinking of it more as the analogous thing to a company culture, but but just at a city level, so basically culture is to company as community is to city. And there’s lots of places that claim to have community, but don’t really.”

It’s an audacious idea: to transform not just a city, but a culture. Hsieh’s Las Vegas certainly isn’t the first planned city — there are dozens, from Reston, Virginia, to Foster City, California, in the United States, and from New Songo City, Korea, to Masdar, UAE — though this seems one of the first to have an entire cultural philosophy baked in.

But that’s not all that’s different here. Hsieh sees Las Vegas as a platform for start-ups and innovation, not just a series of well-tailored neighborhoods. And it’s that part of the project where he best syncs with VERGE, where the new ecosystems of players he envisions can create innovative solutions that address environmental and social challenges. That includes reurbanization — making cities vibrant, resilient, and hyperefficient environments in which to live, work, shop and play.

I asked Hsieh how much of what he and his partners in Las Vegas are doing is replicable in other cities. He was elusive — he’s focusing like a laser on this one-city experiment for now, not necessarily fostering meglomanic ambitions to create carbon copies across the land. But he clearly sees that what happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily have to stay there.

“I think five years from now people will turn around and ask what just happened in downtown Vegas,” he says. “It’s a complete 180° from where it was five years prior. And for downtown Vegas to become the most community-focused large city in the world and to have it be a place of inspiration and learning and community and happiness and productivity and innovation. Hopefully that will start the domino effect for other cities. Because if we can do it in downtown Las Vegas, then other cities don’t really have any excuses.”