#29 Spectra: The City That Builds Cities with Ryan Rzepecki
Philippe I.
Jackson Steger
January 27th, 2023


[00:00:00] Jackson Steger: Hey there, you're listening to Campfire, a podcast where we interview leaders that are building new cities and other new models of living for digital nomads, creators, and remote work. My name is Jackson Steger, and I work with Cabin to develop new neighborhoods and grow a community of nature-loving creators and builders.

[00:00:18] Today's interview features Ryan Rzepecki, Founder and CEO of Spectra Cities, and former founder and CEO of JUMP Bikes: a bike share startup that sold to Uber in 2018. Spectra Cities just launched last week. It's a virtual city that builds real cities. Architects, engineers, urban designers, and more all collaborate in a virtual environment to design new cities using VR and other awesome technology.

[00:00:43] Our conversation today attends to answer the question, how do you cooperatively design and improve new cities before you build them? Campfire is produced by Cabin, which is building a new kind of city for creators called a network city. Our community is developing a global co-living network of physical locations that we call neighborhoods.

[00:01:00] If you wanna create cool things or live near nature with other thoughtful people nearby, you can learn more about us by visiting cabin.city. Ryan Rzepecki, welcome to Campfire.

[00:01:12] Ryan Rzepecki: Thanks for having me. This is great.

[00:01:14] Jackson Steger: Congrats on the launch of Spectra. We're gonna talk about Spectra. We're gonna talk about jump bikes and all kinds of fun stuff later in the show.

[00:01:23] But first, I just want to lean on your broader urban planning background. How have cities been planned for historically, and based on all the experiences that you've had, how should cities be planned?

[00:01:37] Ryan Rzepecki: Yeah. I'd say by and large cities haven't been very much planned in history and they're these sort of organic conglomerations of people and jobs, and they kind of grow iteratively over time.

[00:01:49] There have been a few big attempts at more top-down city planning. Occasionally, a country will move like its capital city to a different part of the country to kind of activate it. So something like Brasília or maybe you'll have a large company building a company town, or you also have things like the New York City Street Grid, uh, being put into place, which isn't like a complete city plan in terms of, we don't think of that as a, a startup city in the same way that we would think of Brasília, but it enabled the type of growth that followed. So yeah, by and large, around organic growth. And then maybe planning a street grid in, in the last 70 years or 80 years, or actually now it's closer to a hundred years, in the United States and many other places they've adopted Euclidian zoning, which is very descriptive in terms of what you can build and where. It's not even necessarily a programming every block, but it really restricts what can be built, and I'd say for the most part, has a negative effect on how things are built. Uh, what we're trying to do is allow for that sort of organic evolution of a city or of a concept for a city to happen, but to do that digitally.

[00:02:49] And so to find a large community of people that want to play around with urban design, with what the city for the future would look like, how would we organize transportation, how do we do food production? How do we manage waste? How do we do all those things and use virtual reality, and use virtual spaces to, to test these ideas, uh, get excited by certain different directions, then find a piece of land, and go out and build that in phases.

[00:03:12] And so, the idea is can you get that sort of organic evolution that you have in real cities? Have some of that take place digitally and have a community form around that digitally. Then find the land and then when you actually go to build, you're able to build a lot faster and some of the ideas have been tested along the way.

[00:03:26] Jackson Steger: Awesome. Yeah, that's a great segue. I would love for you to just share what is Spectra and who's it for?

[00:03:31] Ryan Rzepecki: Yeah so, our initial launch is focused for folks that may be urban planners, architects, civil engineers, interior designers, landscape architects, folks that are placemakers, and then people that are world builders, like virtual world builders.

[00:03:46] So people that have experience with the Unity game engine, people that do 3D asset modeling, people that are creating games. And so we wanna sit at the intersection of those two groups in two communities, the physical placemakers and the virtual world builders, and give them a shared set of tools. Give them an open source library of assets, and see what type of experimentation happens. We've released our V1 concepts, uh, and all of the assets that make it up as a, under a Creative Commons license, so you can actually download it, do with it what you like, and then hopefully some amount of that gets fed back into the project, and we continue to build out the virtual world.

[00:04:20] Jackson Steger: Yeah. Can you elaborate on that piece a little bit? It was unclear to me. I'm not super familiar with open-source model as a concept. Is there a strong revenue model in place for Spectra? Does there need to be? Like is the goal to make money or is that secondary?

[00:04:35] Ryan Rzepecki: So, the 20 or 30 year goal is to build an actual physical city of at least a million people.

[00:04:40] So it's, it's a real large city that would grow out of this community. And along the way to that, there's lots of different ways to monetize and to create value. Certainly just on taking raw land and turning it into a thriving city, there's a lot of value that's created there. I see there being projects along the way that each have their kind of own ownership structure and management.

[00:04:59] For example, we have a farm here in Puerto Rico, an 80 acre farm that I want to develop as part of Spectra and test some ideas around the types of buildings we wanna put on there. Maybe we have a cooperatively run agricultural component. So, test some of the governance ideas, test some of the physical placemaking ideas on a very small scale.

[00:05:17] I think there, there could be much bigger projects, neighborhood scale projects, more tourism focused projects. There could be a variety of projects that would want to tap into this community to test ideas, and if we've grown to a certain scale, could be a distribution outlet as well to find people that are interested in our projects.

[00:05:32] Is Spectra itself kind of the network, uh, something that makes money directly? I think maybe in time. I think there's also probably, there's probably a crypto angle on that as well, but I think the first thing is to actually build a community and build a community that's actually interested in place making and interested in building cities.

[00:05:48] And then we can layer on those economic incentives later and figure out the right governance model. We've sort of outlined in the white paper a multi-layered governance structure where each block has its governance: it's a cooperative or something like a kibbutz, which is communal living idea. And then that kind of ladders up and stacks up to a city level government.

[00:06:06] So I think we're gonna run a lot of experiments on governance and there's also a lot of economic experimentation that can happen as well. So yeah, I think there'll be a time and place for Spectra to accrue value itself at the network level. But well before that, I think there's specific projects that will have a more directly investible and a more directly monetizable path.

[00:06:24] Jackson Steger: Sure. Yeah. I appreciate that context. I'm curious, though at Cabin, we also a attract many of these builder types, these urban designers, civil engineers, architects. Do you have any mechanisms in place for attracting placemakers at scale? How do you think about the community management side of finding those right kinds of people besides maybe coming on podcasts like these?

[00:06:47] Ryan Rzepecki: Yeah, I think podcasts like this are pretty important actually. I think the first wave is just tapping into my network and the network of the architecture studio that we're working with. It's called Mena. And getting it out through own networks. I was encouraged that after the first week of launch, we had a few projects reach out to us, basically saw the announcement, they were doing something somewhere in the space.

[00:07:06] They were able to read through the website, understand the rough principles and how it might fit, and then reach out saying, I'm not exactly sure what you're doing, but I think it might be this, and I think it might be related to what we're doing. Maybe we can talk. And so, for me, that's a week into it, it's good signal put out a message that people can understand and the right people will connect with.

[00:07:24] It wasn't meant to be a massive like consumer launch, so much as just getting it out and trying to find the right people. And more tactically, I think there's an interesting model of working with universities, so looking at architecture schools, urban planning schools. A lot of schools also have game design and development, and whether that's like part of an official class or a club or just a project, I think there's something interesting about partnering with universities to get people to use this playground. In fact, we actually have a partnership with a German university that's actually set up like a lab and some like VR treadmills and all kinds of equipment, and it's a transportation focused department that wants to like test ideas in a virtual world. So, I see that as one of the primary paths that we're gonna look to build community.

[00:08:08] Jackson Steger: That's so cool. So I'm curious, now I'm starting to think of this more from, helping the audience understand the onboarding into Spectra. Like for example, I know you're familiar with Phil Levin, who's been on the show before and introduced us.

[00:08:21] He has a property in Oakland called Radish, which is this collection of great buildings that we've talked about in the show as well. I have this vision of building like the radish of Venice, or, or I currently live, in LA, or like maybe something like that on like raw land in Hawaii or somewhere else.

[00:08:38] So, say I wanted to do that and say I wanted to do it with some other cabin folks who were interested in building a neighborhood with me. What could I do in Spectra right now to, or in the near future, to start modeling that out?

[00:08:52] Ryan Rzepecki: Yeah, I think that exists as, as the concept of a block. I'd be basically launching a block at into Spectra, and you could take the template buildings that we've put together and the people in your community can occupy virtual apartments in those buildings, and you can use that as a starting point. And one level deeper, if you have people on your team that have some of these design skills, either architecture skills or even just 3D modeling skills, you can design your own space and plug into that and see if you can submit those assets to Spectra to incorporate into the larger world. We'll have some amount of support for people to, what I've discovered through this process is that the tools that architects work in to make these assets and the tools that 3D modelers and game developers make, use, and make things in, they're different.

[00:09:35] And if one of those, it doesn't necessarily mean you understand the other and how the two play together. So, I see a little bit of a role of us being able to bridge that. And if you sit on one side of the fence or the other, if you're an architect and you're familiar with those tools, if you're a game developer, a 3D asset modeler, and you use those tools, we can bridge that gap and help get buildable assets into the virtual world.

[00:09:54] Jackson Steger: So, this idea of doing everything in the virtual world, what advantages do VR and AR offer, like user testing a city?

[00:10:04] Ryan Rzepecki: I think if you wanna do anything with urban design that is unconventional, the types of spaces that people haven't experienced before, it's very helpful. And so, we're building it without any cars in the traditional sense in our city.

[00:10:16] So our ground floors have bikes and, and kind of golf cart size and smaller vehicles. And so, for people to be in an environment like that and see what that might be like, I think is compelling. And I think being immersed in that world, you can understand it in a deeper way than if you just saw a nice rendering, or a nice photograph, or a nice video.

[00:10:33] So I think it's very important for that, particularly where you're trying to push the boundaries into new types of forms that people don't experience every day. VR adoption is still relatively low, so we do want to be relatively cross-platform. We did today our first walkthroughs in Spatial, which is one of the virtual world platforms.

[00:10:49] We imported all our assets, or some of our assets, over to Spatial, and Spatial supports, uh, mobile, it supports browser. You can navigate the virtual world through the, the browser, and it supports Quest VR. And if you're just interested in what we're doing, you can actually go and see it in a few clicks, even if you don't have a VR headset.

[00:11:06] But I would say in terms of really being immersed in a space and understanding the potential of a design, VR adds another element. And because VR adoption's relatively low, we do have some of these other modes of access, but we're also thinking about showing up to events with a VR headset and just like grabbing someone at a bar or restaurant and saying, hey, just put this on and come to this place for a while.

[00:11:27] And I've done that anecdotally over the last couple months, and it's really fun. It actually reminds me a bit of my JUMP days. We were, for many people, the first electric bike that they rode and just the wow factor on their face. Like they'd heard of a bicycle and they rode a bicycle, right? But they didn't realize like how game changing an e-bike is, and then they had that aha moment and they had it with our product.

[00:11:45] I think it was an opportunity to do that a little bit with VR, where you may have never used or used it like three years ago, and then we put a top of the line headset on you, connected to a gaming PC, and you're seeing a really vivid virtual world simulating the future. I think there's a bit of an awakening and an aha you get that way. So we plan to do some like popups and events.

[00:12:04] Jackson Steger: Yeah, that's really interesting. I wanna go a little bit deeper into that 10 out of 10 VR crossed with Spectra experience. Say at Neighborhood Zero, which is Cabin’s first property outside of Austin, Texas, let's say we took a shed and we outfitted it to be this Spectra studio where there's uh, great WiFi and a Spectra headset; what are the other elements we might wanna include in that space?

[00:12:28] You know, similarly, maybe for those that are listening to this, thinking about their lab or their classroom, what's the best possible experience we can co-create to have a good Spectra?

[00:12:40] Ryan Rzepecki: I mean, I think, just having a gaming PC attached to something like the HP Reverb or any decent top of the line VR headset is pretty great.

[00:12:49] It's not a huge elaborate setup, and it's really easy to do, but most people, even if they have a VR headset, like the Quest 2, they don't have a gaming PC. That's what I've found has been the barrier for a lot of people. So just having a room with those two things get you a good way there. It doesn't take up a lot of space, and it's not very expensive.

[00:13:06] What that lab in Germany did is they bought like a track pad that you walk on, and you like just walk on it and it moves you through VR, which is really cool. And they're looking for other additional hardware devices to do that. Now, I've never used that stuff. I'm kinda excited to try that, and that's like another level of immersion.

[00:13:21] But I think a big piece of it, just being visually immersed and looking around and seeing the world. You can get a gaming laptop that'll run it for less than $2,000, and you can get a good headset for $600 or less. So it's not a crazy expense.

[00:13:35] Jackson Steger: Awesome. That's really fun. I do now wanna, you brought up JUMP, and I wanna visit those days and all of the fun economics of micro mobility.

[00:13:45] So, I live in Venice Beach in Los Angeles right now, where we're right next to Santa Monica. Santa Monica just pulled Lyft bikes out of the area, which I was really bummed about. I don't have a car. I have been here about a year trying to survive on just my bike and then the public micro mobility options that are available to me.

[00:14:05] For whatever reason, Lyft pulled their bike, and I've just seen a lot of attempts in the micro mobility space fail or not succeed so much as maybe the projects hope to. You successfully sold JUMP to Uber. Just a broad question here, but what makes micro mobility work, and what makes it not work?

[00:14:25] Ryan Rzepecki: Yeah. it's fun to put that hat back on.

[00:14:27] I do think about it from time to time since it was 12 years of my life. First thing is density of the city and a place that's mixed use and great to walk in and great to bike in, in general and has the density and the types of trips that you'd want to take. And so, I had thought for quite a while that the European cities are much better suited for micro mobility and had a clear path to the usage to being profitable.

[00:14:54] And what had happened during the boom years is a lot of places that just weren't very bike friendly places, not really people friendly places, they're very car centric places, started getting lots and lots of bikes and scooters on the street, and I think we, we had a few surprises. Like we launched in Sacramento, and based on some of the other cities we've been in, like Atlanta, Tampa, we didn't have huge expectations but ended up doing quite well.

[00:15:19] And so then we thought maybe more places are like Sacramento and places that we didn't think were gonna work once electrified, they're gonna work pretty well. But I'd say by and large, that was a red herring. Most of the places that didn't work very well in Gen One bike share, the earlier versions of bike share, also didn't work with scooters and e-bikes.

[00:15:37] And so honestly, that's a big part of what motivated me to do Spectra. I spent a good chunk of my career trying to make existing cities better. So, before I started JUMP, I'd worked for the New York City Department of Transportation for a little over a year doing bike lanes, bike infrastructure. I got to work on the closure of Times Square to cars and opening up the pedestrian plaza.

[00:15:57] I got to do those type of projects, and I realized just how hard it is to change existing places. It's just these huge political battles. And you know, we fought so hard to put in a few bike lanes, or we fought so hard to put in just a few hundred bikes into some of these cities. And I really started thinking, well, because the success of this mode is so dependent on the built environment, what would it be like if you could start from scratch and you can build a place for people on bicycles from the very beginning? And that was the inspiration.

[00:16:20] So yeah, I think there is, I don't wanna say it won't work in many US cities, but it's really hard. And I think where it does work is personally owned. I think we'll continue to grow and have some success, but to make this shared model work, you really need some density and you turned over the assets. And that’s just my observation in general, is that we tend to separate land use management from transportation management.

[00:16:43] We get really bad outcomes as a result. So, just get limitless sprawl. And because we have limitless sprawl, we can't really economically put in a bus line or train because it's a solo density. And so, I think we really need to look at those two things together. And transportation is a response to the land use.

[00:16:58] It's hard to take bad land use and then make good transportation.

[00:17:03] Jackson Steger: I'm glad you brought up your time working at the New York DOT. I live near a street in Venice called Lincoln Boulevard. It's this two to three lane car, congested, ugly road that is loud and not friendly at all to pedestrians. And I was on a ChatGPT bender, so I was just like, ChatGPT: “how do I change Bike lanes in Venice to, or how do I change car lanes in Venice Beach to bike lanes?” And it gave this sort of general civic engagement answer and then also followed up with a list of a few organizations to work with. And so, then I reached out to this bike coalition. But I'm curious, like, yeah, generally, what is the process for a local citizen to want to become more engaged, to effectively change car lanes into protected bike lanes, what would you recommend?

[00:17:59] Ryan Rzepecki: Yeah, I think that's actually one of the, the positive things over the last 20 years or so, that building streets with bikes in mind and with pedestrians in mind for probably at least 50 years or so, it was not best practice.

[00:18:13] The best practice was like, get as many lanes as possible, move as many cars as possible, as fast as possible. That's all the traffic engineers cared about. And so that's really just been shifting increasingly decade after decade until now there's been enough experiments and enough, enough different types of infrastructure that have been tested that really there's no excuse for traffic engineer to say they can't do it.

[00:18:34] If you can shut down Times Square, Seventh Avenue, and Broadway, and Times Square, if you can change Paris in the way that it's been changed. If you can do it in these extremely high density, high traffic environments, you can really do it anywhere. And so, then what's lacking? So we don't, we have the toolkit now. We have this, particularly for bike infrastructure, it's often not very expensive.

[00:18:52] We're talking about paint and barriers. Then it's the political will. And so that's where what you're saying really does matter. If you care about your city, if you care about your local environment, how do you get involved in advocating? And a simple thing to do, and I wish there were better, I wish there were better mechanisms of outreach, but usually cities will do some sort of public hearing for various bike and pedestrian projects.

[00:19:12] And often what happens, like most public hearings, a bunch of cranky people show up to complain about losing their parking. And it really does help when you get 3, 4, 5, 10 people to come to the podium and say, well, no, I want this. I live in this neighborhood. I want my kids to be able to do this. I would use it.

[00:19:30] And it just gives that the other voice to it that that helps the project get approved. What ends up happening is the city council people that are at that hearing, they may not have a lot of context. They probably don't have a lot of context. The staff people at the agency, the SFMTA, or whatever agency is doing the project, they have a lot of context and they're really, really prepared.

[00:19:49] But sometimes it's elected officials and they don't, and they're just trying to read the room. And, it's a terrible sample of people that are willing to come out at from 5:00 PM to midnight on a Tuesday night or whatever. That's not a really good way to collect feedback, but that's still what a lot of cities use, and so if you can make it to a hearing, it helps.

[00:20:07] There's a lot of open streets events that cities are holding now too, and so that's been the vehicle for change where you're temporarily closing down a street, getting people to come out to it, and so that that's just social and fun, and you might meet other people that are interested and passionate about it.

[00:20:22] And then I think there's a probably a level of advocacy that goes beyond that, which is if you're familiar with a particular treatment or a particular set of blocks, you can be really the one pushing for an improvement there. And cities will be responsive to some degree. And so, if you know there's a particularly dangerous intersection or you have a really interesting insight for a way to improve connectivity in a city, you could submit that, and then you can be the advocate or the thorn in the side of the city to make it happen. So, I think there's a spectrum between supporting existing city projects, enjoying infrastructure and open streets when it happens, and then identifying a project and really being more of the advocate for it.

[00:21:01] Also in most cities, you don't have to do this in isolation if you really care. Most cities have some sort of active bike community and some have nonprofits that you can either donate time or money to, and you can connect to other people that care about this. And we're thankfully at a time where there's a critical mass in almost every major city of people working on this

[00:21:18] Jackson Steger: Yeah, shout out to the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition who responded to my Tweet almost right away and sent a really thoughtful email. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. So, cool. I know we're almost at time, so I wanna make sure to get some work. You've given all this really tactical, helpful advice.

[00:21:36] Wanna get a little more philosophical again, which is also how we opened. There's this kind of debate in urban planning. I've seen a little bit about should you build new cities versus should you try to change the ones that, that already exist, and your career is very interesting because you've spent meaningful time, I think doing both. And so, I'm just curious what you think about that question. Is it one or the other, or, yeah, I'll just let you take the floor.

[00:22:01] Ryan Rzepecki: Yeah. I think in my background is also a mix of urban planning and technology, right? So, I think the technologists, it gets excited about new systems and thinking outside of existing frameworks to come up with something better.

[00:22:13] And then urban planners as a group, I would say, tend to be more conservative and care about how do we make small changes to the existing system? I think both are important. I certainly learned a lot through my time doing that work. I certainly applaud anybody trying to make even small changes in their city like we just talked about, that if you're doing the good work of improving the bike-ability and pedestrian experience, that's awesome, and we should continue to do that.

[00:22:36] I think where I would, to the urban planners, in particular, that say all these new cities, we should just fix existing cities and that's, we shouldn't, we shouldn't engage in this Greenfield development, there’s several responses. First, the global population is growing, and we're urbanizing at the same time.

[00:22:53] So I think African alone is gonna add 1 billion urban residents. I think globally it's maybe two, maybe more. And so, those people have to live somewhere, and the existing cities, as we have them, aren't going to be able to accommodate that growth. So, we need new places, and we can either plan with that in mind and try to build better places that reflect the future we wanna live in, rather than repeating the mistakes of the past. And so, it's just on a pure demographic look into the future, we know we need new places. I think we also need zones where you can experiment, where you can try different things and have them hopefully be successful. And some will work for other new cities.

[00:23:27] Some will be able to be fed back into existing cities. There's probably some of the things that we're doing that would be hard to implement into an existing city, but I think there's gonna be learnings here that flow backward. And so, it's worth undertaking for that as well. And then I think we just need lots of shots on goal, to be honest

[00:23:41] Like I think the Neom Project in Saudi Arabia got a lot of criticism. We've made very different design choices for the city we're working on. But it's different, right? Like they're doing something, they're putting something out there. Certainly, I would applaud that more than the attitude of “don't build anything anywhere.” And that's where we're in in the US. It's very difficult to build anything. Everybody comes up and tries to block and obstruct everything. And I think trying to build new things, and particularly if they're dense and they're car free, which Neom is, I think it's worth doing.

[00:24:11] And so I think, yeah, we need these experiments, and we need lots of them. And we have a few decades to find a way to live more sustainably and more equitably, and we're very far from that now. And so, let's run many of these experiments. Let's incrementally fix the cities we have, and let's like take some moonshots on what could a new Greenfield city be? And let’s do both.

[00:24:33] Jackson Steger: Cheers to more shots on goal. Love what you all are making happen at Spectra to enable those shots. And we're trying to do the same at Cabin, and thanks so much for coming on the show, Ryan. Where can people learn more if they'd like?

[00:24:45] Ryan Rzepecki: Yeah, so we just launched the website, spectracities.com.

[00:24:50] We have spatial scenes, virtual scenes that you can go through, and those are linked on the site and on our Discord. And so, you can actually browse all those scenes, and we're hosting weekly walkthroughs, so we can actually give you little tours of the scenes in spatial and in PCVR if you have PCVR.

[00:25:06] So go to spectracities.com, join the Discord, do a tour, and go see the scenes in spatial. And then you'll have a good feel for what we're doing. And if you feel you have the skillset to contribute or you just have the interest to contribute, reach out. And we're building a community that's going to continue to add to the world and evolve it.

[00:25:21] Jackson Steger: Great. And just, I'll add a personal testament, even on just a desktop browser, looks like a very fluid and user-friendly experience, so I would encourage everyone to go check it out. Thanks again, Ryan, and hope to keep following your journey and seeing the great ways that you're changing cities and building new ones.

[00:25:39] Ryan Rzepecki: Thanks, Jackson. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.


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