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The Most Intriguing Social Experiment

4 minutes

Last Fall, Justin and I were invited by our good friends David Gould and Joe Cilek to spend 48 hrs in downtown Las Vegas. And not that downtown. The old downtown. The downtown that was vacated throughout the last 40-50 years in favor of the glitz and glam of “The Strip.” In fact, significant portions of the historical downtown area resemble nothing more than an old abandoned movie set of Vegas from the 50s.

We were invited to experience what has been deemed the “Downtown Project,” a community-based venture geared to re-think and re-vitalize the old downtown area with the injection of $350 million.

Here’s some back story.

In 1998, Tony Hsieh sells LinkExchange to Microsoft for $265 million. In 2000, Hsieh then invested into Zappos and assumed the role of CEO. In 2009, Zappos was sold to Amazon for 1.2 billion. As part of the agreement, Jeff Bezos/Amazon agrees to allow Hsieh and team to continue to manage Zappos as an independent company. Due to continued growth and need for additional space, Zappos moves headquarters from Henderson, NV to the old city hall building in downtown Las Vegas.

It is here that Hsieh had some concern – seemingly not so much about Zappos revenues, but of Zappos culture – a central tenet of Zappos success and Hsieh’s values. In other words, what happens when you move 1400+ employees into a predominantly vacated neighborhood? This question was the impetus of Hsieh’s vision and subsequent investment of $350 million into the area and what has formalized as the “Downtown Project.”

Sounds at least somewhat intriguing on paper, right? Spend $48 million in renovations for your new headquarters, but invest an additional $350 million ($200m in real estate, $50m in small business, $50m in education, and $50m in tech startups) in the surrounding community.

Well, not half as intriguing as it is experiencing it in person. Here’s why.

Hsieh’s vision is for creating the most “community-focused large city in the world” is rooted in a handful of philosophies that he has adapted over the years (most of which are being realized midst the DTP and worthy of their own discussion). But the one that caught my attention more-so than the rest was one that has been deemed the “collision theory.” In short, create an intentional, walkable community (with no parking lots) that forces people to interact, engage, and discover more often than otherwise. In other words, create opportunities for people to literally run into each other on the streets.

To be honest, I heard about this so-called “collision theory” before I stepped on the streets of downtown Las Vegas and didn’t think too much of it. But the day after meeting some of the community members, I realized how significant this seemingly abstract concept was the moment I ran into everyone I had just met (again) on the streets – walking into the same cafe, waiting for the same elevator, grabbing a drink, etc…

Sure, this is nothing new for a small and/or friendly community. We see people when we go to the grocery store or drop our kids off, but the difference here is that every single person we met was committed to the same thing: make downtown Las Vegas the most-community centric city through intentional and collaborative spaces, passions, and opportunities. The best analogy I have is that it’s a little bit like camp… You walk in skeptical but walk away transformed through a shared experience in a defined space.

Will it work? Will people move in? Will businesses thrive?

While there are obviously a handful of skeptics and haters, I’m not one of them. Here are two reasons why:

One, I’ve gotten to know David Gould, who is heading up part of the education initiative through re-thinking higher education midst the Downtown Project. Hsieh has somewhat hand selected individuals such as David who are not only smart, but passionate. They love what they do and they’ll figure out what it takes to get there. (On this note… we are very excited to partner with David on the new Institute of Social Innovation, that will be launching soon!)

Two, Hsieh is willing to fail. It’s a $350 million dollar risk and money doesn’t seem to be the concern. Creating community is.

While I think it may be easy on the outside to think this is an impossible feat, there is something very compelling about the Downtown Project when you are in its midst. It’s the feeling of energy that exists, the unquestioning of impossibility thinking, the desire for unity above recognition. And after 48 hours in the mix, I somehow feel a part of it.

We’ll keep you abreast of new happenings there. In the meantime, take some time to investigate it yourself. And if you get the chance, visit old downtown Las Vegas. Perhaps you’ll have a collision that will change everything. And perhaps you will become a part of something bigger, like the Downtown Project promises.