What if everyone who cared about what happened to Detroit read this article?
I love Detroit. Not a Michigander by birth, a series of serendipitous happenings landed me in this place I am now proud to call home. This remarkable city full of too-long-hidden gems, where I get to do the kind of work I once dreamed about, I also defend with a sharp tongue when necessary from the average out-of-the-loop hater. (Read the online comments after any article in our two daily newspapers for a taste of the anti-Detroit ugliness that's still so prevalent.)
Lately, both socially and in the course of my work at Dandelion, I have been interacting with a number of smart, capable folks undertaking a host of wildly ambitious endeavors. Hovering on the edge of that bubble of energy has made me hyper-aware, looking outward at a another cultural quirk that exists in this city. One I can, with all due respect, only describe as the pervasive feeling of low expectations. Yes, past false starts and failures continue to feed this attitude, but I believe it's fair to say that we should expect more from one another. One intersection in particular where I see a worthy discussion point is regarding the too few number of people talking about and executing on big, important ideas.
There are problems in Detroit. No sane person argues that there aren't, nor do they always acknowledge the reality that in many of those problems lay great opportunities. There are holes here -- in infrastructure, in housing, in law enforcement, in schools, in supply chains, in transportation -- on a massive scale not likely seen in too many other post-industrial American cities, especially one of this size. Providing solutions to these problems is a market, like any other, where productive disruption -- new and improved processes, programs, and platforms to solve problems -- can be socially beneficial and financially fruitful.
Detroit is unique in many ways, of course, but in the context of solving globally applicable problems, this city's current state combined with an ever-growing influx of creative thinkers are creating a one-of-a-kind platform for innovation. Relative to most major cities, Detroit's barriers to entry are low and the community's willingness to support entrepreneurial efforts is high. Many solutions, once proven viable on a small scale, can be applied everywhere.
Here are just a few examples of people iterating solutions that take on big problems, the kind I argue we must come together en masse to support, as we become a place where people feel comfortable trying and failing and trying again to solve systemic issues.
Detroit Bus Company
Andy Didorosi is my kind of a guy. A no-frills, stop talking and get it done type with a sense of community you can only get from collaborating in the trenches. I have watched closely as his Detroit Bus Company has been growing quickly into something that one day not so far off might be a widely used alternative to the current, barely functional municipal system. It's not so far fetched to think Andy and his team will be in a great position as a reputable, capacity-having operator should the privatization of the bus system in Detroit ever come. Xconomy Detroit's Sarah Schmid writes more eloquently than I ever could about Andy and Detroit Bus Company here.
No Property Left Behind
Jerry Paffendorf, Mary and Larry, the team at Loveland hustle daily in the course of some of the most inspired and uniquely creative public service work I have ever seen. You might know that Wayne County hosts sporadic Detroit tax-foreclosure auctions selling more than 10,000 homes in a range of conditions, as well as parcels of empty land can be purchased for as low as $500. (Or less in the case of land parcels.) The city, not surprisingly, is not so good at making the greater public aware of the these auctions, nor is the process they employ to sell foreclosed properties adequately inclusive in my opinion. Loveland not only works diligently getting the vacant properties online, but they are out in the community talking about it at every chance, going so far as to put out their phone number to anyone interested in purchasing property.
Their on-going efforts to take the county's labyrinthine offline auction process and put it online, thereby giving interested parties the opportunity to easily check out the thousands of city owned properties and, better yet, purchase them and take them off Detroit's bloated roll of abandoned properties. This is exactly the sort of uniquely Detroit opportunity that can be incubated here and, once perfected, applied anywhere -- and one we should celebrate.
I recently met up with Jerry P. holding a roundtable discussion at a bar called PJ's Lagerhouse, where each night that week, they had posted up for hours and invited anyone interested in learning more, contributing opinions, or spreading the word. Keep in mind that they stand to make zero dollars from the sale of any of the homes. However, it's my opinion that, in time, their software and the palatable communication of a replicable process, packaged for implementation in other cities where this same problem exists, will make them a ton of money. All while helping others participate and add their own value to the community they live in.
25,000 Student Interns
Say what you will about the oft vilified Dan Gilbert. I have only met the man a handful of times, so I cannot speak to anything beyond his grand vision for downtown Detroit and willingness to try and fail. His impact on downtown is not limited to his Quicken Loans employees' economic impact nor the millions of dollars in capital contribution supporting entrepreneurship through Detroit Venture Partners or start up accelerator Bizdom. It is thinking big, acting on it, and motivating others to do the same that I believe will likely be his legacy.
I recently heard Mr. Gilbert speak of a plan to coordinate the major employers downtown in an effort to recruit upwards of 25,000 interns this summer. This after Quicken Loans got thousands of applications for internships at end of the spring college semester and saw first hand what setting conditions for familiarity, something I have written about in the past, can do to shape perception and get a new generation of young people living and working in Detroit. Now, will he get all 25,000? Probably not. But what if because he stretched out towards that goal, there were 5,000 young people downtown next summer or even 1,000? It is this kind of ambition combined with the logistics, resources, and cooperation it takes to make it happen that can serve to change the direction of an entire city over time.
Doyle Mosher, known to most as a luxury home builder is, along with his counterpart Deirdre Green, iterating with a new model to directly recruit and retain most useful human capital. Their venture has just recently brought close to 30 young folks into Detroit to live and work in the city, where they engage with partners on a series of community-focused challenges. Doyle and Deirdre, along with their team, managed to get 30 different employers to provide a good-paying job to a newly arrived fellow and to do so mostly sight unseen. This is an example of the willingness of many institutions to support big-thinking, important endeavors.
I was recently invited to sit on a panel and answer questions from the group of Challenge Detroit Fellows and so I can speak first hand that these are intelligent young people looking for an onboarding mechanism to a life of financially sustainable, highly impactful work in the sphere of social good. Challenge Detroit and programs that will follow, learning from their iterations, are integral to that mutually beneficial end.
Today in Detroit, the sheer scale of opportunity is in the air and it is palpable. The future of the city is inextricably tied to an environment where many new solutions can be tested and iterated upon. I argue that in order to get there, in great part, we need to begin to rally around those who choose to stick their neck out and hunker down to start their business or nonprofit or social experiment in Detroit, even at the risk of being called opportunistic or exploitive. [Note: Often, those crying loudest about craven opportunism are themselves only concerned with holding on to their little piece of power and all of the special concessions that come with it, which is truly the height of irony.]
We must embrace these newcomers and homegrown innovators alike with the sometimes wild or impractical-seeming ideas and not stonewall their efforts or dismiss them as soulless agents of gentrification, though a few no doubt are, in order to come together to make possible what they seek to accomplish. If executed correctly, innovative "disruption solutions" will benefit all Detroiters by doing things like creating jobs, strengthening city services (or shaming city leaders into catching up with the private sector), growing the population and accompanying tax base, or contributing to a more robust arts scene.
Only by working together can we begin to feel ownership and more comfortable in demanding more from one another. I would also like to think a critical mass of civic participation would eventually translate into a lack of tolerance for status quo leadership. I even imagine a day where those we elect to lead would ask us all to join them in pursuing ever bigger ideas, rallying us with contagious enthusiasm to participate at whatever scale we could manage. As I come back down to Earth, though, it's tough to deny that even with visionaries like Jerry Paffendorf and Andy Didorosi leading the way, we still have a long way to go. There is still too much cheering from the sidelines. It will take more active participation to get this new, re-imagined Detroit off the ground.