Detroit Future City Is Full of Small Mistakes

The Detroit Works planning document, "Future City Detroit," was released this past week after close to three years of community feedback and information gathering. Hours after Mayor Dave Bing took to the podium in support of the 347-page plan, Rip Rapson, CEO of the Kresge Foundation, announced a commitment of $150 million over five years to implement the plan. Including, in partnership with the Kellogg foundation, three million to set up an implementation office -- folks that will oversee the plan being deployed.

I have spent my free moments over the last several days reading the plan and for all its paper-weight, one could argue it remains light in the actionable department. This is mostly a 30,000-foot view of the city's assets with suggestions from residents and experts mixed in. There are several people writing about this.

While I too would have liked to see more meat on the bone, especially in terms of best practices from around the country, I think the plan is perfectly executed for what it needs to be -- a resource book of assets and opportunities. The question and my concern is in regards to what happens now. Implementation money is out on the table and vendors, including the team I lead at Dandelion, are having conversations with stakeholders about where they fit in. If history is our teacher and she usually is, what will happen now is a series of big budget contracts with various consulting firms, each of whom will make big bets, planning and attempting to implement an equally sizeable solution to one or more of the plan's outlined problems, all at once, entirely in a vacuum.

This is not just a Detroit problem. This is an impact investment problem. Civic and social impact efforts of any significant scale coming to age during the consumer era are, not surprisingly, facilitated mostly with an eye on impact per dollar. Much like producing a widget, in the past, it was most cost efficient to design solutions on one end and deliver them to people in need waiting on the other. This was reasonable because then all of your costs were front loaded with professionals holding all of the necessary information locked away in their brains and most usage feedback loops existed at the far end of an expensive production and consumption process. There was then arguably no financially viable model for citizen participation.

Fast-forward forty years and we find ourselves in the advent of what well-known futurist and professor Paul Saffo calls "the creator economy." Today, with the spread of low/no-cost communication tools and the use of decentralized talent pools, like the kind Dandelion leverages, the cost of production is dropping daily and access to information has been widely democratized. Making mistakes is typically cheap; more than ever measurable and yet, we as a society, consistently try and protect ourselves from being wrong. We hire experts to tell us what they think but the plans they conceive are ones they can rarely implement. We engage our citizens for feedback but leave them on the sidelines when it comes time for deployment. As Hugo Lindgren, at the New York Times, recently wrote: "We are almost never hurt by the second kind of mistake and yet we persist in making the first kind, again and again."

It is apparent in reading the Detroit Works planning documents that those in charge of creating them took seriously the need for community engagement. I believe we should continue in that vein across the implementation process. We must cultivate solutions to our biggest problems by designing with and iterating alongside our community members. It is perfectly feasible to do this in an efficient and cost-effective manner. The kind of methodology for which I am advocating is nothing new. It is used in various sectors, including consumer tech start-ups and large industry innovation teachings. See the lean start-up method, made popular by Eric Ries; pioneered by Steve Blank and Scaling Edges, a perspective from Deloitte.

Today in Detroit, this plan in hand, I believe we must take advantage of the in-depth research and segmenting of systemic issues to be addressed, leveraging each and creating a clearly communicated platform on which our most fervent advocate-citizens can participate. We will breed change-makers by cultivating homegrown entrepreneurs, keep would-be talent from leaving and attract new, high capacity, get-it-done types all the same time. We are even likely to bring back many of those who left in droves.

Picture a Detroit full of small mistakes. What if, as an existing or would-be community developer, I could be inspired and informed on an issue that affects me and my fellow citizens? What if that information was not in a $300 book or buried in an online viewer that prints out at a ridiculously tiny scale but in a palatable, issue-specific visualization, posted up all over the city outlining the core issues and the resources, capital and otherwise, available to address it? Relevant innovation exists where constraint in most prevalent. The durability of our communities requires bottom-up solutions that are not imposed on but developed by the residents. Yes, today, most residents are doing little to positively affect their community. Isn't it entirely possible that much of the apathy in our communities is rooted in an inability, perceived or otherwise, to affect the outcomes of the environments we inhabit? We can address that here and now.

At Dandelion, we believe a participatory framework for implementation of the Detroit Future City plan must have the following elements to be successful:


The core principles that govern each systemic issue to be addressed, (land use, workforce development, etc.) made easy to understand and spread into every corner of the city. It should be on billboards and in barbershops. Everywhere you see a Joumana Kayrouz advertisement, you should see Future City Detroit.


Every good framework needs rules. Think about the app store for Apple or Google. If you build something within the rules of their respective platforms, the presumption is that it will be approved. That is to say it will get out to a segment of the public who will then decide whether or not they find use in it. The opposite is true in community development and that no doubt is among the things that stifle progress. We must be communicating widely which types of vehicles Detroit Future City can lend support, be it with funding, advocacy, feedback loops, networks or policy shaping. This communication, done simply, will filter out the irrelevant or otherwise not completely formed models for impact that often clog the civic innovation pipeline.


Impact projects, like any good start-up, should be created only as temporary, low-cost organizations with the directive of experimenting on possible solutions to a problem. Scaled implementation, making room for significant investment, should only take place once measurements are collected. There is not one solution to any of these problems. There are ten, twenty or more. We need to create an environment where we can try and fail on the cheap. Try and fail until we succeed. Pilot projects implemented by the people closest to the problems, while starving resources to each until such time measurement can make room for investment; this is what will get us to where we want to live. One citizen come community co-developer at a time.


I correspond with civically-engaged folks from around the world and many of them reference Detroit as some sort of post-industrial canary in the coal mine. They watch to see if and how we come out of this time as they hold in part their own future in our success or failure. Inevitably we will evolve and our surroundings with us. There will be a future city but what it looks like and the hope that people hold for their future in this city and in cities all over the world depends on what we do in the here or now. It is time to make it possible for everyone to participate in the Future City Detroit.

Dandelion is a "think-then-do" tank. We are a design-focused civic logistics firm. Our work addresses the friction between investment and measurable impact. We partner with public and private organizations to remove all non-essential risk from impact investments. Our tactical method is to model a number of transferable approaches to a given problem, starving those solutions of resources and iterating on each with folks on the ground. We measure the most effective solution in context, only then making room for our partners' investment. The result is increased durability of the communities and organizations we work in through the empowerment of people with the knowledge, tools and access necessary to solve their own problems. We document our work and share the results with the world in an effort to inform and inspire replication.