Future City Tactical -- 12 Musings From Detroit 2012

This time last year, after a series of happenings the universe most certainly conspired to orchestrate, I officially began living and working in Detroit, a place I have come to care for in ways I can only explain through fluffy-hearted prose and 140-character Twitter-quips of affection. Having done my small part to help cultivate a young company onto the bottom rung of the greatness ladder -- a consumer tech startup, now in the more than capable hands of Detroit Venture Partners -- I set out on my next venture into the unknown with one question and one requirement.

The question: Why do so many communities fail to grow in good economic times and remain durable in downturns? What are the gaps between our immediate surroundings and our ability to significantly affect them for the better? Perhaps more importantly, though: What, if anything, can I do about it?

I had encountered hundreds of people hunkering down and doing good work in their own communities this past year alone. Smart, high-capacity folks -- though too many, unfortunately, just spinning their wheels. But why? Widespread laziness is an answer of convenience. It also can't be blamed entirely on lack of political will or availability of capital. There are hundreds of for-profit and non-profit groups here working towards a common goal of making Detroit a better place to live. There are budgets, both municipal and philanthropic, allocated to the programming behind these civic initiatives. In Michigan, those budget numbers surpass the billion-dollar mark.

My requirement in setting out was simple. I suspected the gap I referenced two paragraphs ago was caused by the lack of reliable, go-to groups available to deploy impact capital cost-effectively and measurably. I created my company, Dandelion, to act as a tactical deployment resource for civic investors. I wanted to do logistics and communications work in a space and time we feel matters most to us -- the future of our cities. Detroit, as it worked out, would make an excellent proving ground, as it is among first-movers in the new, post-industrial age the United States has entered.

We also decided Dandelion would not do corporate work of any kind unless it had a publicly measurable impact on the people living in the communities the corporate investor inhabited, served and/or profited from. Nothing superficial. We didn't want to build one-off, kick-ass websites for nonprofits and then just kick back and collect our cash.

There was one more requirement: I had to bootstrap it without venture capital or angel investment. But it also had to be for-profit, so no grant capital. Now, writing this, I laugh at how much easier I thought it would be. And we are not there yet -- not even close.

A year later, Dandelion has a team of six -- some of my favorite people on the planet giving of themselves, their time, their spirit and their sleep. My fondness for them is only surpassed by their passion for a better world, a better Detroit.

In this trial-by-fire, bootstrapping existence, we have learned a number of important lessons so far, a handful of which I feel strongly enough about to share. My hope is that they might speak to Dandelion's values as an organization, our goals and the promise we see in Detroit.

1. We know nothing.
Curiosity drives us. Our small team affords us the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with an issue as much as an outsider possibly can. We thoroughly examine a situation before we get to work brainstorming a number of pilot interventions with the goal of eventually transferring to residents who will continue to deliver value to the community.

2. Let people know they are needed.
Everyone is an advocate. It is up to those who wish to leverage that advocacy to create mechanisms for relatively passive participation. At Dandelion, we are first and foremost planners and facilitators, leveraging an ever-growing global network of advocates with specialized talents, all of whom are willing to part with their time and knowledge to work on the issues that matter most to them at significantly reduced rates. That's how we deliver such a vast number of services at the high level we do for such low costs.

3. Community development must be highly contextualized.
Impact investment is essentially the conversion of assumptions about spending and support, transferred across significantly disparate contexts.

4. Creative capitalism.
We believe that you can get a lot further by making a business case for solving a problem. Identifying and illuminating an element of self-interest, however small, in the course of advancing the fortunes of others is not only ethical, it is efficient.

5. Design for the extremes.
Creating solutions necessitates assuming a set of characteristics about a population -- a demographic one can model. When you design for the middle, you increase the chance you will develop something lacking sufficient utility for those most affected. Design for those folks at the extreme ends of your model and the people in the middle will find it useful.

6. Anti-Establishment becomes Establishment.
Every movement starts out on the fringe. Whether a movement becomes part of the establishment is a measurement of its viability in that moment. Cities are more than a set of geographical boundaries. They are a unique place and time. Here, today in Detroit, we believe the opportunity exists to embrace viable, alternative solutions to civic and social issues. Dandelion works to be delivery mechanism. We also believe getting everyone in proximity makes sense, and so we are working as a collective to do the same among the "establishment" players in downtown Detroit.

7. Cheap mistakes.
We make mistakes. Just like everyone else. The distinction is that our mistakes are inexpensive by design. We starve resources from solutions until they are adequately measured. We do our best to understand fully and communicate those mistakes so we do not make them twice.

8. Filters and Vehicles
Executive Chiefs and Directors of nonprofit providers and philanthropic funders are often vilified for being out of touch when it comes to leveraging the best tools and organizations available to maximize the impact-per-dollar equation. The truth is, we have come to find that most of these folks are both highly capable and compassionate. They are also inundated with requests for funding and assistance. As such, they must at some level exist behind filters. It is up to them to decide what knowledge and function their own filters possess. It is, however, the social entrepreneurs who must understand those filters and create programs that can pass through them. Half-baked concepts won't cut it. Create turnkey vehicles, ready for support from these funding organizations, and you will move your mission forward much faster.

9. Be in the weeds.
The importance of what we call "rapid field iteration" cannot be overstated. Starting with a number of possible solutions and then working alongside partners on the ground to iterate the solution(s) measured most effective is the only way to sustainably transform any set of conditions. The most efficient programs are often informal, born and raised far from the boardrooms where advocacy intersects with budgets.

10. Silos everywhere you look.
Detroit, despite what some might believe, has considerable resources in the form of economic development and grant dollars -- more when you account for the community investment originating from corporations in southeast Michigan. And more powerful still, there is an abundance of advocacy to be activated from citizens, both past and present. We believe Dandelion can, in the process of our work, serve as a connective tissue between many organizations who, in the pursuit of efficiency, exist now in different pockets across the city.

11. Replication as a budget line item.
We record all of our work in order to communicate what we've learned to others who might find value in it, be it here in Michigan, in the U.S. or anywhere in the world that the Internet reaches. Impact projects, when they start from zero, are a catastrophic waste of dollars. What should be the world's best use of open source methodology is woefully underdeveloped. We need to be sharing leverageable information, understanding the nuances as they relate to our own communities, to affect outcomes and save the amount of time and money it takes to get to a point of measurement.

12. Remove Non-Essential Risk from Investments.
Invest in Facebook and you are investing in the team that runs it. Same goes for investing in homelessness. We seek to, through our design-minded logistical support and vast network of advocate-specialists, provide exponentially more capacity at significantly less cost to those on the ground affecting problems where they originate and persist. That is our unique selling proposition.

In closing and looking forward into 2013, we are living in a time where there exists the potential for rapid social change unlike ever before. Today, small teams are able to coordinate and execute, cost-effectively and efficiently, what governments and large corporations can only conceptualize. What we do right now matters. As long as we continue to look at these problems through the lens of the status quo, the more things will stay the same or get worse. We must come together and push or nothing happens.

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.