Thanks, Detroit

I have much to be thankful for -- certainly my family, friends, and the opportunity to do what I love -- but let me single out a city that I'm thankful to see on the rise.  

Forbes recently listed the places where young people are happiest.  By grading cities on economic factors like compensation and benefits as well as non-economic factors like work-life balance, they gave each city a kind of overall "grade point average."  The cities grading out the highest were Redmond, WA (been there), Ft. Lauderdale (done that, a long time ago), and Orlando (been and done more recently -- but with my wife and kids).

But another top-ten city made me smile:  Detroit, at #6.  It's a happier place to live than Chicago, San Francisco, and LA.

Why am I gratified to see Detroit included among the winners?

Teaching at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, forty miles away from Detroit, I've seen a parade of talented students come to town, get their education, and take their skills and training elsewhere.  Students are inspired by the "change the world through business" courses I teach, but when it comes to applying what they've learned in the real world, they've preferred jobs in India, Africa, or Latin America.

That appears to be changing.

Entrepreneurial efforts are  harnessing the city's energy.  An organization that I've worked with, Ascension Health, the largest nonprofit healthcare system in the country, has launched Enterprising Health, a business-development organization aimed at identifying, supporting, and launching "bottom-up" enterprises that improve the health and lives of urban dwellers. 

Among the social enterprises being supported: businesses that use games or sports to encourage and educate about health; a fresh food "dollar store"; and an activity that delivers health services to the poor where they naturally congregate, thus encouraging health care among a group that is often excluded from, and suspicious of, traditional health care delivery.

Visionary thinkers like Josh Linkner, Dan Gilbert, Brian Hermelin, and Earvin (Magic) Johnson have a larger scale vision to reclaim, re-define, and re-brand the city. Though not everything they touch turns to gold (Gilbert owns the Cleveland Cavaliers), the new-age venture capital firm they've formed, Detroit Venture Partners, plans to hit a homerun in Detroit (yes, a metaphorical non sequitur -- maybe because I've got half an ear on a soccer game on TV in the other room).

DVP's culture includes its Big 11, with "passion" topping the list:

1. PASSION FIRST
  • Build something larger than yourself
  • Stay close to your purpose and "why"
  • Rebuild Detroit
  • Drive social change


The energy of change and the opportunity to re-create a city (and create a great life)  have not been lost on students.

In a class I'm teaching to undergrad business students, Base of the Pyramid: Business Innovation for Solving Society's Problems, students work on addressing real, vexing societal problems.  In previous years, the kinds of problems students have clamored to work on have mainly been in the developing world, and this year, too, students are working on problems in settings including Haiti, Liberia, and Honduras.  

But fully half of the students this year chose instead to work on problems affecting Detroit:  health care, education, business and economic development, and food deserts.  (Watch this space as the Impact / Call to Action videos they're creating are completed.)

At the graduate school level, the Revitalization and Business Club at the University of Michigan is planning its second annual conference on using business as a force for positive societal change.  The club recognizes the overlapping desires of graduate students of all stripes -- business, policy, urban planning, and other disciplines -- to explore how innovation and entrepreneurship can create a vibrant, inclusive city.

The jury on Detroit's growth and revitalization is still out.  Richard Florida, the urban scholar and commentator, contends growth will come from increased productivity of the population rather than strategic contraction.  

Economic development today is about literally hundreds and thousands of little things that you do slowly and cumulatively at the neighborhood and community level. Building partnerships involving universities, building clusters, many, many small things that accumulate, that create some economic viability. ... That's what Detroit has to do and [it] all the assets ... It has spectacular universities like Wayne State, it has the Cranbrook Academy, the center of modern design, industrial design, and furniture design. It has two of the greatest research universities on the planet, very close by at Ann Arbor and Lansing, the University of Michigan and Michigan State. And it has a fabulous design/architecture community, creative energy in its low income communities, a tremendous, really resilient African-American community, a phenomenal Arabic community that will do anything to save and pitch in... [and] it has this legacy of musical talent that is just incredible and it continues to propulsively create new musical styles. 

All of those things add up to a kind of creativity and innovation being in Detroit's DNA. But [sustainable growth is] not going to come from a federal bail-out from the auto industry, it's not going to come from a big casino and convention and stadium project, it's going to come from really the small-scale efforts when people are empowered, where neighborhoods are empowered.

And that, it seems to me, is what we are seeing beginning to take hold.

Thanks, Detroit.


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This page contains a single entry by Michael Gordon published on November 20, 2011 12:59 PM.

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