Dispatches from a Siloed City

We live in an age of constant upheaval. It’s as if the fate that befell Detroit during the latter half of the 20th century has spread across the globe and accelerated at warp-speed. Entire industries fall before the day breaks. Government’s crumble at the click of a tweet. All that is solid melts into air.  The philosopher Zigmaut Bauman referred to the era that we find ourselves in as liquid times.

He wrote:

“Social forms and institutions no longer have enough time to solidify and cannot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life plans, so individuals have to find other ways to organize their lives. They have to splice together an unending series of short-term projects and episodes that don’t add up to the kind of sequence to which concepts like ‘career’ and ‘progress’ could meaningfully be applied. Such fragmented lives require individuals to be flexible and adaptable – to be constantly ready and willing to change tactics at short notice…”

In other words, in these times of rapid change and uncertainty,  the most important quality an individual, organization, or city can have is the capacity to innovate. Innovation is no longer a luxury or a side-project that distracts from the core functions of an initiative. It is a necessity. And while the topic of innovation has been widely studied in the business and technological realms, less is known about the inner workings and best practices of social innovation. Even less has been studied about the intersection between social innovation and placemaking, so cities are often ill-equipped to institute policies that increase the social well-being of their citizens through the power of place. The efforts of the Congress of New Urbanism, while not explicitly about urban innovation, provide perhaps the best platform upon which to discuss and advocate for policies that make our cities more innovative.

Members of the Congress of New Urbanism certainly know the factors that led to Detroit’s spectacular rise and sudden fall, though they are worth recapping since the challenges we face today in Detroit are a result of decisions made decades ago. These factors were threefold: reliance on a single industry, sprawl, and segregation. These factors are still with us, and much of the work that needs to be done in the city revolves around diversifying our economy, creating density, and providing opportunities for cultural connectivity.

This blog will serve as an initial sounding board for a study that Detroit Harmonie is conducting that seeks to understand the underlying premises of the  fields of social innovation and placemaking, while highlighting the interconnectedness between the two. Our working premise is that place (the physical attributes of the built environment and the social structures that form them and are formed within them) is the breeding ground for innovation. Given the multitude of systemic problems facing the city of Detroit, our aim is to understand how place impacts the ability of the city to be socially innovative.

For the past two and half years, we here at Detroit Harmonie have been operating in what we originally thought were two distinct fields: diversity and social innovation. Through our experimentation in these fields and our subsequent research of them, it turns out that the two are inextricably linked. What we’ve learned since our founding is that by bringing people together– by sparking spontaneous cultural collisions– new partnerships are formed, new ideas thought up, new ventures launched.

In Detroit, these collisions very rarely happen without a great deal of effort on the part of organizers. Ours is a siloed city. We are divided both by culture and by space. This is the most segregated region in the United States, and aspects of place play a big role in fostering and sustaining our division. 8 Mile still stands as an almost mythic border, an armistice line in a silent cease-fire line drawn in the wake of the 1967 riots. Freeways divide neighborhood from neighborhood. Surface parking lots make it hard to connect even the pockets of economic and cultural dynamism  burgeoning downtown.

As a result of this, massive mobilization and extensive media campaigns are a prerequisite to creating an environment of cultural vitality that can lead to innovation. There are a few exceptions to this, of course, but they are just that: exceptions, not the rule.

The time is ripe. Detroit is going through a period of major change as it tries to reinvent itself to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. A new coffee shop still has the power to change a neighborhood, as Great Lakes Coffee proved in Midtown. A new grocery store can garner national attention, as was the case of the recent opening of Whole Foods..

Our study is intended to distill best practices surrounding innovation more generally, and apply them specifically to the realm of places that enhance our capacity to innovate in the social sphere. We do this because we think that innovation in this space is Detroit’s best tool for solving some of our most intractable problems, while also serving as a magnet for attracting and retaining world-class talent. If we play our cards right, we can make Detroit the social innovation capital of the world. We’d love your insight into how to make this a reality.

If you are a tactical urbanist, civic-minded tech nerd, micro-finance maven, impact investor, or social innovator, Detroit is most likely already on your radar as a place where you could do your work. We want to build the foundation of the social innovation space in the city and help build the bridge to get you to do your work here, while simultaneously creating an eco-system that embraces you when you arrive.

In short, we want to create a Detroit that embraces the words of the great Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everyone, only because, and only when, they are created by everyone.”

Come help us build it.


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