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Despite politics, strides made in 2015 to break Michigan's status quo

Flickr/Penn State

The Next Idea

It’s that time of year to reflect on what worked and what didn’t this past year here in the Great Lakes State, and to give due consideration to potential adjustments to improve our situation.  

Considering the essays and interviews of our guests here at The Next Idea, other credible news sources, and adding some of my own observations, I see three general areas for innovation to consider for review:

  • Business
  • Community
  • Politics


Let’s start with a little good news. Michigan’s unemployment rate has moved up to the middle of the pack as compared to all other states. Our job growth for the year is reasonable and appears to be increasing at a steady rate. What’s unclear is how much of this is due to innovation or the rebound of the automobile industry.

Some Bright Spots

  • The auto industry in our state is increasing its investment in research and development and now has the patents and intellectual property to move the entire industry into the next generation of transportation: accident avoidance, driverless cars, and alternative forms of power generation.
  • A few of our cities are attracting more venture capital from outside the region, most notably Ann Arbor and Lansing, which are among the top in the U.S. as measured by innovation investment per person.
  • Our furniture manufacturing companies, mostly congregated around Grand Rapids, are leading the way in new workplace design: leading-edge office technology, repurposing of old buildings for entrepreneurial concerns, and environmentally sustainable product development.
  • Microbrewers and wineries in western Michigan continue to develop successful product variations and attract international acclaim.

Some Not So Bright Spots

  • Our legislature decided to make deep cuts to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation which played a substantive role in bringing new business into the state and jump-starting entrepreneurial technology and biotech companies.
  • Related to the MEDC cuts, our best entrepreneurs continue to leave our state for both coasts which offer far better opportunities for investment, incubation, and acceleration.
  • We continue to rely heavily on the automotive industry for most of our economic growth and remain vulnerable in the next downturn.


When looking at our community through an innovation lens, the high and low points are more distinct. The key issues continue to be centered on the amazing creativity and resilience of our citizens and the ever widening disparity in the opportunities available to them.

Some Bright Spots

  • Detroit, Detroit, Detroit. For the first time in decades, the city is attracting the young, the entrepreneurial and those committed to rebuilding our metropolis. Sure, there is a long way to go, but the speed and magnitude at which this is happening is impressive.
  • Our top colleges and universities continue to rank among the nation’s elite and provide a solid research base for the creation and growth of new types of organizations.
  • Community focused investment in education, such as the Kalamazoo Promise, is catching on in other cities and slowly increasing the numbers of much needed college educated workers in our state.
Suffice it to say our representatives provided little in the way of innovation leadership.

Some Not So Bright Spots

  • We continue to cut arts education (music, theater, writing, dance, etc.) in our schools at a time when the development of creative abilities is essential if we have realistic aspirations to be an innovation-based economy.
  • By most non-partisan report cards on educational measures of success in primary and secondary schools, we continue to struggle with achievement gaps, particularly in areas of mathematics and the sciences necessary for employment in an increasingly technological workplace.
  • Several large metropolitan areas, such as Flint and Pontiac, have been largely left out of the growth opportunities, as have underrepresented groups, in the rebuilding of our core industries and the restoration of our urban corridors.


Now onto the embarrassing subject of politics. Do I hear a collective groan?

It’s been a year of gridlock, backroom bullying, extreme red and blue partisanship and public humiliation in the press: romantic intrigues, secretive closed sessions of the legislature, pointless grandstanding, and the roads, the roads, the roads. I’m not sure there are any bright spots worthy of mention, and the not so bright spots are too numerous to cover. Suffice it to say our representatives provided little in the way of innovation leadership.

It’s not just the good, bad and ugly that we need to consider here at the end of the year, but also the invisible. The innovations we should have seen but were conspicuously absent:

  • Redouble our commitment, efforts and resources for the education of our children -- everywhere in everyway.
  • Imaginative ways of making college more accessible and affordable in Michigan.
  • New types of programs to develop and support innovators that help keep our most promising entrepreneurs here in Michigan.
  • A funding bridge between angel and capital intensive investments to provide continuity in the resources required to grow our small companies into big companies.
  • Creative methods for bringing talented immigrants into our state, and the means to help place them in opportunities to innovate in our key industries.

Last, and most importantly, we could use a renewed sense of destiny for our good people: A moon-shot for Michigan. Something that brings us all together once again.

It's past time that we all work together to create Michigan's culture of innovation. 

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. 

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