Innovation is at the center of Detroit’s inclusive recovery. Yet this word “innovation” is used so often that its meaning tends to get a little obscured.
Rather than the narrow definition of technological advancement, the meaning of innovation we should use in Detroit is about doing things differently, redefining our future, and challenging ourselves to move beyond business as usual.
Innovation in this way is not an objective in itself – it’s not a new product, for example – rather it is a collection of new means and methods by which Detroiters can help to create substantial and sustainable change.
Innovation in Detroit can be seen operating at two levels. The first is through effective concepts, policies, and resources that will:
- Increase employment and residential density through focused, equitable growth.
- Stabilize neighborhoods by supporting residents and their ideas, and ensuring the amenities and city services we need to thrive.
- Transform existing land and building vacancies into an integrated network capable of yielding new approaches to food, energy, recreation, and urban ecology that are unseen in other cities.
The second level of Detroit innovation is through specific projects and initiatives advanced by Detroiters to demonstrate how these approaches can, in their sum total, guide Detroit toward a future that maximizes the city’s strengths, most notably its people, while also delivering improvements in quality of life for everyone.
By viewing innovation this way, a virtuous cycle can be formed in which each of us is contributing new ideas and actions that, when combined, can build unstoppable momentum that creates lasting and transformative change in Detroit.
Detroit Future City’s second Ideas for Innovation event was dedicated to identifying and outlining “Opportunities for Innovation” across the city. Two local leaders – William Jones, the CEO of Focus: HOPE Industries, and Lydia Gutierrez, the president and CEO of Hacienda Mexican Foods – highlighted some of their Detroit innovations to serve as models for the community leaders in attendance.
Focus Hope has committed to its neighborhood first through its “Keep It 100” program, which is an annual convergence of residents and volunteers who clean and revitalize the Hope Village 100-block area. The thinking goes, they should start with stabilizing the square mile around where they operate before they extend their reach.
At Hacienda Foods, Gutierrez stresses the company’s commitment to its employees and the neighborhood. They go the extra mile to write personal notes on paychecks and inquire about employees’ lives and families, recognizing the powerful social impact when neighbors are given dignified opportunities to earn a living.
These were just two examples. Most of those in attendance, along with thousands of others across the city, are defining and activating their own innovative ways to move Detroit beyond its past.
When you start to look at the breadth of projects underway, it becomes clear that each of us has the potential to be an innovator. Some inspiring highlights include:
Detroit innovation in neighborhoods
• Detroit Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts – Neighbors bring local artists and residents together to animate city streets, creating a dynamic environment that demonstrates the intrinsic value of public space in our neighborhoods.
• Motor City Match – A city of Detroit, DEGC, and HUD partnership that connects landlords with vacant space to emerging business owners looking for space to revitalize essential neighborhood retail corridors and to provide needed amenities and services.
• ProsperUS – A group dedicated to empowering communities and entrepreneurs to transform low-income neighborhood economies through more formal organization between residents, neighborhood groups, and small businesses.
Detroit innovation in urban agriculture
• Keep Growing Detroit – A resident network that informs and supports others to create a healthier, food-sovereign Detroit through the use of vacant land.
• Recovery Park – This mission-driven business is building a sustainable supply of healthy food in Detroit by reutilizing vacant land and facilities, as well as providing viable employment to Detroiters with significant barriers to full-time employment.
Detroit innovation in economic development
• Lift (American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute) – National and local partners are using vacant industrial buildings and available skilled workers to establish a new manufacturing center for lightweight materials that is unlike anything else in the country.
• Eastern Market Corporation – A non-profit that balances investment and development to maintain the cultural integrity of an important citywide asset while also stimulating and supporting the city’s broader food economy.
To be sure, Detroit’s statistics are daunting. It has lost 60% of its peak population and 90% of its industrial jobs while amassing more than 23 square miles of vacant land. But if we only dwell on these grim realities, we will most certainly miss the ways in which each of us can shape a new future for the city.
Many have already committed to building an inclusive and innovative future for Detroit. All it takes to start your own idea is effort and passion. The more who contribute, the faster we can build a Detroit that sees beyond its present condition and becomes the city we all know in our hearts it has the potential to be.
Dan Kinkead is director of projects for Detroit Future City.