Blog: 5 Blog Posts You Should Read

Metromode is committed to examining the ideas and innovations that help transform Michigan's communities, economy and environment. We understand that people are our state's greatest asset and our weekly guest blog provides some of the region's best and brightest a forum for their thoughts.

In thinking about Thanksgiving, 'mode considered all the issues, policies and initiatives its covered over the last year and realized that the generous contributions of its guest bloggers provided some of the most compelling thoughts. So, in an effort to show our thanks, we offer you five posts that got us... and hopefully you... thinking.

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Post No. 5

Michael Doyle 

For my fifth and final post here, I want to address a concept which has not been discussed nearly as much as it should: a borough system for Metropolitan Detroit. What does that mean exactly? Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties would be incorporated into one mega-city of five million residents with each former county being a borough - much like New York did in 1898 and Toronto did as recently as 1954. This is not a new concept, but it has never been seriously considered, primarily because of the social-economical-political-racial rift between the more economically powerful suburbs and the core City of Detroit. This rift was not created by, but is perpetuated to this day by small-minded folk jockeying for power in both places.

It's a given that neither side would want to share political power with the other.  The mental fortresses built of fear are too strong. But imagine if you will, a Detroit with the diversity and economic power of the entire region - shared services, shared infrastructure and shared tax base. The transition may be more difficult than the joining of East and West Germany, but I truly think it would be in the best interest of all parties and all the residents of the region in the long run.  

In theory, the former geographic City of of Detroit would share tax revenue from the entire the region, while the outer suburbs would be absorbed into a newly defined Detroit City with a revived core. The economic advantages seem to be clearly in the former Detroit's favor, but the social and political power would shift to the outer boroughs (due to population figures)... at first. Think twenty, fifty years in the future, after the most stubborn politicians have long since retired.  Imagine a unified Detroit that extends as north as the neighborhood of Ortonville and as far west as Canton Village. Imagine five million people sharing the responsibility for 3,913 square miles, rather than their individual enclaves. Before you say this sound like a communist plot, this is exactly how many real, vibrant cities in the North America work.

As one city, many of the social divides that tear us apart would be rendered irrelevant. A singular metro Detroit municipality will not solve the social and economic problems we face, but it would remove some of the barriers which help them thrive. There would still be richer and poorer neighborhoods, but posturing would be pointless. The point is: we'd all be in it together. Royal Oak, Ferndale, Corkrtown and Midtown would all be neighborhoods of Detroit, much like Greenwich Village, Williamsburg, Astoria and Midtown are neighborhoods of New York. We wouldn't lose the character of any area, but we would lose some of the mental boundaries which keep us apart. A real metropolitan mass transit system could be a reality for the first time, without municipalities blocking bus service for thinly veiled racist motives.

A true metropolitan City of Detroit would take time - probably a generation or two to really work, but it would be worth it. Re-drawing city lines won't solve the "us vs. them" mentality, but it would be a huge step in the right direction. It would also return Detroit to it's status an economic and cultural powerhouse. In the eyes of the world, Detroit could be one of the greatest cities in the U.S. once again. (In my sick version of justice, there would some satisfaction in seeing all who fled to the farthest reaches of the area being forced to take responsibility for the city that provided their existence, as well as forcing those within the city to acknowledge the importance of the surrounding communities.)

This macro outlook addresses some issues, but a micro outlook is needed as well.  What makes today's Detroit strong and relevant is not big industry, but its entrepreneurs and DIY'ers. In this hypothetical mega-city of the future, we must more than ever foster and promote the diversity and individuality that makes our place unique.

Andy Malone is a life-long Detroit resident, artist, architect, community leader and DIY'er.  I've been fortunate to be a close friend and professional colleague with Andy for some twelve years, to serve on the CAID board of directors and co-curate The Other Auto Show with him. On the topic of Detroit entrepreneurship, Andy says, "Detroit necessitates an entrepreneurial spirit that creative people thrive on. Almost every Detroiter I know has done (or valiantly attempted) extraordinary things. It's not unusual to run into someone who started their own magazine, painted a mural, opened a restaurant, started a poetry festival, or shot a feature length movie (sometimes simultaneously.)  In other cities, the creative resources are jealously protected by the established community.  Detroit is about sharing. We have no choice." 

He continues, "Apathy is my least favorite aspect of Detroit. From political corruption to litter on the streets, apathy is the root of everything that's wrong with the city. There are so many neighborhoods that are at a tipping point right now. As trite as it sounds, the smallest improvement could have a lasting impact. The best way to improve Detroit is also the most basic: Create a close-knit network of positive nodes throughout. Slow's and CAID are good examples of businesses that moved into neglected neighborhoods and challenged people's perception of Detroit."

From a network of positive individual actions to a metro-area wide sense of shared responsibility and pride, the combination of creativity, passion and midwestern hard work are the keys to a better metropolitan Detroit for everyone.  If we can open our minds and remove fear and apathy from the equation, there is no limit to what we can do and what we can become.

Post No. 4

Why live in Detroit?
Chris Schneider

I was browsing through one of the junk shops at the Great Lakes Crossing mall when I found a t-shirt that read, "Friends don't let friends move to Detroit".

As someone who is relatively new to the area, I do not fully understand why there is this intense hatred of Detroit by fellow Michiganders. People have tried to explain it. They say it is the worst crime city, but I lived in Fort Lauderdale where they have an equal or greater crime rate and Floridians do not hate that city. They say it is terribly segregated, but South Florida is equally as divided by race and culture (neighboring schools will be 97% black and 95% white). They say it is an empty shell where no one wants to go. I grew up in Nebraska. The same can be said about that entire state, yet I can tell you its residents are passionately loyal to their home.

I don't buy the reasons I am given. Instead, I attribute it to something like this: when I was a child, it was popular to tell jokes about the Polish.

What did the Polack say when he walked into the bar?
Ouch!


It wasn't until I grew older that I questioned why the Polish had to take the brunt of our jokes—and the answer was that there was no reason. We simply, ignorantly accepted the idea that all Polish people were dumb.

When I moved to Birmingham to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art, I was told that if I went to Detroit I would probably get shot. There was a mystique about the place, like the awe we feel watching a tiger in a pen. Nevertheless, I was lured down there from time to time. I never got shot! In fact, I found the city full of vibrancy and potential. When I graduated, I could have moved anywhere in the country. Instead, I packed my things up and moved from Birmingham to Hamtramck. It was a smart decision.

So why move to Detroit (or Hamtramck, a town nestled within the loving arms of Detroit)?

  1. The property value is low. I bought a crackhouse from the federal government and pay less in mortgage for a three-bedroom home than I did in rent for a one-bedroom apartment.
  2. The neighborhoods are neighborhoods. Families hang out on their porches, talk to those who walk by. When I am gone, my neighbors take care of my yard and water my plants. When I moved in, they welcomed me with food.
  3. The cultural mix is rich. On my street, there are at least four languages spoken. I can walk to a Polish bakery, a Yemeni grocery, or a Bengali restaurant. Local festivals and events celebrate uniqueness instead of suppress it or water it down.
  4. Opportunities are everywhere. Call me an eternal optimist, but when I drive around, I see some building and think, "Wow, that would make a great place for art studios." Or "Wow, if someone would just clean that up it would be gorgeous lofts."
  5. The entertainment is in place. Detroit has the best restaurants of any Michigan city. It also has the DIA, the stadiums, the concert halls, the galleries, the new river walk and Belle Isle. Then there is the music scene. In Hamtramck alone there are over a dozen venues playing live music—and not a single one of them will be a cover band.

That's right—I am a former Nebraskan singing the praises of Detroit.

By the way, the anti-Detroit t-shirt I found at the mall accidentally fell off the rack and was trampled on several times with very dirty shoes.


Post No. 3

MIKE POST

Everyone is wondering how we can turn our economy toward a more positive direction. The agri-food system in Michigan is our most fruitful sector for economic recovery and improved quality of life.

The size and scope of our $60 billion food and agriculture economy was shared with state leaders through a report from the
Michigan State University Product Center in January 2007. In this report, Dr. Chris Peterson states that 24% of Michigan’s workforce is employed in the system that produces farm goods and moves them from field to end user. He also points out that investors have pumped $8.6 billion into the agri-food system over the past five years, and that continuation of existing initiatives could create 12,000 to 23,000 new jobs.

Simultaneously, while working toward recovery in our traditional industrial powerhouses, we could take advantage of the possibilities growing out of the conversion of agricultural commodities into higher-value consumer goods. This means taking notice of the food system as an economic sector, understanding resources managed within it, and taking actions toward improved consumer access to local farm goods.

Agriculture as an industry isn't "sexy" in new economy terms. It's the most basic and essential industry to human life. We must eat. How and what we eat should always be atop any agenda. With renewed focus on developing localities in terms of their downtowns and homegrown industries it makes vital sense to make local food systems a part of the conversation.

The food system is vast. It begins with agricultural production. The Detroit metropolitan area is the 9th largest urban center in the United States. From a food system perspective this market represents 2.8 million people eating 1200 pounds of food per capita annually. It is surrounded by an ocean of agricultural commodities. We have more than 960,000 acres (1,500 square miles) of land within the agricultural portfolio of southeast Michigan. Our state agricultural production is often cited as the second most diverse food system in the United States, trailing only California in terms of significant agricultural products. Statistics show that the counties surrounding the Detroit metropolitan area have the soils, climate, and farm business skills to produce state-leading yields in several crop and livestock species.

The pattern of urban centers surrounded by substantial agricultural regions is typical of Michigan's landscape. Fly from Detroit to Chicago, or drive to Jackson, Lansing, Flint, Saginaw, Kalamazoo, or Grand Rapids. Each smaller urban/rural relationship makes up a patchwork quilt of economic development opportunity.

Unfortunately, when people think of agriculture they usually envision farming, which translates in their minds to a dead end. Agricultural land has been converted to "higher and better uses" at a breakneck pace in recent decades. But taking land conversion as a sign that agriculture is dead or dying is a faulty conclusion. Beyond crop and livestock production the food system includes natural resource management, food product development, industrial processing, pharmaceutical product development, grocery and restaurant industries, and cultural development. Viewing agriculture and the food system as a broader set of economic activities will help leaders consider how these resources can be managed to improve our economic wellbeing and quality of life.

Post No. 2

RICHARD MURPHY

My family has driven Fords for as long as I can remember. There was the odd foray into a Honda or a Subaru, but always back to Fords.  

My wife is from a GM-UAW family, so our car is, of course, a GM vehicle, and always will be. But let's not delude ourselves. "Buy American" has become more and more nebulous as supply and assembly plants have hopped from state to state and continent to continent. It's quite possible no Michigan resident touched our "Detroit" car between design and dealership, making it quite similar to, say, a Hyundai or a Toyota, now that we've got tech centers for both of those manufacturers popping up in the area.  

Certainly, there's some benefit to having the headquarters of the "Big Three," sorry, Detroit 3 in the area, various back office and support staff remain here, and the companies support various community and cultural institutions. But the bottom line is this: Michigan must move beyond the automotive mindset in order to prosper, or even to survive. Michigan is well into the post-Fordist economy. Manufacturing work is no longer a dependable pathway to the middle class that can absorb Michigan's workforce. But we haven't figured out what happens next.

We were warned 40 years ago.

This is hardly a new problem, noted urban writer Jane Jacobs warned Michigan as early as 1969 that our economy was in danger, when her book
The Economy of Cities singled out the Detroit auto industry as the model of a stagnant regional economy. The very success of the large auto companies would prove our downfall by minimizing experimentation. Cities are economically valuable, said Jacobs, not in spite of, but because of their inefficiencies. Successful city-regions are stews of economic activity, with lots of individuals and small businesses experimenting in wildly different directions. The inefficiency of experimentation, trial-and-error, and duplication of work by various small-scale companies maximizes the chances that new ideas and new industries will emerge.  

Think of Silicon Valley as the model of this. Microsoft and Google don't come up with most of their new ideas, they watch the startups, buy up the ones that come up with good ideas, and then polish those up and market them. The innovation happens in the small companies; it's the integration and marketing that the big corporations do.

A century ago, Michigan hosted a  myriad of
auto companies, experimenting in different directions (gas, electric, even steam!). But by the '60s, Jacobs was calling out the Detroit region's auto industry as the opposite of a healthy, innovative, regional economy. Here was a region that had focused all of its energy on the agglomeration of a few large companies in one industry sector, and on streamlining those companies for maximum efficiency. We may have gotten very good at making automobiles, said Jacobs, but we did this at the cost of being good at anything else.  

Now that the automotive industry is forced to reinvent itself, we're figuring out why this is a problem. We're unprepared for what's next, we're barely willing to admit that something has to be next, and, when we discuss it, many of us stuck in the mindset of monolithic large industries. "Biotech is the next big thing, let's recruit some big biotech companies!" we say, failing to learn the lesson that a few big companies in a few industries is what got us where we are today.

Don't build industries, build places.

What we have to realize is that we can't, as a region, pick one or two industries, recruit a few large companies, and nurture them into the replacement for the automotive industry. We have to nurture thousands of small businesses in hundreds of different fields, and see what emerges. Unfortunately, our existing business incentives are ill-suited for this purpose. We know how to offer tens of millions of dollars to Google or Toyota (valuable additions to the region, to be sure), but we can't do the same for the
people working on great ideas in their garages or spare bedrooms, we don't even know who they are.

But look back to my first post.  What these artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs want are interesting places where they can be around interesting people, they want to be able to walk down the block to the
corner brewery  or coffee shop, run into people, and swap ideas.  (Conveniently enough, I was in the middle of revising this post at the local pub when a neighbor wandered up, and we got to talking shop.)

My parents' generation wanted nothing more than stable jobs that let them get out of the cities and buy their own homes in quiet subdivisions. My generation doesn't want that. We want to get back into the cities, where we can meet interesting people doing interesting things. We want dense urban neighborhoods and pedestrian-friendly, fine-grained downtowns where lots of different things are happening. We know we're going to be switching jobs and even careers, and we want messy places where there's enough going on that we can figure out what comes next for us.

And if
we can't find those places in Michigan? Well, that's why so many of our college graduates end up leaving the state. If Michigan wants a healthy economy, it needs to rebuild healthy cities. If Michigan's going to have an economic savior, it won't be Google, it will be Detroit.  And Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo, and Ann Arbor, and, yes, my very own Ypsilanti.


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Post No. 1

I Wish We Were So Stupid 
by TOM MELOCHE

From time to time I hears folks criticizing one of our wonderful Michigan businesses. I know, this is hard to believe, but it is true. To be specific, people sometimes call our businesses and their great leaders stupid. “Ford was stupid doing this,” “GM was stupid for doing that,” and “all of them are stupid for ignoring W. Edwards Deming,” and on and on. (O.K., I admit, I'm usually the one making the Deming comment.) Usually the criticism is followed with, “And you will not believe what the morons running my company just did.”

In the past, whenever I heard people complaining about how stupid Michigan companies were, I would tell them, “If you want to really experience stupid, you have work for a California company.” Over the years, while still living in Michigan, I've somehow managed to end up working for California companies. I am not exaggerating when I say that these are the absolutely most amazingly stupid companies I have ever had the pleasure of working with. In fact, in the case of Commerce One, they turned stupidity into a mind numbingly glorious singularity burning in stupid brightness, losing literally hundreds of millions of investment dollars, shutting down profitable businesses, and driving themselves to financial ruin. If you really want to meet stupid people, I am convinced that there is no better place than Silicon Valley.

At one point I mistakenly took solace in the idea that the Michigan companies I knew were significantly smarter than the California ones. Yes, the California companies were continually doing bold, innovative, and dramatic moves, but most these moves were also colossally unforgiving and, to me anyway, quite frequently stupid. Silicon Valley companies seem to enjoy betting their entire future on some crazy innovation, a single roll of the dice. Imagine how stupid the California VCs and Angels must be to invest in these companies.

To add insult to injury. Californians seem to celebrate their stupidity. They wear it as a badge of honor to have tried a startup and failed. Their VCs actually give money to inventors and managers who failed the last time they tried a startup: they let them try again! They even fund teenagers and college students ten to fifty thousand dollars for a stupid startup idea, with no real business plan, not even a single financial projection. Some even expect them to launch a new business in only 10 weeks. Oh the insanity, the insanity, and yes, I'm talking about you, Y Combinator.

In Michigan we have a better way slow, deliberate, cautious, ..., smart. By golly, I remember the response I received when I presented an idea for an Internet company to a Michigan VC firm in 1996. The Michigan VC said, “The Internet, well, I don't really know if that Internet is going to go anywhere.” After all, we wouldn't want to invest if we didn't really KNOW the result ahead of time, like a Treasury Bill. That's the smart way to invest.

I was happy with my opinion on how smart we all are in Michigan. Even my experience with our local VC community didn't really change that opinion, although it did begin to shake the ground a little. It wasn't until I read, On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin, that I fundamentally began to question my faith in Michigan's approach to intelligent investing. That Darwin, always challenging our faith. I couldn't help but apply his theory to business, and I was surprised at the perspective it gave.

The beauty of the theory of natural selection is that doesn't require intelligent design. That is why it is so offensive to so many people. The key concept that so intrigues me is this:

Natural selection doesn't require intelligent design.

It is not intelligent selection, it is natural selection. It is not survival of the smartest, but survival of the fittest. And sometimes, being the fittest, is simply a function of luck. When I think of Darwin in the realm of innovative startup businesses, I am inclined to believe that intelligence is overrated.

What is required for natural selection to perform its wonders for startup businesses?

A large population, selection, and time.

Here is where we may be in trouble in Michigan. We are just too darn smart. We are trying to do intelligent design on a process better suited to natural selection. Intelligent design simply isn't as good as natural selection in creating strong, new, innovative businesses and jobs. The world is changing so fast, and technology is moving fast, if you want to ride the edge of innovation you cannot wait to make intelligent investments, for by the time it is clear what investments will survive and thrive, the opportunity has passed you by, and someone else will have the thriving new business life created by the process.

Say, for a purely hypothetical example, a new piece of technology appears called XMLhttprequest. Let's call the technology, and how it is applied, Web 2.0. California, being stupid, blindly starts up and finances hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Web 2.0 companies, all in less than three years. Mostly stupid companies, with stupid ideas, and no hint as to how they will ever even make any money.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Michigan, however, is much more clever. We only startup a few, and we don't provide them with any capital. Certainly no Michigan VC gives them any money, and for goodness sake, don't even approach the Angel Groups or the MGCS with this sort of lame idea. Include these types of businesses in the 21st Century Jobs Fund? That would be stupid.

Michigan is smart. California, clearly stupid.

End of the story? Unfortunately, no. The galling thing is that, in the end, California wins. How? The power of natural selection over a large population outperforms intelligent design.

Out of these thousands of new startup companies created in California many will, through the process of natural selection, survive, adapt, and even grow. Most die. Some absolutely thrive, creating whole new industries and thousands of new jobs. At the end of a few years, California successfully employs thousands and thousands of engineers and managers in the thriving companies. Thousands more work in those that are merely surviving. These companies being to develop synergy, create new ideas (mostly stupid), and launch yet still more new businesses creating new jobs.

Michigan. Michigan in the same time frame likely creates ten to twenty Web 2.0 companies. Most get no funding and die on the drawing board. Others move to California. And the few remaining ones who are successful, well, if they have an exit strategy it likely involves selling the company and moving it to California. After all, the only people stupid enough to buy it, are in California.

Final score: California, tens of thousands of new jobs in new industries, without a single tax credit to create them. Michigan, 0.

I wish we were so stupid.

There was a time when Michigan was a lot dumber. Henry Ford stupidly wanted to sell affordable cars to everyone. The smart money kept telling him to focus on selling cars only to the rich. “Silly Henry, don't you know the farmers can't afford cars, and we don't even have any roads for people to drive on.” I can hear the capital speaking even now. Oh, if only we had a few thousand people as stupid as Henry around, and a few others stupid enough to back them.

The next time you hear somebody say how stupid a Michigan company is, tell them what I say, “Yeah, and not nearly stupid enough.” I mean, we wouldn't want to have created a good alternative fuel car when gas was only $1.00 a gallon that would've been stupid.


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