Blog: Richard 'Murph' Murphy

Murph and past Mastermind Amanda Edmonds take their new titles very serious.

Photo by Dave Lewinski

Richard "Murph" Murphy is a computer geek turned urban planner, living and working in Ypsilanti. He graduated from U-M in computer science then landed an internship at Rutgers Center for Urban Policy Research. In 2004 he returned to Ann Arbor to pursue a masters degree in urban planning at U-M. In 2006 he went to work for the city of Ypsilanti.

Murph is also a seasoned blogger, having maintained his own site,
Common Monkeyflower since 2001, and contributing to local news site Arbor Update since 2004. He was recently profiled in Concentrate's Mastermind series.

Murph will be writing about what Washtenaw County should consider as it attempts to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy.


Richard 'Murph' Murphy - Most Recent Posts:

Richard 'Murph' Murphy - Post 4

 I can't possibly avoid talking about Pfizer here, can I? No - it's what everyone else is talking about, and, besides, is just too prime an example.

As I mentioned a few days back, we keep on looking for "The Next Pfizer", as if the next one will somehow be unable to leave like the last did. When we find something big, we grasp onto it desperately, with headlines blaring 2,000 NEW JOBS TO COME. Now, I apologize, I can be a little dense at times, but - didn't we just lose those 2,000 jobs when Pfizer closed? So, couldn't "new jobs" be kind of a misleadingly optimistic phrase, when what we mean is "replacement jobs"?  (And, I admit that I'm no insider, but I have a suspicion that the University would have been adding jobs over the next several years regardless of what they did with the Pfizer building, so can these jobs really even be considered a result of the Pfizer site buy?)

I don't want to be completely grouchy about this. I think it's excellent that something is happening with the Pfizer site, and that Ann Arbor as a community has these institutions like UMichigan (and Eastern, and Trinity/St. Joes, and WCC) that are large and stable enough to step in occasionally and completely change the terms of the conversation. I'm happy that Washtenaw County is a sticky enough place that a number of former Pfizer employees have chosen to stay and start or join companies rather than leave with Pfizer - that shows we're doing something right from a quality of place standpoint, and also genuinely constitutes "new jobs".

But that doesn't negate the fact that Pfizer could and did pack up and unilaterally eliminate 2,000 jobs in town in a matter of months, followed by, with the sale to UMichigan, 4-5% of the city's tax base, several million dollars a year suddenly gone from the City, County, libraries, community college, and Michigan's schools.

So let's cheer UMichigan's purchase of Pfizer's campus - they're getting it back to productive use, they're leverage it as an asset for job creation, they're preventing it from being simply a hole in the community (or from Pfizer razing the buildings to cut their tax liability, depriving us of both the revenues and the use value of the facilities). But let's not overlook the stiff upper lips that Mayor Hieftje and County Administrator Guenzel are bringing to the discussions.  Wouldn't we all be happier if we hadn't had to suffer the loss of a monolithic employer and taxpayer for this to happen, if UMichigan were adding those jobs on the vast tracts of North Campus it already owns, while a constellation of smaller businesses suffered job losses by the tens or twenties, but never 2,000 at a time?

This issue of exposure, of too many eggs in the Pfizer basket, is still a problem that we need to recognize - and a problem that we need to buffer ourselves against in the future.

Meanwhile, I can't resist talking about built form and its relationship to human community. (Remember: urban planner.) Having spent 6-plus years of work and school on North Campus, I can clearly say that this is not an area that innately fosters innovation and creativity - it fails to provide the physical space and proximity for collaboration 
and the resulting sparking of new ideas that we need.

Douglas Kelbaugh, until recently Dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, has long talked this point.  In 2002, during the North Campus Redux project, he noted, "We need more destinations. We need places to have a date, places to have a drink." It's not just dates. It's places to meet up, talk, work, collaborate, and spark chance inspirations. 

Six years later, I still don't think North Campus has a bar, and Plymouth Road is still a pretty unpleasant place to be outside of a car. I therefore don't have too much hope that UMichigan's purchase of Pfizer's land will do much for placemaking, for turning Plymouth Road into a place where people can have ideas outside of the cloistered campus buildings - but I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised.

Richard 'Murph' Murphy - Post 3

Before you all leave for the holidays and miss next week's posts, I should take the opportunity to mention Mittenfest III, a three-day local music extravaganza that serves as a benefit for the 826michigan writing program.  Mittenfest takes place at downtown Ypsilanti's Elbow Room on the Friday through Sunday after Christmas, 5pm to 1am, with 9 bands each night, and features a pretty impressive list of the area's musicians.

The "benefit" side of the event is kind of an afterthought, though. The primary reason for the show is that Brandon Zwagerman, my former classmate and a paragon of Michigan statriotism, who pulls strings in Washtenaw County from several states away, is coming home for the holidays, and wants to see a few dozen of his favorite bands. Brandon is previously responsible for Madison House, a backyard venue not much bigger than my living room that was one of the most popular live music spots in Ann Arbor for a few summers, and Somethingfests for every occasion. (Such as the Arbor Vitae-hosted ArborFest, where I, as the scene newbie taking a shift at the door, attempted to charge Chris Bathgate cover to get into his own home. Sorry about that...)

But, back to my more general theme.

One of the cultural shifts necessary in our post-industrial economy is how we think about locating businesses. My profession (urban planning) has spent most of its first century trying to disentangle and draw bright lines around various activities, putting each in the "right place", separated from each of the others. 

The original intent was sound - protecting residences from the noxious side effects of 19th century foundries, slaughterhouses, and glue factories - but the reasoning behind the current state of things is a little more questionable. We now seem to accept as normal and reasonable the idea of an "office park" or "research park" or "industrial park" or even "educational park" - areas like little zoos, where each business has its well-defined space, penned off from all the others by stormwater detention ponds and parking lots. (Sometimes there are little fountains in the ponds, giving the illusion of this being a nice place, and helping us ignore that the animals are being kept in sterile, lonely isolation.)

The system that worked fine for 3 shifts of 1,000 assembly line workers each, running machinery around the clock - an activity that merited some separation from neighborhood residences - doesn't make quite as much sense in the "knowledge economy" we like to talk about.  Whether it's Google's requirement for proximity to all-night doughnut shops, the working alone together practice of coworking, or the fact that downtown is the hottest residential market in both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, there's plenty of evidence out there that people don't all value separation as much as we've assumed. (Or as much as we've codified, based on those assumptions.)

And here's where I think Dug Song was reading my notes for his comment from yesterday. ug says, "What I hope to see develop here is a well-knit, efficient network of innovators with ample opportunity for collaboration (often on lots of small, fun, throwaway projects and investigations). And this comes down to matters of physical space, proximity, and culture. We need to foster a community of startup folks and geeks meeting and learning from each other."

Excellent. Thank you, Dug.

Proximity, and the frequent crossing of paths it creates, is a critical piece of getting an "idea" to an "innovation" or "invention", and from there to "economic development".  Some of this is about having houses close enough together that you can talk to your neighbor over the fence. Some can be approximated online - the example of Mark Maynard and Steve Cherry's blogs recruiting me to Ypsi being foremost in my mind. (Phone doesn't count - chance encounters on the phone are generally just creepy.) A lot of it is having third places (not work, not home) for these encounters to happen - the phenomenon where I can walk into Bombadill's, Beezy's, or the Corner Brewery at any time and probably know half the people there somehow.

Running into people is an underappreciated way to get a job, find funding, get connected to people working on similar projects, or just talk through what you're working on to a fresh face and have the thought shift you were waiting for.  Sure, there's value to formal networking - calling up likely resources you know and asking after the things you're looking for. The best cross-pollination comes from the serendipitous, though. Running into somebody who introduces you to their lunch companion, who happens to be exactly the person you needed to meet, but the intermediary never knew it.

There are a lot of reasons that I like downtowns and the dense neighborhoods that surround them. I find the mixture of people and things pleasing and exciting in and of itself, for example - probably a product of being slightly ADD and wanting to have lots around me to occupy my attention. There are the environmental benefits in every realm from stormwater to historic preservation (it's like recycling, but whole buildings at a time!).

I think this is the most compelling reason, though. It's these downtowns and dense urban neighborhoods where creativity finds fertile ground - where sub-idea particles are slammed together and bombarded with alternatives until life is sparked. (and, uh, metaphors are tortured beyond recognition...)  It's the proximity of having lots of people close together, and the critical innovation resources that proximity supports (bus service, free wi-fi signals, good coffee, and tables to talk over) that gives Dug's network of innovators the ability to get together, collaborate and recombine, Really, it's a shame that we lock so many smart people up in office parks rather than letting them out on the sidewalks, where the real work happens.

Richard 'Murph' Murphy - Post 2: Educating for the local economy vs. education as export industry

Part of an inclusive culture of innovation is our attitude on education, educational attainment, and our educational institutions. While the University of Michigan is the darling of the hyphenated new economy industry press, it's not where this culture needs to be rooted.

The University of Michigan is not going to provide the training for our local economy. That school is an export manufacturing industry - it employs thousands of our residents to manufacture law, engineering, and medical degrees that we ship around the country, meanwhile supporting a number of important supply industries (such as bars). 

Eastern, meanwhile, is loading newly degreed educators onto shipping pallets and spreading them across the country, and that's not as bad a thing as the "brain drain" narrative would have us believe - it's people giving us money for product. It's 21st manufacturing at its finest, putting local residents to work assembling degrees for export. As a bonus, universities
aren't quite as mobile as traditional manufacturing capital
- Eastern isn't moving to Virginia anytime soon. (Of course, Eastern isn't paying any property tax anytime soon, either...)

The place that never gets any creative class love is Washtenaw Community College. Their lengthy list of degrees
 provides for all sorts of "knowledge workers", ranging from web design and computer programming to architectural drafting and auto & motorcycle repair. (And anybody who doesn't think these fields require "knowledge workers" has clearly never tried to rebuild the carburetors on their bike.) 

Somehow, though, the business incubators, venture capital, and tax abatements don't tend to reach these students. If Ford or Edison were getting started today, they would be at WCC - and they'd probably be called "non-traditional students", taking classes at night.

Innovation happens at a day-to-day level, done by people who have a have an idea and pursue it to completion or usefulness.  We're comfortable with this when the person is a computer programmer - when I was in undergrad, there wasn't even an expectation of completion, just of getting far enough to be bought by Microsoft. But the nurse or mechanic or carpenter who thinks up a better mousetrap? These people are the core of our economy, but we simply don't expect them to innovate.

Education is always seen as the foundation of economic development - with the expectation being more more more, and the measure of success being number of degrees. The cultural shift we need, though, is to stop measuring innovation and creativity by credentials, and start measuring it by ... innovation and creativity. 

This starts at a very young age, where currently we discourage curiosity and exploration in favor of test performance. This is only symptomatic, though, of our fixation on college degrees. In order to get a graduate degree, you need a 4-year-degree, for which you need to do well in a good high school, which we start measuring from the time you're 7 years old.

Following the trail one level further up, we need to hold our reporting of achievement to higher standards of inclusion. Media outlets like Crains, the Ann Arbor Business Review, and this fine website are good at covering the latest in electric cars and "life sciences", but come up short in the realm of "guy come up with new thing in his garage." In order to truly contribute to a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, at the level where expectations are formed and accomplishments praised, our business media needs to be sure that the thin-film solar start-up gives up the spotlight sometimes for the people who just want a better cookie.

Richard 'Murph' Murphy - Post 1: The knowledge economy is not made up of hyphens and PhDs

I see a lot of dichotomous thinking these days when it comes to economic development and job growth. My most recent issue of "Michigan Planner" provides a handy example, asking, "Can Michigan reinvent itself and transition from a 20th century industrial economy to a 21st century knowledge economy?"

On the one hand, we look back at the Fordist model of building a middle class on the auto plant floor, and think we can do all right if we just lure in a new industrial base for our local economy. We scrabble for The Next Pfizer, for The Next Hydra-matic, for The Next Motor Wheel, for The Next Exemplar, imagining that the Next Big Thing will stick around the community longer than did the Last Big Thing. (Of those, I believe that at least Pfizer, Exemplar, and Hydra-matic all closed up shop or downsized locally before even using up all the tax credits we'd given them.)

No, that era's over, we claim on the other side. We need to look to the Neweconomycreativeclassmillennialknowledgeworkers instead! It's the high-tech, bio-med, alt-energy, dot-coms that are going to turn our economy around.

But this side overlooks the fact that all these fields tend to require not only a hyphen but a post-graduate degree. And, sure, the Census Bureau's latest ACS data shows that 26% of Washtenaw County's population has a post-graduate degree, far higher than the national average of 10%, which definitely gives us something to leverage. But we have to recognize that this number means 75% of our adult population lacks a post-grad degree (and a significant share of those who have one are tied up either teaching or getting yet another degree, not starting businesses).

Just how many of the workers taking buy-outs from Ford or GM are really positioned to go into bio-medical research, anyway?

On the upside, there's an middle ground that's profoundly under-recognized in our mad search for development. "Knowledge workers" are hardly a 21st century invention. Before becoming an "industrialist" and having an entire economic system named after him, Henry Ford was an inventor and entrepreneur - a knowledge worker of the 19th century - working off an apprenticeship model of education and tinkering on his automobile projects on the side while working for Edison and Westinghouse.

Edison, in turn, got his start as a telegraph operator with a lot of free time.  (Westinghouse, too, was "merely" the son of a machinist - but we'll stick to the local boys for purpose of illustration.)

Ypsilanti's Elijah "The Real" McCoy worked from home to invent the self-lubricating fixture he saw a need for while employed as a fireman for Michigan Central Railway.

I admit that I'm skimming the cream of the lone genius inventor mythos for these examples, but my point is that the "Creative Class" wasn't invented in the 1990s, and the "new economy" isn't really so new. It's just that we forgot about it during the manufacturing boom of the last century - a boom that Michigan had so big a part in specifically because our 19th-century "knowledge workers" were so successful.

Jane Jacobs, writing The Economy of Cities in 1970 (while Richard Florida was probably in high school), stated the idea of the knowledge worker as "adding new work to old" - Elijah McCoy oiling locomotives by hand and realizing that he could make a gadget to do it for him.

This doesn't have to take place in a "high education attainment industry", though that's where we put all of our attention. It does have to take place in a certain culture (of education, governance, media), though, and that's where our dichotomous assembly-lines-or-atom-splitting thinking on economic development comes up short.

While we certainly shouldn't turn up our nose at either a new assembly line or the latest startup of atom-splitting eggheads, we can't depend on either for economic Salvation. Alongside these, we need to ensure that we're supporting the daily innovation that is the foundation of economic development.