Blog: 5 Blog Posts You Should Read

With Thanksgiving just around the corner it seems a good time to remind our readers that of all the resources and institutions Michigan should be thankful for, its the innovators, entrepeneurs and creatives that dream of what our state can be. Metromode's guest blog provides a weekly forum for their ideas, concerns and opinions. Here are a few recent posts that got us... and hopefully you... thinking.

Post No. 2


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.