Blog: Ric Geyer

In the winter of its economic downturn, the city of Detroit is doing an upriver crawl. Jump in with Ric Geyer, managing partner of 4731 Consulting (and long-distance swimmer), as he discusses Citizens for Cities, heroism, and his annual 14-miler across Lake St. Clair.

Post 4: Blue Collar Innovation

I talked earlier about the next big thing.  It seems like we are all looking for the next big something – the Big Idea, the Big Economic Miracle, the Big Business Process Change, and lately, the Big Federal Program, etc.  Well, at the risk of being labeled a heretic, I think the next big thing is already here - and more to the point, I think the next big thing is us.  That's right, I think that you and I are all part of the next big thing.  

There's a lot of talk about needing new ideas, new answers and new solutions to solve the crisis that confronts us.  To paraphrase a concept attributed to Ann Moore, the Chairman and CEO at Time, who spoke at the Inforum luncheon at the RenCen last week, "If we are going to solve our issues, we need to get input from everyone, everywhere."  

And it is true, the status quo hasn't worked – we need to get new ideas, new inspiration, new hope – and we need it from new places.  Creative new approaches are the ONLY way we're going to work our way out of this.  But here's where I differ from a lot of other people.  I believe we already have the talent, the experience, and the ideas to drive us to the answers and solutions we need.  And more to the point, I believe we always have had the answers - but because of ego, inertia, or just plain lack of capacity, many people get shut out of the process.  And that has to stop.  

So, if we have the ideas, how come they don't make it to the surface?  It is because these ideas represent change.  And bureaucracies resist change.  When confronted with change, they shut down – they wait it out.  This is true of automobile companies as well as big cities.  

So, to make the next big thing a reality requires one thing.  It requires the power structure to look outside and listen to the ideas that are being discussed and then to act on them.  It means becoming an active part of the conversation that is already going on daily with the entrepreneurs, the neighborhood groups, the non-profits, and the university think tank groups who are focused on solving the issues they (we all) face.  

Recently, I wrote an editorial for Crain's entitled, "Could Detroit become known as 'The City that Listens?' , where I suggested simply that the people who lived and worked in the city were in the best position to know what is going on with them.  The city needs to get them in to the conversation.  These are the people that actually have the information, as Elinor Ostrom says – ought to be asked what they think – and then the information should be acted upon.  But that oversimplifies the problem.  

Because resistance to change is a big problem.  And if we don't figure out how to get over it, or around it, or through it, it will slowly kill us. 

Here's an example of what I mean.  One of the smartest, most creative, purest intellectuals I know is a waiter at a restaurant in midtown.  He is exactly the kind of guy that needs to be sitting in a group that has been tasked with developing creative solutions to problems.  But society looks at him and says, "He doesn't quite fit the mold," so they discard him and his ideas – when those ideas are precisely what we need right now.

Being able to inspire and motivate people of different backgrounds is our greatest hope, I believe, at inventing our way out of this mess.  

If we can challenge them, engage them, and leverage their results, we can generate a creative power that will carry us through this decade and beyond.  So maybe that's really the next big thing.  The ability to not only inspire and motivate the new players, but to get their ideas to the surface.  It is not enough to come up with creative ideas – we must also have the kind of leadership that will act on them.  

All right, you say.  Where are you going with this?  First, an appeal to the city and to the businesses that make up the city to open the dialogue with a much larger group of people – to seek their counsel and then to act on their ideas in a way that gets us to the solutions we so desperately seek.  

But on a broader scale, I think individually we all need to consciously broaden our personal networks.  We need to interact with people that don't look like us or don't think like us or didn't grow up like us.  We need to ask them tough questions and laugh with them and find out how they think and what they know.  And we need to solve problems with them.  And I believe a leader will emerge who has the ability to do just that.  In fact, I believe a whole new generation of leaders will emerge that have figured out how to get the most creativity from the largest group of people and combine it in such a way as to generate above average solutions – and returns.  

So, here's what we're doing about it right now.  

"Blue Collar Innovation"- I get a chance to deal with a lot of different kinds of people – some that are pretty down on their luck.  The guys at Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit or at SHAR – some of them are ex-offenders who are suddenly cast out on the street – sometimes with no skills, no role models, no jobs, and no hope.  But one thing they do have is the desire to turn themselves and their situations around.  We need to embrace these guys and help them turn themselves into productive citizens.  For their sake, of course, but also for our sake.  We need them and their perspectives and ideas and energy.
As a result of all this, one of my partners, Richard Mishler, the ex-GM at TechTown, and I have been planning an effort we're calling "Blue Collar Innovation", a program to teach the "hard arts" – metalworking, woodworking, etc. to a whole new crop of people.  It is our hope that by mixing a number of clever, innovative, craftsman-type guys in a setting that promotes innovation and collaboration and teaching, we can bring in a whole new group of people that society has overlooked, but who are nevertheless clever problem solvers. 

Maybe this is just a great place to meet and talk about new ideas or train people in what are becoming the forgotten arts, or teach neighborhood kids learn how to build things. Or maybe it is a more structured environment where new ideas can be invented and prototyped.  Whatever its final evolution, it is based on two critical factors: first, diversity is the key to our salvation, and second, there are some very smart guys out there whose talent and creativity we desperately need – in this city, in this state, and in this country if we are to remain competitive.  It may not be sexy, but if nothing else, it will be a great place to be around people that don't look like you or think like you. 

So, if you're looking for shop space, and don't mind working with some other people in a common area at the same time, look us up at 4731.  We are definitely still in the planning stages, and are in fact still cleaning up the building after the devastation from our last tenant, but we are thinking pretty hard right now about how to put a dozen or so workshops in a building manned by creative, collaborative craftsmen, who are interested in helping the city and the region come back.