Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

The Loneliest Detroiter

After a few days in the woods and reflecting with different folks (shoutout Nora) I've come to more clearly understand an important pre-requisite for making our city, Detroit, a more creative and prosperous place: long-term commitment from its people and institutions.

What I mean by this, roughly, is a commitment of people and institutions to stick around and work on difficult issues facing the city and individuals within it. This might mean committing to living in the region even if it means narrowing the choices one has for a career. For an institution, like a foundation, it may mean investing and setting up programs that won't start to see returns (social, financial, or otherwise) for two decades instead of two years. Perhaps it's doing something that is irrational, like backing an untested idea or entrepreneur who has a lot of unrealized potential, even though there are many naysayers.

In a way, long-term commitment is like unconditional love. You give it, without expecting anything in return and at the same time make a promise to work through issues even when things get hard. There are two major reasons why long-term commitment - of institutions and people - are important in Detroit: it helps you swing for the fences, and helps when building teams.

Long-term commitment opens up the possibility of tackling big, gnarly, systemic issues vexing Detroit like economic opportunity, government reform, public education, affordable housing or transportation. These sorts of systems are hugely important because they're connected to just about everything else that happens in Detroit. Without long-term commitment, it's very difficult to make headway on these issues because making progress takes a long time.

Moreover, these domains are really complex and have many moving, interconnected parts, making it very difficult to implement ad-hoc solutions. These are the sorts of issues you have to "throw the kitchen sink at", which is very hard to do unless people working the issues are willing to stick it out and see their efforts to success over a long time horizon. Long-term commitment allows problem solvers to make decisions that are unpopular or seemingly ineffective in the short-term but that will give huge benefits years later. Without long-term commitment, problem solvers run into a perverse incentive - trading short-term gain for long-term pain.

Think about President Kennedy commiting the country to go to the moon. Players in the space race were free to experiment and try things out with the Mercury and Gemini programs because they knew the country was committed to a moon landing down the road. Having the long-term commitment of the country behind them allowed NASA and the space industry to focus on "winning the war" instead of simply "winning battles."

Long-term commitment is also important because teams (with the mandate of solving gnarly, complex issues) don't build unless someone puts a stake in the ground and commits to the team. In a city, once people and institutions make long-term commitments, it helps other people and institutions have less fear to make a big commitment and therefore helps them to make big commitments themselves. It's a virtuous cycle. Once one person commits to doing something hard, and which will take a long time, other people start to do the same. This makes long-term commitment very important because none of the big, difficult problems in Detroit can be solved without an awesome, committed "team" of citizens and institutions.

What eats me is that I don't see many people or institutions making long-term commitments, save for a few of the corporations that are committed to keeping their headquarters in the city. Most people and institutions want to invest in sure things with a high potential of return. I don't think that's what we need. I think we need people and institutions who are in it for the long haul and are committed to figuring it out, so to speak, no matter how hard it is.

For the record, I'm not necessarily part of the solution. I'm only partially long-term committed to the city. My operating assumption is that I'm staying in Southeast Michigan for the long haul unless a wife takes me elsewhere. What's unfortunate is that my two-thirds-of-a-commitment is better than most. That's a problem.

So you see, the loneliest Detroiter is the one who has made a long-term commitment and has done it boldly. Because when he or she looks around at others, that bold, honorable Detroiter may find himself dancing alone.