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.

How Cultures Form, Part II - Forming Culture In Detroit

A friend and colleague who I've never had the privilege to meet in person, framed up my last post on how cultures form very clearly in a tweet. I'd to like to use his simple framing as the foundation of evaluating how culture forms in Detroit and thinking of solutions:

I agree, the ideas (and actions) that are the most reinforced become part of the culture. If that's true, there is a two step process for evaluating and improving cultural formation in Detroit, via two questions.

  1. Do cultural ideas and actions becomes reinforced (or not reinforced) effectively?
  2. If answering no to the first question, what should we do about it?

I'll now consider these questions in turn. In my last post, I broke down cultural formation into two categories with three components each. I'll use this framework as the basis of analysis:

Do cultural ideas and actions become reinforced (or not reinforced) effectively in Detroit? First, a look at culture forming behaviors:

Expressing cultural ideas in Detroit Something I find interesting about the people who express cultural ideas with their thoughts and actions in Detroit is that attention is focused on a limited number of voices and stories. Individuals and media alike reinforce the same class of social entrepreneurs, the same foundations, and the same business leaders. As a result, I think the only people who express ideas about the culture are in the same group of people. Everyday Detroiters don't have a means of asserting their spin on what Detroit means to them, and probably don't feel like it's valued.

We certainly have a strong, clear, and confident group of people expressing cultural ideas in Detroit, the group just isn't very diverse. The poster children of the city are the ones that are vaulted into the public spotlight because of their position, wealth, or the timeliness of their work. If there is a voice for everyday Detroiters, I can't think of one.

Sharing cultural ideas in Detroit I think it's pretty common for ideas to be shared in Detroit. Detroit feels like a small town for a city its size and word travels fast here. What's problematic is that information doesn't travel across different types of communities. What the artists are talking about and learning doesn't really get co-mingled with what business leaders are talking about and learning, for example. Our city exists in social silos. If you want a deep and thoughtful explanation of how the siloed-ness matters, talk to Chad.

Forming new cultural ideas in Detroit In my observation, Detroit is mixed when it comes to forming new cultural ideas. Most Detroiters seem to be resistant to the notion of engaging in the realm of ideas, and aren't good at it anyway. (Go to panel discussions with public Q&A to witness the difficult Detroiters have with asking deep questions.)

Instead, the focus of most Detroiters I come across - not that it's a bad thing, necessarily - is how to get something done. It's about executing and not exchanging at a deeper, more reflective level. There are a few exceptions to this, there are a few groups of people who seem to step back and reflect: artists / writers and the people in Venture for America or other cohorts like VFA. It's funny, a lot of the more reflective people I've come across weren't brought up in Michigan.

In addition to all this, public figures don't seem to be reflecting much and communicating  narratives that give social permission to reflect and "ask why." More to come on this in a few weeks. If leadership in the city is razor-focused on execution (with little room for reflection) why would individuals give it a go?

Next, a look at interaction channels.

Enabling the original transmission of cultural ideas From my observation, it seems like there are plenty of ways to originally transmit cultural ideas, although, lots of these mechanisms are through digital channels or through a job (e.g., twitter, kickstarter, a company initiative, artist galleries, etc.) It seems as though there aren't really many physical spaces or social settings to express cultural ideas that are broadly accessible. This is somewhat problematic because Detroit is a city that is not extremely digitally savvy.

Moreover, using digital mechanisms to express a cultural ideas is self-selecting process because it's very public. Because digital channels are very public, it makes it difficult to express provocative ideas without sterilizing them for broader consumption...there's some lost intimacy and nuance.

Enabling the dissemination of cultural ideas There aren't many mechanisms to share ideas broadly, mechanisms for broad sharing are fractured. First, media channels have very pointed audiences. Everything from Crain's Detroit Business to Hell Yeah! Detroit) has a niche audience. We even have two local papers which prevent multiple points of view from being expressed on a single opinion page. Having niche mass media channels prevents ideas from being shared widely across different communities in Detroit and prevents those ideas from bumping up against each other.

Second, social networks don't exist across communities. This prevents ideas from percolating both in the physical and digital worlds. Ideas can't get legs across communities, so they stay within sub-groups which limits Detroit to only having sub-cultures.

Enabling the evaluation and reflection of cultural ideas Just as people don't seem to be reflective on their own, there aren't really formal mechanisms for evaluation and reflection either. We don't have ways to give feedback to city institutions, nor do we have many things like Fail Fest or Nerd Nite. There also aren't a ton of third spaces (public, semi-private, or private) which foster reflection. Moreover, the third spaces that do exist require reliable transportation to reach...something many Detroiters don't have.

What should we do about it?

This post is already rather long, and recommendations are supposed to be short and sweet, so I'll keep it that way. I'll publish some more specific proposals soon. For now, here are some things we can do (broadly speaking) to improve the possibility of forming culture in Detroit, given all this analysis:

  • Model and highlight behavior which give individuals the social proof to express cultural ideas
  • Bridge the digital divide so a wider group of Detroiters can engage in the sharing of cultural ideas
  • Take pauses in the execution of projects for the public to weigh-in on implementation plans, allowing the new cultural ideas to bubble up
  • Create public opportunities (forums) for everyday Detroiters to express themselves and transmit cultural ideas
  • Bridge social circles through a consistent series of accessible public events, creating the networks which could broadly disseminate cultural ideas, eventually
  • Create opportunities for individuals and organizations to share learnings , focusing on reflections and not strategic planning - this will compel presenters and listeners to evaluate and reflect on cultural ideas