Neil Tambe

Husband, Father, Citizen, Professional.

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.

Filtering by Category: Detroit

Will the city benefit from economic growth initiatives? (Plus a framework)

In business and innovation, Teece's model helps you determine who will profit from an innovation. After learning about it, I got to thinking if that model - or a similar concept - could be translated to cities and regions. So I came back with a question - how do cities know if they will reap the benefits of an economic growth initiative? Here's a model to help answer that question. It's unsubstantiated by data, but it's an intuition that I'd love your feedback on.


To determine if a city or region will benefit from an economic growth initiative, I propose mapping the initiatives along two axes: the type of growth the initiative intends to create and the source of new revenues created.

As it happens, the quadrant look curiously similar to the Michigan Model of Leadership.

  • Type of Growth - is the growth created because of a creating a new product or services that meets an unmet market need? Or, is it a product or service that tries to steal market share from a competitor?
  • Source of New Revenues - are the incremental revenues created generated from customers in the city? Or, are those revenues collected from people from another locality? In other words, are the revenues exports or not?


A model for determining the sustainability of economic growth.

Using the model is simple. Note that the "city" is a placeholder term for the economic subdivision being analyzed. You could replace "city" with state or region.

Each quadrant has a distinct flavor. I've included notes in each quadrant to help economic growth teams determine the conditions under which they can reap the benefits from initiatives in each quadrant.

  1. Generate a list of all economic growth initiative for the city
  2. Map them on to the model. Initiatives that are 100% new products/services with cash 100% generated from non-local customers would go in the top right hand corner. And so on.
  3. Each quadrant has a distinct flavor. Look at where the distribution of all initiatives across the framework lie. Is it balanced? Should it be balanced?
  4. Look at the quadrant each initiative is in. Are the conditions in that quadrant met? If so, the city may reap the benefits of growth. If not, their ability to reap the benefits of growth will be handicapped.


Does this model made sense? As an economic development professional, do you find it useful?


Detroit is not a laboratory

Detroit is not a laboratory, but we should be scientists. Here's some explanation about where I'm coming from. DETROIT IS NOT A LABORATORY

One of the narratives I've heard about Detroit, especially when stories about Detroit are told to those not currently living here, is that Detroit is a laboratory. It's a blank slate, a place where enterprising folks can experiment and make something for themselves. Detroit, the story goes, is the new wild, wild west and a low-cost place to take risks and try something new.

That's not exactly true because Detroit is precisely NOT a blank slate. The City was founded in 1701. It had over 1.5 million residents at its peak, and there are still over 700k that live within the city limits - not to mention the many more in the metro area. Detroit already has a culture, and monuments, artifacts, and history. It has major sports teams, and Universities. We've started cultural, economic, and social movements in our storied history.

Detroit is the opposite of a blank slate.

I mention this because talking about Detroit as a blank slate / laboratory can make locals feel marginalized - like they're in a petri dish, under observation, and without agency. More and more, I feel that way too when folks talk about Detroit as a "laboratory."


That said, there are lots of people - both long-time residents, and new comers - trying new things and figuring out what works to make life in the City better. And I think that's great. Detroit isn't a city that works for everyone. It can be better, it can "rise from the ashes" as we Detroit's like to say.

The way we get there is being scientists - by observing, listening, trying, failing, succeeding, learning, and sharing. Being a scientist doesn't have to mean treating the city - and those in it - like part of an experiment. What it does mean being curious, humble, and learning by doing.

I'd also say that "being scientists" is part of who we are as Detroit's. We've always been creative people, who work hard and build new things. And so we should.

It's not lost on me that this is a subtle distinction, but I think it's an important one.

Detroiters, what do you make?

I make ideas, connections between communities, slam poems, and pancakes. Detroit, what do you make? ---

BERLIN, GERMANY - In the short time I've been here, I've come to realize that Berlin was Detroit before Detroit was Detroit. We have many lessons to learn from Berlin, but it comes down to this: Make Something.

Berlin has a distinct culture, for the same reason that any city has a culture, people have agency and create things - whether it's art, food, businesses, or ideas. As people here have gone out and just created, it's turned Berlin into a vibrant, international, hard-working, party-all-night, entrepreneurial city. It's really an amazing place.

I'm not suggesting we try to make Detroit to look and feel like Berlin. What I am suggesting though is that we focus on making and creating, because that's the only way cultures form - when passionate people go out, do what their heart desires, share their experiences, and learn from other people.

Right now, in my opinion, the culture of Detroit is more consuming than it is creating. There are a small group of people creating valuable products and experiences and many more people free-riding and consuming them. That's fine for a time, but the city will never grow if we consume more awesome things than we create.

We have no other choice by to make things. Working a 9-5 job and calling it a day doesn't count because those profits and value gets extracted by a private entity...there's ever any spillover to the community.

So my fellow Detroiters, I think it's time we stopped trying to do the next big thing and just started created something by following our hearts and sticking with it. Who cares if it'll get press or get big accolades. Let's just make something that represents who we are and what we care about.

So, I ask again, what do you make?

Observations as a Municipal Ethnographer

Mikulov, Czech Republic - Over the past week, I've been in several geographic contexts. Let me tell you where first, and then I'll share an observation. This is where I've been:

-Detroit, MI (Both the downtown areas, and the neighborhoods) -The suburbs of Detroit, MI (Rochester, MI to be exactly) -Long Island, New York -The inner suburbs of New York City in upstate New York -Vienna, Austria -Mikulov, Czech Republic -A series of towns between Vienna and Mikulov

Even beyond the places I've been in the past few weeks, I've been to many other cities and towns in my lifetime. Moreover, I've been to different pockets of communities within each of these geographies. The key observation I've made is based on this curation of cities and towns I've done throughout my life.

Upon first glance, I would've expected places to be similar based on geographic proximity (e.g., Detroit would be most similar to Rochester, Long Island would be most similar to upstate, Vienna would be most similar to Mikulov, etc.)

Geographic proximity was probably something that really mattered 50 or 100 years ago. But the funny thing is, I think that's changing. The places most similar to each other are precisely not the places which are geographically closest.

Rochester, for example, felt most similar to suburban Vienna. Vienna felt similar to London, DC, or another Capital cities. The small Austrian towns I've rode through felt more similar to Western Kentucky than they did to Vienna or Mikulov.

A theory: economic similarities trump geography and culture To cut to the chase, here's what I realized: nowadays, places have more in common with places across the world that have similar economies (industries, education, etc.) and levels of wealth to them. That is to say, they have surprisingly little in common with places that are near them but have dissimilar economies.

Of course, language and culture matter. But, I think those things are starting to matter less because language barriers are falling due to the internet and cheap global transportation give many people the opportunity to experience other cultures.

As time goes on and the world gets "flatter", those language and cultural barriers will matter less and less - economic similarities will matter more and more.

My roommate on the trek I'm on in the Czech Republic and i were just talking about it. He agreed that my theory is possible and put it this way (note that he's Korean-American, but spent the last 5 years working in Korea before coming to Ross). If he was on the subway in Korea he'd be more likely to strike up a conversation with a westerner who looked like a businessman, rathern than talking to someone who was Korean but didn't seem like a business person.

Moreover, he believes that if he were to talk to a non-businessy Korean not only he would be uncomfortble, the person he was talking to would be uncomfortable (assuming his conversation partner had a different socio-economic prfile). In his subway example, wealth and profession (i.e., economic similarity) trumps geographic and cultural commonality.

On first glance, that seems normal. But when you stop and think about it, it's terribly interesting, no?

Here's the takeaway (I'm using some of the phrasing from my very smart friend and classmate Adam): now places may have more in common with other places with similar economies and levels of wealth, whereas they used to have more in common with places which were geographically proximate to them.


If this hypothesis is true - that places in today's age share greater commonalities based on economy and wealth (note: "wealth" could just as easily mean inequality levels) - it would have far reaching effects on civil society. I don't know what would actually happen, but I think some of the following scenarios are plausible (these are scary enough, even if they're only plausible and not probable:

-Nothing will happen. Perhaps, economic affinities will trump geographic and cultural affinities enough for conflict to occur (I don't believe this, but it's a reasonable conclusion)

-Economic similarities are self-reinforcing and become more pronounced

-As economic similarities become more pronounced, now, people who are increasingly dissimilar are still living near each other. This leads to conflict and "class wars"

-Institutions (i.e., governments and large corporations) try to manipulate public opinion to distract the poor from economic dissimilarities and growing levels of inequality. For example, political parties could increase attention on issues which distract the poor's anger from issues of inequality, or, realign the poor's primary affiliation to nationalistic identities.

Here's how what I just said could look in practice: a political party fanning the flames on a volatile social issue to captivate poorer audiences (e.g., gay rights) - this is an example of diverting attention from inequality to a volatile issue. National governments pursue military action against another country to unite a country against an external threat instead of internal institutions - this is an example of institutions realigning citizens to nationalistic identities.

Both of these examples sound familiar, no?

I'm not saying this is happening, just that it's a plausible course of action for any institution if my hypothesis about geograhy and economic similarities are correct.

-Conflict across nations (inter-state conflict) could reduce, but intra-state conflict could rise. The influence of large municipalities and regional governments will rise because of their new importance in managing inequality, economic growth, and societal conflict.


I leave you with this: when you choose who you talk to on the subway, how would you choose? If it was 50 years ago, would you choose someone else?

I think that answer would be different today than it was 50 years ago. If so, there could be far reaching implications.

Millennials Matter Because Of Their Time, Not Their Money

There’s lots of talk about bringing young people to Detroit. To be honest, I agree with that. But there’s not a lot of talk about why it’s important to bring young people to Detroit. The story I usually hear is one of income. Young people can pay rents, go to local restaurants, patronize local businesses, and pay taxes to local governments. After all, the story goes, young people make good incomes and have few financial strings attached. Young people also have talent to work in local companies and the smarts to help them grow. In more ways than one, young people breathe life into cities and the ecosystems tied to cities.

All this is true, but I think it’s missing the point. The real value young people give to cities is their time, not their money.

As young people, we don’t really realize this, I think. I, as someone who wants to use his energy for public good for example, often become frustrated that I don’t have the money or influence to affect change in Detroit or elsewhere. What I forget about is how much time I really have compared to other people – especially compared to older people with lots of money and lots of influence.

Young People And Innovation The resource of time is not trivial, it’s absolutely core to growth in a city. Here’s what time allows young people to do:

Build Networks – developing relationships takes lots of time and energy if done right. There’s really no way around it. Young people have lots of time to cultivate relationships and they do. These networks do not only benefit the young people building them, it makes the city more efficient because thick networks move information and resources across the city more efficiently and with greater results. Young people break silos in ways that older adults cannot and don't have an incentive to do. (Power players in a network have an incentive to keep silos because it preserves their power. Young people have an incentive to break silos for the opposite reason – it allows them to break up concentrations of power.)

Try New Things – Young people have a lot of time to experiment, which is why it’s common to see innovative startups created by young people – they can blaze new trails easier because they can put in the time to figure out new, complex problems. In any company or city, young people always lead new experimental things because those young people have the time to mess around and learn. Because those learnings add up rapidly, young people can do amazingly creative things faster than people who are older.

Explore Ideas – Young people also have lots more time to “stop and smell the roses.” If they choose to, they can learn and explore and be inspired by new experiences. They can noodle on things and imagine the future because they’re closer to the mindset of children. Young people can be foolish because they don’t have families to feed. They can follow dreams because they have little to lose compared to people who are older.

You’ll notice that these three things: networks, experimentation, and inspiration are three fundamental components of innovation. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Intergenerational Collaboration Is The Key The way I see it is this. Older people have experience, resources, and influence. Young people have the time to build networks, try new things, and explore new ideas. To me this is the perfect match for creating innovation.

I firmly believe that intergenerational collaboration is absolutely essential if we want to innovate successfully, in Detroit. But to be honest, I don’t really see that happening today. I think both sides want to lead the other. Of course, this is my opinion, but I don’t think I’m alone in believing this.

This is also my opinion, but, I think we can do a lot more if we have intergenerational collaboration. The real kind. It'll just take both sides stepping out of the spotlight and focusing on working together.

Disclosure: I am part of the “young people” so that’s where my biases are.

How can we show our commitment to Detroit's future?

Detroiters always talk about Detroit - whether that's in the city limits or an another state, like Robyn and I just did with an expat Detroiter living in New Orleans. I actually love talking about Detroit, but why don't we talk about deeper things? In fact, what makes anyone want to talk about deeper things like ideas and beliefs? Our friend Laxmi - also an expat Detroiter -  had an interesting insight into this question because of her experience living in NOLA for the past year. Her logic goes like this, roughly:

An ability to talk about deeper things <--- Trust <---- Time to get to know people <---- Demonstrated commitment to the place in which you are living

I'm paraphrasing the lovely conversation the three of us had, but the gist is that an ability to talk about deeper things with folks in your community you have to demonstrate commitment to the place you are living; deep dialogue implies demonstrated commitment. So, how do you do that? Really...what are your ideas?


Here's the reason why I present the question. I don't really know of many ways we demonstrate commitment as Detroiters. What are little (or big) ways we can or already do that? How does one show commitment to a place and an intent to make it better for the long haul?

If we can start to create opportunities for that, I think we'll eventually be able to have much more deeply connected community in Detroit, because we'll have more "real talk". If it'll take a village to make Detroit into a great, 21st century city, it'll take deep conversations in the public sphere. Based on the logic above, that starts with demonstrating commitment.

5 ways to look at Detroit - what speaks to you?

In the past few weeks I've thought about Detroit myself and have been intrigued by the ways others have looked at our fair city (Detroit). These lenses for learning about, exploring, and understanding the City have been very interesting me so I thought I'd share. Which ways of looking at Detroit do you find most interesting and engaging? Do you have any ideas to add about these five or any new lenses of your own? I'd love to hear about them!

How Detroit Will Save America (again)* During the second world war, with its industrial might and capacity to make war, Detroit saved America and even the world. Detroit put the world on wheels and raised millions of Americans out of poverty along the way. That legacy of bold leadership and hard work continues today.

Detroit is a reflection of America and all of its difficulties. Like America Detroit faces gravely serious challenges of economy, race, politics, and, spirituality. Americas greatest challenges all manifest in our city. And as we figure out how to deal with these challenges - swimming through and learning as we go - we will once again be able to lead America forward. That's why America is rooting for Detroit, if we can solve it here the rest of America can too.

That's how Detroit will save America (again).

Detroit: The city of -preneurship One of the great inspirations of Detroit is the ability to create something new and to chart a new path forward. Detroit's entrepreneurs today are like the cowboys and trail blazers of yesteryear, writing their own destiny as they go.

But it's not just entrepreneurship, it's intrapreneurship and social innovation. It's civic leadership and urban development. It's tech nerds and corporate juggernauts and community organizers. Detroit is a city of "-preneurship" whether it's happening at the M@dison building, the neighborhoods, city hall, or at the Big 3. In Detroit, -preneurship is everywhere.

Detroit's Identity is it's People* When you ask a lot of people what they love about Detroit (myself included), they say "the people." But what is the character of a Detroiter? Detroiters are hard working and gritty. They get things done and do it well. They go hard. They hustle.

At they same time, they are passionate and caring. Detroiters pull together and support each other. They are honest and respectful of others. They are loyal and friendly in the fiercest way possible.

In a way, that's what Detroit is, a composition of stories about a set of hard nosed, tough, and wonderful group of people. What defines Detroit is its people.

Detroit vs. Everybody, Detroit vs. Detroit Though it is not polite conversation, one of the ways to understand Detroit is through its interactions with groups outside its borders.

These groups are far ranging and far reaching. It could be Detroit vs. the suburbs, the west side of the state, or Chicago. It could be vs. the federal government or vs. a foreign land. Filling in the phrase "Detroit vs. _________" can lead to any number of opponents or allies.

At the same time Detroit has its own diversity in its many communities. Racially, socially, intellectually, geographically, politically, or religiously, Detroit's diversity is remarkable and complex. To prosper in the future, Detroit must understand what implications Detroit vs. Detroit could have within its borders as well.

Detroit has conflict and collaboration with all the groups I've listed here and more. How Detroit continues to interact with different networks and communities inside and outside its borders will define its future.

We are what's next Detroit, as has been widely reported, is the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. The next chapter in Detroit's story is being written by as we speak. Post-bankruptcy is Detroit's next era, because the bankruptcy has left an indelible mark on our course in history.

But the future is not being written for us. We can and we will have to write our own history. How we choose to rebound and how we choose to press forward will be our generation's unavoidable legacy. We are what's next and we must, or somebody else will be.


* - These are two ideas that I can't take much credit for. Two friends (and colleagues and classmates), Nydia and Tiffani, opened my mind to thinking about Detroit this way, phrasing my own thoughts this way, or both. Shoutout to them!

Talent is Detroit's X-Factor (for entrepreneurship)

For the startup community to succeed in Detroit, our primary goal should be getting the best community of talent that we can. Talented people, not cash, will make or break the startup community in Detroit. --------


I think of Detroit's startup community as a school because how both work is similar. In both cases - startups and schools - the fundamental ingredient is the talent of the people in the ecosystem. Here's an explanation of the analogy:

In a school students take resources (books, stimuli, computers, etc.) and convert those resources into something valuable (knowledge: papers, grades, test scores, projects, etc.) with the help of talented peers (other students) and talented mentors (a teacher).

Startup communities are similar.

In a startup community, entrepreneurs take resources (information, money, space, labs, etc.) and convert those resources into something valuable (products and services: software, hardware, media, algorithms, etc.) with the help of talented peers (other entrepreneurs) and talented mentors (successful entrepreneurs, VCs, consultants, etc.)

The structure of both is the same - In any learning community, like schools or startup ecosystems, agents take resources and convert those resources into something valuable with the help of talented peers and talented mentors.

Notice that people are the critical ingredient. Talented people with few resources produce things that are much more valuable than great resources with people who lack ability. Resources don't become valuable on their own, people make resources valuable.

In a startup community, talent seems to matter for a few main reasons (I tip my hat to my entrepreneur friends - Stu, Scott, Max, Erik, Reid, Al etc. for helping me understand this over time.)

  • Getting a team - starting a company is really, really hard. You need a good team to do it, and if you don't have smart people around you, you're sunk. Moreover, once you get started, you need talented people to work for you. It's really hard to hire people from across the country, compared to getting good referrals from some friends nearby
  • Getting help - Like I said, starting a company is really, really hard. You need good people outside your company for when you need to solve a problem that nobody inside your company can figure out
  • Getting inspiration - Even getting to the point of a good idea isn't easy. People get inspired by talking to other smart people and learning things they never knew before

Talent will make the difference for entrepreneurship in Detroit. Indeed, it is our most precious asset.

For what it's worth, I'm not suggesting that the people here are dumb. There are actually a lot of smart folks, and I'm not so sure about the not so smart people. What I am suggesting is that there aren't enough smart folks here; we don't have a critical mass of really talented people.

I'm also suggesting that VC financing, incubators, and the like are NOT our most important assets.


There are only two ways to get talent - buy it, or build it. Detroit should probably do both.

Buying It

The idea here is offering incentives to get stars to come to you. Think of the New York Yankees. Stereotypically, this is what they do. The pay good players insane amounts of money to come to a team of stars. Their salary costs are unreal, but you can expect the Yankees to win games...and they do.

As you can guess, this approach is expensive. The startup community is no different.

To get stars (people with a lot of talent that have a higher chance of success) here, investors would have to take crummy valuations (i.e., take an equity stake in the company at a higher rate than an investor in another geography would have to) on those deals. If they don't take crummy valuations (or overpay in some other way), those star entrepreneurs will never come, because the talent in our ecosystem isn't yet as rich as those in SF, NYC, etc.

Here's the kicker though.

You have to overpay like crazy to get really good people, because kind of good people don't make a huge difference. If you don't get really good people into your ecosystem, you might as well have not "bought" that talent in the first place, because those almost-stars don't make the ecosystem better.

The idea behind buying talent is this: overpay to get star talent -> connect them to other people in the ecosystem -> others in the ecosystem benefit from their talent and get better.

Building it

The idea here is helping average people learn and grow at a hyper accelerated rate. Think of a boot camp exercise class at a gym. You come into it in poor shape and you do lots of reps of lots of different exercises. You, and the group you're in, get better faster because you learn from each other and push each other harder. Not everyone get better at the same rate, and not everyone gets more fit. But with a sufficiently large sample size and a lot of reps, some people will become beastly fit.

As you can guess, this approach takes a lot of discipline to commit to. There's a lot of failure and learning that happens. If you're applying this analogy to a startup community, you can't expect every company to make it and "get fit." You have to tolerate a lot of failure in hopes that some people will learn really quickly and become strong pillars for the rest of the community.

Here's the kicker though.

If you take this approach, you can't expect results right way. You have to invest in people learning (which means they won't make money right away, and they may never). And, you also have to stay committed to investing in this learning - even if it takes awhile - otherwise the results will never come.

The idea behind building talent is this: invest in failure and other things that help people learn quickly -> People get better a lot faster -> some people make it and some people don't -> the ones that do make it will make the rest of the ecosystem better


Here are a few observations and hypotheses for the Detroit entrepreneurial community:

  • Connected Networks Make It Possible - Either approach doesn't work unless there are connections across the entrepreneurship community and even beyond. These networks don't form effectively if they're not open. Which is why incubators kind of throw me for a loop - they're semi-private communities, and semi-private communities easily become elitist and siloed (if they're not actively managed not to be). Siloed communities, as we know, are really hard places to learn. I'm a much bigger fan of open meetups a la or Detroit Startup Drinks (full disclosure: a lot of the Detroit Startup Drinks folks are friends of mine). Semi-private and open communities are both important for different reasons. I just don't see as many open communities as I do semi-private ones and that's kind of unsettling.
  • You can't have your cake and eat it too - When trying to build talent, I see people falling fool to a fallacy. The people (particularly in the social sector) want to back winners, and fund people who will be successful. That would be sensible, if we already had a robust community of talent in Detroit. We don't. People investing in the entrepreneurial community here have to encourage failure and reflection, because failure is when the most learning happens. You can't build talent without failure. We don't have people who invest in failure (and the learning that comes with it). That's something we desperately need.
  • Buying talent - We haven't really tried this, have we? Stik was brought in from SF, and the guy who started D:hive was brought in from Chattanooga. I can't think of any other examples (please correct me). Why haven't we tried to buy more stars? Starting VCs and social investment funds are useless for us in Detroit if the capital isn't being used to buy talent or to build talent. We're don't have enough depth of talent to just expect results from our investments. I think we're wasting our time (and money) if we aren't investing in the best learning / talent development opportunities. Moreover, I get this feeling that Detroiters think that everything here has to be home grown and that the city can "go it alone" without help from the outside. I think that getting some interesting folks here from other places would be smart, and also pretty cool.

Especially because I've taken some strong stances, I welcome your pushback!

*Note - In this post I'm talking about the tech / high growth entrepreneurial community. Fort the most part, I'm not talking about social entrepreneurship / innovation or small service firms like restaurants, coffee shops, yoga studios, dry cleaners, etc.

I'd also like to shoutout to my friend Stu who explained a lot of these points in a way that congealed them in my head. The good ideas in this post are mostly because of him.

Has anyone really thought about what Detroit needs?

One way to simplify business school, is to know that to succeed in business you have to do this. Seriously, this is all you've gotta do:

  1. Define who your customer is.
  2. Find out what they need.
  3. Imagine something that will fill your customer's need.
  4. Make it.
  5. Give it to them.

That's it, that's all you've gotta do. Of course, there's a lot of  sophistication with how to make this happen.

The beauty of this 5 step process is that it's broadly applicable. You could apply it to lots of different organizations across sectors, whether it is a foundation, a family, a government, a neighborhood, a non-profit...anything. What I can't fathom is what Detroit needs. I have my own opinion on what Detroit needs, but I can't find anyone articulating it clearly across the city. In my observation, everyone is prescribing solutions and not understanding real needs. Here's what I mean:

Breaking it down for Detroit to succeed

  1. Define who your customer is. - This is easy, sort of, let's assume citizens of the City of Detroit.
  2. Find out what they need. - This is what I don't see being articulated. Do people need agency? Do they need to feel safe? Do they need distraction and entertainment? Do they need opportunity? What does Detroit need, really?
  3. Imagine something that will fill your customer's need. - Street Lights, No Blight, Public Transportation, Good Schools (notice that these are solutions, not descriptions of need.)
  4. Make it. - Self explanatory.
  5. Give it to them. - Self explanatory.

Here's why it matters. For every need that exists, there's hundreds of ways to solve that need. Take "bring light to darkness in your home" as an example of a need. You could solve that need with a fire, a lantern, a fluorescent light, an incandescent light, a flashlight, etc. People don't need lamps, they need light in dark places. There's a difference.

The problem is, when you don't define what someone needs really well, it's hard to give them a solution that really works for them. Providing solutions to problems is aided greatly by defining the right need. Solutions without real needs don't last and aren't useful.

So for real, if anyone has found good articulations of what Detroit needs (or what subgroups of Detroiters need) please point me to it. If nobody has found anything, we're in a bad spot because it means people are prescribing solutions without understanding needs. That leads to bad solutions or solutions that work only because of luck.

The Fallacy of Building Social Capital Efficiently

This thought should have probably occurred to me many months ago, but it did not. I was hanging out with two of my friends (and fellow Ross classmates) Ina and Janelle this past Friday. We did, roughly, the quintessential day one does with people who haven't really spent time in Detroit. First we brunched at Hudson Cafe, then went for a walk on the Riverfront via Downtown, toured the Detroit Institute of Arts, and wrapped up with cocktails at the Ghost Bar.

It was a lovely day.

Later that evening, I was able to grab dinner with another friend, Wayne, and we stumbled upon the topic of what it takes to build efficacy and strong relationships to the city and across the city.

We agreed that there's some role for formal institutions and programs: like panels put on by the Gilbert family of companies or tour groups.

But I realized that the real, enduring experiences are not the mass-produced, highly efficient, forays into the community sponsored by anything ranging from a corporate conglomerate to a tech incubator. No, what really builds Detroit loyalists is when newcomers are introduced to the city, personally.

That's how I was indoctrinated, and every "success story" I've ever seen of people engaging with Detroit has been the same. It takes a personal touch and more than an hour-long panel discussion or walking tour.

This is a lesson, I think, that applies more broadly when building social capital of any sort. Efficient, "at-scale" programs may be perceived as being cost-effective or "more bang" for our collective buck, but the TLC of an intimate introduction to a community is what lasts.

And that's what I think we need in our city, connections that last - between people and the city itself and interpersonally between people across the city's niche communities.

Of course, this sort of approach is hard to make a business case for because things that are time-consuming are also expensive. This sort of approach also precludes the organizer of a scalable connection-building program, from becoming a rainmaker that holds power because of his / her place as the gatekeeper in the center of the network. Power comes from holding the keys to the castle and being the person that makes an introduction.

When building social capital, however, aren't lasting relationships that take a lot of work more important than shallower relationships that are manufactured efficiently?



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

How Cultures Form, Part I - Frameworks for Culture

A few weeks ago, I contested that in the ways that matter most, Detroit doesn't have a "culture." In brief, I argued that Detroit's culture (if it has one) couldn't be articulated uniquely, even if one tried to do so. Moreover, I suggested that at best Detroit may have sub-cultures, but because those sub-cultures did not have common themes / values / artifacts / practices that it would be incorrect to say that there was a culture for Detroit as a whole. While that post was an interesting point, it was obviously reductionist and critical, and I think that's important to do. But now, I'd like to present a few simple ideas on what to do, if we assume two things: 1) Detroit doesn't have a culture, and, 2) Detroit should have a culture.

What is a culture? lt's surprising how difficult and inconsistent definitions of "culture" are. I mean it in the context of organizational culture, and I'll put forth one I found here, which is:

"A set of understandings or meanings shared by a group of people that are largely tacit among members and are clearly relevant and distinctive to the particular group which are also passed on to new members (Louis 1980)."

There's also a widely accepted model from Schein which breaks culture into three levels: artifacts, beliefs / norms, and assumptions. I pulled a nice graphic explaining this from a blogger named Patrick Dunn. You can see his original post here:

But, the more important question here is, how do cultures form?

How Cultures Form I've done a bit of research on the question of how cultures form and have done my own thinking on the matter. How cultures form is surprisingly simple. Generally speaking, it's a three-step process. I use the term cultural idea to include representations of culture at any level of Schein's model - artifact, belief / norm, or assumption. Think of a cultural idea as a value, a physical object, belief, a way of thinking, language, or anything else that represents a's a broad, inclusive term:


  1. Express Cultural Idea - The process starts by someone expressing an idea through some medium...whether it is a belief, an object, an action, a document etc.
  2. Share Cultural Idea - The process continues when cultural ideas are shared within the group where the culture is forming. As more people accept and internalize the cultural idea, the culture grows
  3. Form new Cultural Ideas - Once a cultural idea is expressed, people form new ideas which contest or reinforce other cultural ideas. Once shared, the process starts again. With each cycle, prevailing cultural ideas become reinforced. The ideas that get reinforced the most become part of the culture

Note that this process of Express -> Share -> Form has to be isolated from other cultures. Without some means of isolation or boundary between the group in question and others, cultural ideas wouldn't be able to reinforce each other. In Detroit this is a geographic boundary from say New York, or Chicago. Unless there's some separation from other cultures, no unique culture can form.

Also, note that for cultures to form, there's activity or structure required to move from step to step. I'll call these mechanisms Interaction Channels. These interaction channels provide the human interaction needed for cultures to form. In other words, if culture doesn't form in a vacuum and requires interactions between people, then there has to be different mechanisms to interact with other people. The mechanisms in these channels different types of interactions required for cultural formation: transmission of cultural ideas, dissemination of cultural ideas, and reflection on cultural ideas.


  • Transmission of cultural ideas - ideas have to get out of peoples' heads to be able to form and shape culture. Some example mechanisms for transmission are: blogging, social events, art, conversations, strategic plans, interactions in public spaces, mission statements, etc.
  • Dissemination of cultural ideas - ideas have to be amplified to reach the critical mass of awareness to be able to influence culture. Some example mechanisms for dissemination are: mass media, press events, word-of-mouth, social media, community organizing, etc.
  • Reflection of cultural ideas - ideas have to evolve and refine for some ideas to reinforce the prevailing culture. In other words, people can express ideas that they never reflect on and form in their heads. Some example mechanisms for reflection are: journeys into nature, community dialogue, third spaces, social media, and story telling.

Interaction channels could also take a few forms. Check out a list (e.g., rites, rituals, gestures) here.

How To Form Culture in Detroit - A Teaser So, to form a culture in Detroit (or anywhere) it's is simple and complicated as fostering these expressing, sharing, & forming behaviors, and, building up interaction channels. In the next post in this series I'll diagnose what aspects of the cultural formation framework in Detroit are weak, and which are strong. From there, I'll prescribe specific steps that an be taken to improve Detroit's ability to form a vibrant, common, and distinct culture.

The Magic of Third Spaces, Written From Detroit

I am sitting in a coffee shop and the world is abuzz around me. By now, it's cliche to spend a morning camped out at Great Lakes Coffee - a less than three year old bar and coffee shop in the heart of Detroit's Midtown neighborhood - because it's a well trodden establishment for the city's burgeoning "creative class." But that doesn't make it any less impressive. There are medical students studying in their scrubs, and older men and women conducting meetings in suits. There is a gentleman in a beanie who is wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt with the emblem of a plumber's association. There is a college student in headphones eating Sun Chips. Behind me, the guys who tried to bring the X-games to Detroit and who are launching the ASSEMBLE festival are having a working session. All these people are certainly not a full representation of Detroit's residents, but, it's much more so than most establishments.

This ability to gather, to learn, to dream amongst other dreamers and serendipitously meet them is the magic of the third space.

These semi-public spaces are essential for the development and creation of knowledge, the sharing of ideas and relationships. Third spaces like coffee shops have the openness to bring disparate people into proximity, but have the structure to be focal points of activity. They are respites from the corporate jungle just as they are offices for bootstrapping entrepreneurs and students. They are mixing bowls which mash up different kinds of people with different kinds of ideas - a necessary ingredient for creativity and innovation.  Third spaces are community centers, laboratories, and parlors all at the same time. They just happen to serve coffee.

At the same time, these third spaces are not Detroit's savior. There is certainly a carrying capacity for how many third spaces can healthily exist in a city, and they don't create many jobs. They are not accessible to all, either, because not everyone can afford designer coffee or membership fees. But they are a necessary part of a city's social fabric, that creates the right condition for learning, sharing, creativity, and entrepreneurship to occur.

What I hope is that the people sitting in these coffee shops and other third spaces are dreaming about more than just opening other coffee shops and other third spaces. I hope they are thinking about new products and services, philosophies and expressions, businesses and innovations.

And in Detroit, I think we are.

Detroit Doesn't Have a "Culture" (sort of)

While I was a research fellow at the Center for the Edge working on this paper, two of the most interesting documents I came across were from Netflix and Valve Software. They were in essence, company culture manifestos. What’s important about them is that these documents are very comprehensive and they are written down. These qualifications – that the documents are comprehensive and written down – is important to note. A culture doesn’t matter unless you can describe it specifically, because if you can't it implies that the culture is weak, coincidental and/or inconsistent across the organization. Coincidental cultures, if you will, don't stand the test of time and are more like fads.  What's the point if a culture isn't distinct and enduring?

(Here’s a teaser for later in this post – by this definition, Detroit likely doesn’t have a culture because it's not consistent across the city)

I’ve had the privilege of presenting to a few government and corporate executives in the past few weeks. Culture has come up a few times and it’s not surprising – organizations everywhere are trying to build culture because leaders are realizing that people management (the umbrella category for things like culture and talent) is a sustainable competitive advantage.

But I think a lot of organizations have the wrong approach when it comes to organizational culture. Instead of building and evolving what they have, and create something unique to their organizational challenges and strengths, they try to copy someone else’s culture. The tech sector is often the target of this mimicry, whether it’s copying the practice of rotational programs or having snacks on every floor.

The 1993 Disney film Cool Runnings (which is especially timely because the Olympic winter games are currently occurring in Sochi), offers a parable for why it's important not to mimic someone else's culture.

Recall the scene where the bobsled team is in the Olympic village preparing for their big race. Derice makes reference (per usual) to being like the Swiss sled team. And after an exchange Sanka replies exclaiming that the team won’t be able to perform at its best unless they stay true to what they are: Jamaican.

This lesson also applies to organizations. Organizations can’t do their best unless they stay true to who they are. It takes too much effort to try to be something your not, and that’s effort that can’t be accomplishing goals. If you don't act like yourself it's also hard to be confident - you never know if someone is going to pull the curtain away and reveal you are a fraud.

So when I see companies trying to “build culture” and achieve results by copying the practices of what others are doing, I think they are missing the point. What matters about culture building is doing things that represent who you are, and implementing programs that affirm that identity, not transplanting a practice from another company and forming an identity around that. Copying someone else's culture just isn't sustainable.

I'd argue that being able to articulate a culture comprehensively in writing is a good indicator that the culture is distinct, authentic, and sustainable. If it's not possible to do so, the culture probably isn't sustainable.

Detroit’s Culture

First let me say, there’s no document (that I can find) that articulates Detroit’s culture like the Netflix or Valve Software documents that I linked to above. But that’s not the point. The point is whether one could document Detroit’s (or any other organization’s) culture if they tried.

In Detroit, I don’t think we could document a single, cohesive, culture even if we tried. Detroit has at least two worlds (this is actually something my friends and I talk about a lot) But, I think this is a point reasonable people could disagree about. If you disagree, I welcome you to add comments on this page and list out your articulation of Detroit’s culture.

But for a moment let’s assume that Detroit does have a single, cohesive culture and identity. If that’s the case our culture certainly not documented or explicitly identifiable via some others medium. We should try to do this.

Documenting our cultural norms and practices would allow us as Detroiters to argue about what is good and bad about our culture and identify elements to evolve. We could put in systems to amplify the culture (an example of this is type of system would be the Andon cord at Toyota or Google’s CEO signing off on every single hire at the company). We could put in policies to police the parts of the culture that are destructive. It would also be a way for people outside Detroit to get a sense of what Detroit is truly like.

Most importantly though, having a strong culture (that’s identifiable) helps with decision making. When weighing several options – say for how to deal with influxes of investment and development downtown – having identifiable cultural norms helps guide how decision makers should weigh the options. As an example, If equity were a prominent part of our culture, that everyone agreed to, decision makers might choose a less lucrative investment if it was more fair to existing residents. Cultural norms are a decision-making heuristic of sorts.

Now, it’s possible to run an organization (or a city, like Detroit) without a common set of cultural norms and values. There's nothing wrong with having a community of sub-cultures, it can work. The downside is that it leads to conflict. Look at San Francisco and the opposition to tech company shuttles and the creative class in the city. Because of different sub-cultures (that have conflicting values) existing in the city, it is leading to cultural clash.

With this example in mind, we can have distinct sub-cultures without an overarching common set of values, but we will have to resign ourselves to the fact that there will be conflict.

I think there are real benefits for creating an environment where culture can develop. And that’s exactly how I think it happens…you create environment for culture to occur and it develops on its own. In the long-term (at best), individual agents can only influence culture, not prescribe it.

This emergent phenomenon doesn’t happen in places where there aren’t connections across communities and inclusive participation of the entire population. So if we want to develop a unified culture in Detroit, that’s what we should do, make institutions and public dialogue inclusive.

Though Undervalued Now, Intrapreneurs Are Essential To Detroit's Future

In Detroit, we celebrate entrepreneurs - whether they be social, civic, or for-profit entrepreneurs - and rightly so. Entrepreneurs create new technologies and possibilities in the markets they attempt to serve and disrupt. What is also true, however, is that entrepreneurs are scrappy. Their resources are often limited, so it makes sense that successful entrepreneurs seem to have vision, ingenuity, creativity, drive, and a willingness to take risk - without these things, entrepreneurs would have no edge over incumbents because they certainly have less resources. Entrepreneurs make do and ultimately succeed with less resources than their corporate counterparts. In my mind, this is an oxymoron. Why are entrepreneurs the ones who change industries and social problems, even though they usually have less talent, money, or other resources?

The most obvious explanation is that entrepreneurs can work without the confining attributes of large, political, risk-averse organizations. Entrepreneurs don't have to cut through red tape like those in corporations do. Because they're freed from the confines of traditional organizations they have high "ROR" - or "return on resources." By this I mean, they have a lot of results, given the limited about of resources to which they have access.

But, imagine the value that would be created if the ROR of organizations with large amounts of resources were higher? A 10% ROR for a $1B company is much higher than that of a $1M company.

What's needed to accomplish an increasing ROR in large organizations is not entrepreneurs, but intrapreneurs. Intrapreneurship is not a well definied concept within society...yet. Here's a working definition:

A person within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.

These intrapreneurs might create new products or services to generate increased profits within a business. Or maybe an intrapreneur builds a new idea which increases the social impact of the organization. Maybe the intrapreneur changes the way a company works so that it's a happier, healthier, or more effective organization.

Much like the way countries can't always export their way out of recession, I don't think Detroit will become a more vibrant city if we only create entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship can't wholly replace the city's existing employment opportunities and industries except in decades, maybe. Entrepreneurship takes too long and is very risky, to name a few reasons. More than that, we have a tremendous amount of talent and resources in our local companies. To let those resources atrophy and become obsolete would be a waste and lost opportunity.

Imagine: Detroit could be a hub of private sector and local government intraprenurship and lead the nation in such efforts. We have institutions, companies, and industries ripe for a fresh approach. We have a dire need to adapt to changing economic, social, and civic realities. We also have a history of tenacious work ethic and ingenuity.

Detroit could be home to the world's best intrapreneurs and we would be better for it.

The Detroit Bankruptcy Conversation Nobody Is Having + Ideas To Make City Government More Accountable

I had the privilege of seeing Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr give the keynote address of the Revitalization & Business Conference, which occurred last Friday at Michigan's Ross School of Business. Generally speaking, I was very impressed with Orr and his sharp intellect as well as his thorough understanding of the issues facing the city. What Mr. Orr didn't discuss, however, (nor is it something widely discussed in news coverage about the bankruptcy) is the need to keep local government accountable and responsive to citizens' needs. I intend to start that conversation in this post. Surely, part of the reason Detroit had to file for bankruptcy was an institutional failure. During the past few decades, nobody really raised a flag calling the actions of civic leaders into least in a way which was strong enough to avert Detroit's financial disaster. Nobody was watching the evolution of City Council's policies closely enough to prevent malfeasance or corruption. Nobody fact-checked City Hall's promises or management practices to see if they were legitimate. And now, Detroit is in bankruptcy and nobody is having a conversation (it seems) about how we can better keep our institutions accountable and our local government responsive to citizen's needs. Let's start now.

The way I figure it, there are a few stakeholder groups which, when working together, can hold local government accountable and efficient: City Hall (the executive branch), City Council (the legislative branch), the public (the citizenry and NGOs), and the press (the fourth estate). The judicial branch also has a role to play, but I'm leaving them off because I know very little about the courts. Here are a few ideas for each stakeholder group on how they can help hold local government more accountable. By experimenting with and implementing such ideas, I believe we'll be less likely to have another meltdown in the City of Detroit. These ideas are brief concepts - teasers, if you will - to be used as a starting point.

Citizen Marketing Strategy (City Hall, City Council, Public)

Marketing strategies are very powerful things. In them, you analyze your customer, your own capabilities, and what other organizations are doing to serve that customer. Then, you segment the market (put customers into unique groups, basically), target a segment, then figure out how to provide a powerful benefit for that segment. The whole point of marketing strategy exercises are to understand a real need that a specific type of customer  has and then provide a real benefit to that customer, and do this all with a lot of discipline and rigor.

I think we could stand to see this sort of thinking utilized by local government. Imagine if all stakeholders - City Hall, City Council, the public, and the press - worked together to put together a marketing strategy for the city's citizens. First, they'd understand broad needs. Then, they'd try to cluster folks into different groups of unique needs (e.g., tech entrepreneurs, unmarried yuppies, young families, low-income elderly, etc.). From there, you could create detailed personas of what each of those customer segments needed.

The way this would help with accountability is that government could focus on the targeted customer segments they were designing a product or service for. We, as the public, could force government officials to talk about who they are trying to benefit with each policy they create, and thus hold them accountable for results. In my opinion, it's very hard to see if local government is actually effective if they can operate in platitudes of serving the "public interest" broadly. Having targeted segments would make them dig into real customer needs and provide government an invaluable to way to focus their efforts when deploying products and services.

Open Data (City Hall, City Council, Public)

Many states and municipalities are making some of their data publicly available. By doing this, citizens can analyze the data to look at the "proof in the pudding" as to whether their municipal government is actually running with integrity and efficiency. As is often said in journalism, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Moreover, governments can engage citizens in understanding and solving problems if they make data available for analysis. It's a win-win for everyone - we have more accountability and a way for many great minds to be helping the City improve services to its citizens

City Council Clubs (Public)

I think it's pretty important for citizens to participate in public meetings because it allows them to get information and because it puts citizens in a position to scrutinize (or collaborate with) public servants. The problem is, it's a lot of work to go to a city council meeting every time. So, I proposed this idea on this blog a few weeks ago which basically works like this: citizens get a group of their friends together and take turns attending public meetings and reporting back to the group. That lowers the transaction costs of doing so and gives citizens a constant presence at public meetings.

Citizens' Corps (City Council, Public)

One of the ways to increase accountability is to involve citizens more intimately in the political process. I also saw this in the private sector working as a consultant. The idea is that if you have more citizens dialogue with legislators about ideas, the ideas will be more responsive to their needs. But how could you do this? You'd create what I call "a Citizens' Corps". It's akin to a "change agent network", from corporate transformation nomenclature.

Each City Council member would get a group of community leaders with diverse perspectives together from their ward, kind of a kitchen cabinet. Then, the City Council members would have informal meetings with this Corps to discuss city issues. Sometimes this might be a way for citizens to make their Council member answer to them. Other times, maybe the Council member needs feedback, vis-a-vis each Citizens' Corp member getting feedback form his/her affinity group or neighborhood. Still other times maybe the Council member needs to communicate a message to citizens via the word of mouth generated by the Citizens' Corps members.

Basically, this vehicle is a way to create a network of committed citizens who have informal influence in their respective social groups. This network can be used to create two-way dialogue between Council members and everyday citizens.

Detroit Government News Hub (Public, Press)

Obviously, the press play a critical role in holding local government accountable. The difficulty is, search costs for articles are often high for finding local government news, and, mundane topics/meetings are never covered. I propose creating a curated blog network of city affairs. It would work like this. The press would create a website that consolidates all quality news articles about city government. Each article would be tagged with subject matter, committee names, council members, and any other relevant metadata. This metadata would allow the archive of articles to be easily searchable. Moreover, readers of the blog could submit articles they find useful to the curator, making it easier for the curator to do his/her job. Finally, say an amateur blogger or videographer attends a meeting of some sort in the city. This person could do a quick write up and submit it to the curator for inclusion on the news hub.

This sort of idea would help citizens follow issues as they transpire and be alerted to relevant articles about city government. By having easily accessible information, citizens can help each other stay informed about local government and hopefully make better political decisions / become more politically active. More political activity on the part of citizens would lead to more accountability.

Issue Prioritization & Goal Setting (City Hall, City Council, Public)

Governments often have long lists of (unpublished) priorities every year. In the Federal Government, for example, it's hard to keep track of all the initiatives the President and Congress want to push through. Say though, that the President had a list of his top 20 priorities for the year with a scorecard for success on each issue. First of all, If this were the case the public could weigh in on what the priorities should be, which is a valuable exercise to occur publicly. Second of all, the public would then have a somewhat objective way of judging whether the public servant is accomplishing his goals.

I think we could do this at the municipal level, too. Both the Mayor and City Council should make a list of their top 10 priorities for each year and provide a rubric for measuring success. That priority sheet could be refined with public feedback, provided online. Then, the public could track progress throughout the year or over the course of a term. Having the priority sheet would help the public help government keep track of its priorities and accomplishments.

External Feedback (City Hall, City Council, Public)

Independence is at the core of accountability in public accounting. Basically, you get someone to audit you every year to make sure your company is not misrepresenting finances. Why not get a similar perspective from outside Detroit to provide an independent critique of management and operations in the City? That could be a great way to infuse our thinking with some fresh perspective.

This idea wouldn't have to be limited to financials or operations, either. Non-profit organizations could bring in leading thinkers to weigh in on Detroit and how we do things here in an intellectual setting. As a community that's pretty insular - in my opinion, Detroiters actively avoid ideas that aren't homegrown, far too often - deliberately getting outsiders to challenge our thinking would probably make our ideas much better (this part of the idea isn't mine, solely, Detroit Harmonie is working on this.)


Perhaps these are wild ideas (but come on, they're not that wild). They certainly aren't perfect. The point is, however, that we need to proactively try to work together and keep our governmental institutions running effectively and responsively. You'll notice that all these ideas involve the public in some way. Why? I believe it's the public's responsibility - more than anyone else - to hold our government accountable. Indeed, we are our government.

This is the conversation about the Detroit bankruptcy (on improving accountability and responsiveness) that nobody is having. So, I invite your feedback, criticisms, questions, or full-throated support. By discussing these ideas we are more likely to improve them and implement the best of the lot. And implementing ideas which help government stay accountable and responsive would be a great step for our City.

A Civics Idea: "City Council Clubs"

The political system in our United States are highly influenced by special interests. And, we should expect it. But, I have an idea on how to combat this. If you want to go straight to that idea, jump to it. The next section lays out the rationale for this idea. Rationale

Let's use a hypothetical example. A special interest, may gain or lose $1 million after lobbying the government for 100 hours. A regular citizen, when faced with the same issue, might gain or lose $10 after lobbying the government for 100 hours. In situations like this (where a special interest has a lot to gain and regular citizens don't gain or lose much as individuals, for the same amount of effort), regular citizens don't have a real incentive to take action or participate in the political process. They have to expend a lot of effort for something that doesn't affect them much, so regular citizens make a better use of their time.

As a result, special interests rule. Not because they are (necessarily) doing anything wrong or devious, but because the rest of us stay home. This would be fine, except it's not uncommon to the interests of a few to be bad for everyone else.

But what if we could change the balance? There are three ways to do this, as I see it:

  • Give regular citizens more of a stake in the issue (i.e., increase how much regular citizens feel they gain or lose to more than the figurative $10 I've mentioned)
    • I don't think this is possible. It would require telling people what matters to them and forcing them to adopt what you tell them. Even if it was possible, I wouldn't want to do it because it's manipulative and/or coercive.
  • Force people to participate in civics (e.g., require people to vote or attend public meetings)
    • This is possible, except it's somewhat "unamerican" to do this. Also, it would take serious changes to law as it stands today. I don't want to wait that long and I don't have the money to wage this sort of campaign.
  • Lower the effort required to participate in the political process (e.g., knock down the time required for a regular citizen to follow issues. Say making that figurative 100 hours 1 or 2 hours)
    • I like this option. It's possible and it doesn't necessarily cost much. Many people have tried lowering the cost of information, and that's great. unfortunately though, you can't make people consume political information. If it's free (or more free) it might reduce a barrier, but it's still a lot of work.

So, I think I have another idea on how to lower the effort required to participate in the political process. For discussion's sake, I'll call it a "Council Meeting Club."

The Idea: Council Meeting Clubs

I don't have time (or interest) to attend every city council meeting or city commission meeting. The problem is, it's hard to influence the decisions made at meetings you don't attend. Moreover, If you don't influence those meetings and participate, people might (intentionally or unintentionally) make bad decisions on your behalf.

But, I think I could make time for 1 or 2 city council meetings every three months, couldn't you? That's exactly what I want to do.

We have groups of friends already. Our friend groups probably have reasonably similar political interests. I know a lot of yuppies, for example, because I am one. Even if we disagree on things, my friends and I have similar values which tend to give us similar political preferences. So, why don't we all share the load of participating in local government?

Maybe we could each make a group of 15-20 people who are reasonably similar to us in some way - say values, our neighborhood, or some other affinity we share. Then, we create a schedule and everyone in the group attends a city council meeting and reports back what happens to the group in a quick e-mail the next day. Maybe there was an important decision. Maybe in the next week there is a topic being discussed which merits more people attending the meeting. If you make a group, there would always be at least one person there to keep the group informed.

By having this rotation it accomplishes a few things:

  1. The burden is shared across many people, making it easier to stay connected to the political process
  2. By being in a small social group with a modest commitment, everyone has an incentive to participate (because if you drop the ball, you look foolish)
  3. It's more fun, so you get the added value of social interaction by being a part of one of these groups
  4. It's harder to free-ride because if you don't pull your weight, you don't get the information that the group creates

Also, I think you could apply this approach to civic participation and government accountability at any level. I just happen to be using City Council meetings as a backdrop.


Detroiters: Does anyone want to actually try this?

Anyone: If you try something like this, will you let me know how it goes?