MEREDITH Strategy & Design

We design great places and spaces that advance the purposes and performance of work.
Our mission is to help companies and organizations of every scale
more effectively achieve their goals
and capture value from what they and their people do.

Jim at meredithstrategyanddesign dot com

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Filtering by Category: Detroit

Is MTV Scratch the next binder on the wall at GM Headquarters?

GM's best strategic play may be not with MTV but with the oil companies and the government and a sustainability philosophy. Constraining one, stimulating the other, and comprehending the third might bring people back to cars – cars providing authentic experiences designed, built and sold by people who've had those experiences.

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things we saw this week that you might like, also

Among some of the things that caught our attention last week and that may influence our thinking this week are these –

This is a delightfully simple essay that illuminates the power of spatial experience in moving decisions and closing deals.
"The idea that cars run free...that idea's about to change." Sculptor Chris Burden has been working on this rather remarkable interpretation of "Metropolis" to evoke the energy of a city
This was a brief but interesting conversation about an apparent bias toward modernism in most design competitions in the UK. This question seems to have its own answer: "Should modernity be preferred precisely because it is innovative and forward thinking?"
This seemed an unlikely place to find a discussion about the "green workplace" but, once past the intro, is an interesting insight into the subject and, more significantly for me, how a bit of research required by an event led to a deep dive into a subject and then a globally recognized expertise.
Detroit is struggling to remake itself after decades of irrational and obsessive self-destruction by almost every leader, "civic" or private. We find it hard to accept this preferential apportioning of the limited resources the City has left, feeling it to be a better-dressed replay of prior practices.
Designer-driven innovation – This is a rather pretty concept to illustrate a debate about whether markets or vision are the optimum origins for innovation

The Power of Place, part 2 – How a design strategy powered a global strategy design

Jim Meredith enjoys a chat in the "Creative Lobby" of Team Detroit headquarters As you all know, we put ideas into operation with the hope that they will have lasting impact. Despite our purpose and intentions, most architecture and design projects have a finite conclusion – the doors open, the client moves in, and they and we are off to our other business. What we've done exists on the landscape for its and our lifetimes, yet it seems relatively rare that we get insight into how what we've done affects the lives of those who experience the places we've designed.

I was pleased, then, to find this story in the New York Times this week. Ostensibly about the promotion of a key creative person at an ad agency, key pieces of the article told a story about the resonating beneficial influence on the business performance of a company for whom I, in a former position, led a team to design a regional headquarters. The article is a great testimonial to the power of what we do in advancing strategies that help design resonate with business benefit well beyond the project itself.

Uncovering what "job" the client actually wants to do

I've probably talked too much about the Detroit WPP project, but I like it as a clear example of a great way to practice. I was Principal-in-Charge of the Detroit project which was conceived by WPP as a relatively simple collocation project. WPP had grown through acquisitions and, as a result, in major markets, came to hold a number of different agencies who had leases in different buildings in different locations with different terms. Bringing different agencies from different locations together into their own suites in one building would simplify lease terms and CRE complexity.

But I was interested in a different approach. Our mission is to link workplace design strategy to our client's business strategy design. At the time of the project, about 2005, the advertising and media businesses were experiencing a revolutionary fragmentation of the Mad Men model of business and were challenged by internal competition among advertising, media, planning and other disciplines seeking relevance, influence and dominance of the marketing agenda. So I was deeply interested in working with WPP executives to take advantage of this "collocation" project in Detroit to actually generate and test a new business model, and one that could be facilitated by a radical new approach to workplace design.

A window into the process

Almost every day during the site search and design phases of the project, I would join an executive of one of the agencies in his office, or he in mine, and we'd scribble diagrams on a whiteboard. We began by discussing the concept that bringing the agencies under one roof was an opportunity to "tear down the walls" between the businesses and develop a "new lexicon" for both the business and the places and spaces where it would operate. The objective was to find ways to enhance the creative output of the companies and deliver higher value at lower cost to its clients.

Each of the agencies was, in a sense, complete. Each had a full palette of administrative, creative and production functions. There was, however, a great range in the size of the agencies, from 65 to 650 people (the companies under consideration for collocation collectively employed more than 1300 people), so the strengths of these functions in each of the agencies varied as well.

Collocation could, it seemed, easily allow an integrated concept of back office functions like HR, finance and IT to enable greater strength and improved efficiency for all. But we also quickly began looking at integrating other functions like research, media and others, and eventually creative as well to test the potential of an integrated approach to deliver higher creative value. As this developed, we began to also challenge approaches taken in earlier projects in other cities where collocation simply meant each agency having its own suite but together in a single building with a single lease.

Linking strategy design with design strategy

Eventually, we had an emerging new business concept in mind, as well as the realization that the extraordinarily dynamic business conditions meant that the shape of organizations that moved in to the building would not be the same as the ones with whom we began the project. The design, then, had to accommodate ongoing organizational redesign and continuing rapid evolution defined by market and business conditions.

We began to work with a radically open concept that would adhere to certain guiding metrics of the WPP CRE program as well as the lingering cultural and identity concerns of the agencies. I developed, nonetheless, a "two seats for every employee" design program. Visualizing that the emerging design of the business – my client began to call it "integrated creative communications" – would find success only through a (then non-existent) collaboration between agency teams, I reasoned that only through an agile physical place that enabled the socialization that would nurture a sense of shared values and the development of a shared culture would this success be achieved. So in addition to a home base for 1350 people, there were also 1350 seats in a variety of different kinds of settings for the combined staff to get to know, and trust, each other and start to combine disciplines and expertise and begin to work together.

Allowing time to activate

Although initially resisted by the executives of the agencies for logical arguments about brand identity, interagency competition and proprietary information, they nonetheless agreed to let the design concept develop to reflect the emerging business concept, even as it was developing.

“I think I was pretty skeptical” of the Team Detroit concept at first, Mr. Barlow said. “You’d walk in a room and say, ‘He’s with Y&R; he’s with Ogilvy,’ and you’re all sitting together. It was weird.”

As results were achieved, Mr. Barlow said, it became clear that “the whole would be equal to more than the sum of the parts.”

Within 3 months of moving into the building, the agencies dropped all resistance to the business concept and rebranded themselves as an integrated operation named "Team Detroit." The business concept (and the spatial concept) is now the model for WPP's work globally, as the article discusses.

The project has won design awards and has been published in various places before. But this article from the New York Times today is a better testimony to the power of what we do when we help organizations develop and articulate strategy designs better, and then develop design strategies that deliver measurable business results.

[Quote from "Selling Ford Around the World, From Detroit" by Stuart Elliott in the New York Times, November 12, 2010]

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Linknotes, July 16, 2010

Some of the things that we found of interest this week –

Nice concept – "Take a Closer Listen – 72 pages of sound" – verbal descriptions of favorite sounds in a self-published book, as reviewed at BLDGBLOG

David Brooks on the personalities of business – "princes" and "grinds" – and the importance of supporting "the country’s loners, its contrarians and its narrow, ambitious outsiders" to spark and sustain the economy

Four points of view about which problems to solve that may influence strategies and actions in innovation – strategic problems, design problems, marketing or launch problems, and consistent business processes

Serendipity and discovery – A new theory of "gravity" generated after a theft of a laptop caused a change in plans. “It’s interesting,” Herman said, “how having to change plans can lead to different thoughts.”

Some considerations on skewed values between thinking about design and actually doing stuff

And the continuing debate (and here, and here) on "do-gooder design and imperialism"

Detroit seems to have become a focus for Design Observer. As we noted earlier, two posts there this week explored the issues and opportunities in the city. I especially liked Dan Pitera's slideshow and essay, Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape. Dan's essay made reference to the Steel Winds project in Lakawanna. Somewhat connected, there is also this article in the New York Times this week on the aspiring imitators of the enormously successful High Line development in Manhattan.

Separately, but related, the Harvard Business blogs reflected on the importance of cause marketing and used as an example the  surprising success with the "I'm in" campaign for the Detroit Public Schools

(For some amusement, things are a bit strange further north)

And, some self-reflective links –

A thought about how "master planning" seems so out of date

Considerations about design RFP's and their inadequacy as expressions of the real problem to solve

My own thoughts on the self-destructive threat in closed environments, or, more appropriately the delights and benefits of openness that yield differential success (below), and we appreciated this extension of the conversation

A decision-making rubric | http://jimmeredith.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/true-ups-let-gos-big-leaps/

Productive landscapes, urban ephemera, and architectural interventions

Just a short note and links to some very good posts.

The Design Observer, if you are not already regularly reading it, is a great site with a diversity of thinking about design and society. Detroit seems to have come into attention there.

First, there was a 3-part series by Jerry Herron reflecting "on the rise and fall — and persistence — of Detroit." (links to one, two and three)

Then, with real pleasure, there was Dan Pitera's essay, Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape and slideshow of some recent interventions in the city and ideas for "productive landscapes," "urban ephemera," and "architectural interventions."

While we are on Detroit, if you missed it, here's last Sunday's New York Times magazine on Art as a Security System.

Why Detroit has to build before it tears down

[gallery] Detroit is in the process of becoming a smaller city. As part of the process, much of the urban context is under evaluation. Detroit's mayor is preparing to demolish thousands of buildings, its schools chief is preparing to close and consolidate schools, and everybody seems ready to claim a plot of underutilized land for farming. Each of these moves, and many others like them, are part of a global conversation about right-sizing the city and reconciling population, resources and infrastructure.

For many of the shrink-the-city advocates, demolition is a first step. Erasing the landscape of the estimated seventy thousand homes, commercial structures, office buildings, manufacturing plants and schools that have been abandoned and left to rot, they argue, is an essential step past denial into acceptance of the population shift. With a clean landscape, the city can begin to imagine itself in a different way, and imagine a different form and future for itself.

I believe differently. I propose that it is essential for the city to build before it tears down.

Among of the most important components of the strength necessary to take Detroit into its future are its institutions. These institutions give identity to a community (or the communities of a community), express its values, and provide a place for people to gather and to discuss, affirm, evolve, and develop the ideas that bring them together and that give them the resources they need to go forward. Around these institutions are the rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and stories that nurture a shared culture and that sustain a community.

Most typically, these institutions raise up buildings that provide presence for the institution and express its values. These places are halls of government, churches and schools, stadiums, music halls and museums. In an extension of the language of a community, they may also be corporate structures, commercial structures, and stores. They may be train stations, airports, and waterfronts. Almost all of these, in Detroit, have had their meaning destroyed and have come to represent massive systemic institutional failure.

For more than a generation, Detroit's leadership has actively destroyed its institutions or neglectfully left them to rot. The city does not have a representative government, so there is nothing in neighborhoods to provide a rallying place for shared concerns. The city hall has been a place where mayors have plundered the city for personal gain. The schools have been places of similar greed and plunder rather than education, and their students are at the absolute bottom of achievement among cities across the country. Major music halls and theaters have been turned into parking garages (literally) and parking lots. Almost every major cultural institution, having been graced with major expansions through philanthropists seeking to name an edifice for personal legacy, are now threatened under the burden of the operating costs and mortgages they've assumed. The Renaissance Center, a cluster of towers frequently used as a logo for the city, was built and abandoned by Ford, then acquired by GM who first left its own historic headquarters and is now progressively leaving this one. Corporate chiefs who stood at the front of the cultural and charitable institutions they supported are now, after bankrupting their companies, abandoning them and the needs of the thousands they put out of work. At least one major sports hall, built as the chip in a deal to keep a team in the city but without appropriate resources or vision beyond its site lines, will be demolished because it has not connection to the life of the city, and the team in it wants another deal to build another palace nearby. An iconic train station lies in ruins as its owner sues for a right to be a troll under a new bridge. And a huge black iron fist, its meaning as monument divorced from the name that it celebrates, stands at the city's cornerstone intersection as a threatening greeting to all who would enter.

It is hard, in other words, to point to the traditional monuments and homes of the institutions that build and bind a city and find any that have relevance or meaning, or that are not tainted by a story that talks louder than the story the city now wants to tell.

Most of those institutional edifices were about a big city, big egos, big deals, and big names, none with prominence any more. If the city is to get smaller, and better, it needs to identify and support smaller institutions.

To give them the presence they need to affirm their existence, to symbolize a new way of doing things, to accept a representative scale, to provide a place to gather, to connect rather than separate, to nurture on a smaller and healthier diet, the city needs to generate a program to build before it demolishes.

The city must show that its new values are authentic, that its care is more than words, that its governance will be of the people, that its neighborhoods will not be reservations but the primary resource of restoration, and that it will care more about the future through investment in its schools before making deals in sports.

All of this will take imagination. New, appropriately scaled institutions will need to rise around new values and new ideas to replace the failed and tainted. These institutions will need to be shaped from small neighborhood clusters, and also need to understand, once again, the essential network they share with the region beyond Eight Mile. In order to be successful, these institutions will need to take physical form, and a in a new language of form than we have traditionally utilized.

When these new shapes are seen dotting the landscape across the city and at its frontiers, then Detroit's citizens, and its friends, and those who will become its citizens will understand that something has changed and that something new is happening here, and that they can see something they can believe in, and trust.

That's how I think the city's future can be built.

What do you think?

Go or grow – developing a "next economy" for the Midwest

Detroit, and the subject of its shrinkage, is in global discussion these days.  Here are two of those points of analysis and recommendation that showed up over the past day or two that I think are both representative of the conversation as well as illustrative of its "go-or-grow" nature.

Shrinking Detroit Back to Greatness | Economix | NYT

Ed Glaeser addresses the matter of the shrinking of Detroit in the Economix blog of the New York Times. I remain deeply skeptical of this strategy, believing that abandoning a city and relocating its residents is irresponsible. So many other cities in the Midwest and other places have, after significant decline, found ways of attracting people, building jobs, and providing opportunity, and so improving their physical, social and economic quality of life and growing.

Glaeser offers strategic clues in his analysis. These include proven concepts like –

  • Developing a city of small entrepreneurs, realizing that some may evolve into major global players
  • Support a city of abundant small companies for faster growth than big companies provide
  • Focus on educational opportunity and quality, since skilled cities grow faster
  • Support and grow industrial diversity, since it is more conducive to growth than industrial monocultures

I wish he and others would further develop and promote this "back to greatness" guidebook. This could shift the focus of the conversation from the concept of "urban farming" which is essentially an excuse for a void of civic imagination, dedication and energy.

The Next Economy | Metro Matters podcast | Next American City

As an example of a dialogue I like better, and showing greater imagination about Detroit, there is this podcast from the Next American City. Bruce Katz from the Brookings Institute addresses the issues of perception in the Midwest and the resistance to investment there as a result.

He suggests a reality of its being a "Brain Bet" rather than a "Rust Belt" and argues for investment around this idea. A key concept for him is building a different narrative about the economy in places like Detroit, and he suggests that "Brain Belt" is a phrase that communicates not only the economic reality of the place but also its potential.

Arguing that places like Detroit have to focus on their assets, he also points to the importance of place in achieving successful transformations. He notes that ours is a visual culture, and points to cities like Leipzig, Bilbao and Torino as examples where initiatives around the quality of the physical environment have been significant factors for successful growth after declaration of death.

Faulting both industrial and governmental leaders, Katz suggests that a great future can be found in the Midwest through the commercialization and industrialization of innovations in export-oriented, low-carbon, innovation-fueled products whose development can nurture an opportunity-rich regional growth.

Acknowledging the facts of shrinkage, Katz says there is a "smart way to shrink," and I did not hear farming or agriculture in his proposals.

4. Urban agriculture

I’m borrowing the 10 things concept to build an agenda of thinking for the next couple of months – my New Year’s resolutions, of sorts. Over the next few days, we’ll roll out one or two of these ideas in the hope that you’ll find something of common interest and choose to join the conversation…or even commission a study!

Okay, where were we? Oh, yeah...

Urban agriculture

I think I am irritating others by being irritated by this subject. It’s a matter I am addressing without, frankly, knowing much about it. I am trying to get into the conversation, nonetheless, because I fear it is moving too fast, without challenge, in places where a broader and deeper discussion ought to be taking place.

How is this a redesign problem? I think it enters our agenda because the prominence of the term in the press seems to potentially have the power of beginning to influence land use policies and therefore the design of our cities. From what I am seeing, urban agriculture is embraced to put a pretty label on a failure of leadership.

In my backyard, “urban agriculture” is

  • An obscuring cover for the urban impacts of a failure to provide a sustainable jobs and a decent environment for people – it clothes individual acts of survival (a hen house) with an impression of intentional innovation and institutional sanction (urban agriculture) and has a very limited definition of sustainability (what about supply chain integration and stability, for example)
  • It provides the opportunity for wealthy to acquire property lost by those who lost jobs in the collapse of American industry and the manipulations of financial instruments
  • It is a trendy label for the failure to accept responsibility for the infrastructure you steward as municipal governors, and failure to spend the creative energy to generate a vision and a plan to repopulate, and instead accept the concept of “shrinking city” as a “trend” itself

1. Rethinking the strip mall

I'm borrowing the 10 things concept to build an agenda of thinking for the next couple of months – my New Year’s resolutions, of sorts. Over the next few days, we’ll roll out one or two of these ideas in the hope that you’ll find something of common interest and choose to join the conversation...or even commission a study! Yes, we all share contempt for this one, yet it seems, because of the unstoppability of this universal scourge, that the subject is trite and unaddressable.

However, the collapse of funny money financial instruments, the resulting recession, and now the predicted change in spending habits, all seem to contribute to what may be a fundamental change in the domain of retail real estate, and especially non-urban, non-mall retail.

Others have recently generated interesting redevelopment concepts, and more recently I’ve seen proposals to use rooftops of strip malls for wind farms. It feels, in other words, as if we’re all warming up to address the issue once again, and not as concept, but real necessity.

Throughout my region, the landscape is full of strip malls totally shuttered, or with one or two stores on their way to shuttering. What do we do with this legacy of overbuilding?

2010 Strategy and design agenda – Things we'd like to redesign

It was about a year ago that Jessica Helfand in the Design Observer, offered a list of ten things she’d like to see redesigned. Others posted follow-on lists and, I expect, almost all of us have a list of things, places or experiences that leave us unsatisfied – what a friend recently called our Andy Rooney items. How do these things, we wonder, come into existence with intention and become such a large part of our lives, yet seem to have so little thought behind them?

I, of course, have my own list, and it’s growing. Here are a few things, though, that I’ll try to actually contribute some thinking to this year. Perhaps they are my New Year’s resolutions.

Over the next few days, we’ll roll out one or two of these ideas each day in the hope that you’ll find something of common interest and choose to join the conversation...or even commission a study!

Some of the things we found interesting last week

Coming from the once "Motor City," it feels as if it may be appropriate to begin to think of other modes of transportation now that the "Big 3" are no longer big, no longer here, or no longer even American. It was a delight, therefore to catch some recent articles on beautiful subway stations, and this review of the broad planning, ownership, design and mapping infrastructure of underground transit in Fast Company.

I am getting more than a little upset about the fascination with the concept of "urban agriculture" as (not a feature of, but) the future of Detroit. While Fortune gives attention to the concept in the continuing Detroit story headlined by Time magazine, I think the leadership of the city ought to be beyond squirming about the abandonment of the city and instead aggressively developing plans and programs for repopulation. To make Detroit a sustainable city does not mean turning its lots "green" with crops, but instead fully exploiting the infrastructure everybody says there is too much of.

While "rationing" health care resounds with negative consequences, the concept of rationing cities and infrastructure seems quite okay for discussion. Beyond last year's conversations generated around bulldozing Flint, Michigan, there is now an emerging Richard Florida manifesto proposing that the rich should get richer and the poor poorer. The threat of "regional fatalism" is discussed in "The Ruse of the Creative Class" in American Prospect.

The decade of excess in financial and real estate manipulations that became the decade of economic doom was given a not very fond kiss-off in a number of places. The world's tallest and very empty building was opened with fireworks and fanfare in the midst of all this, quickly becoming the defining symbol of what most expect is now over. I liked the LA Times' reference to "architecture's vacant stare."

The opening of CityCenter in Las Vegas this week had some of the same tone. Something somewhere got me linked back to this 2004 Design Observer piece "Learning from Las Vegas: The Book That (Still) Takes My Heart Away." Drenttel is writing about the book, itself, in this piece, but I wonder if a sense of exuberance with the Venturi/Brown ideas now, at the end of an exuberant decade, still appeals?

The concepts of "networked urbanism"  and "augmented reality" seems to be gaining some significant traction. Related at a very specific infrastructure level, and a sign of the potential in these developments, is the "Intellistreets" concept reported here. I am never a fan of the intrusion of of sound and message where I don't want it, but the idea of security and energy savings is great. I liked the image of a streetlight system that would sense my presence and increase its illumination as I walked down the street.

Back at Design Observer, James Wegener had an interesting trajectory of thought in "Metabolic Dark City" from Kowloon slums to the Japanese Metabolists and on to MVRDV's proposed development of Rodovre. Bjarke Ingels popped into mind, since I had just watched the video of his celebrated talk at TED for projects including "mountain dwellings" here. Check out those plans.

Among so many decade lookbacks, I laughed with Mark Lamster's review of the "The Aughts in Architecture and Design." His critique of the "scourge of twee" was crisp, and I am grabbing "the infantalization of the public realm" – "Surely the most aggravating design trend of the last decade has been the increasing infantilization—Brooklyn-ization? Seattle-ization?—of the public realm...Who has not grown tired of the post-Starbucks coffee-house aesthetic of irritatingly clever t-shirt graphics, mouldering taxidermy, and mewling songsmiths? An espresso costs more than a martini, and comes with a lecture on soil composition in Honduras. Paging Roger Sterling…"

And there was that economy-driven concept of "delayed gratification" and this article in the New York Times that offered the basis to make a New Year resolution to avoid falling into the condition of "Once you start procrastinating pleasure, it can become a self-perpetuating process..."

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Shaping a strategy for Detroit

Aaron Renn does a great job at Urbanophile and in periodic articles at Newgeography addressing the conditions and issues that are unique to the Midwest. He is thoughtful and generous, and I’m always appreciative of his perspective. Aaron is currently addressing “The Detroit Project,” a set of proposals for Detroit by the Brookings Institute and published in The New Republic as “a plan for solving America’s greatest urban disaster.” He offers a critique of the Brookings plan and suggests one of his own. Some of what he addresses provoked some questions and considerations of my own.

Aaron, I am not yet ready to offer an “M=Shaped Strategy” for the city, but I like that you cause reflection. If you don’t mind, I’ll borrow your framework as a way of structuring a conversation.

You open by outlining some of the city and region’s key issues like race and business culture, point to the need for courageous leadership, and adding Detroit innovation to best practices from solutions to similar problems n other places. You then offer eight key strategies.

1. Improve race relations

I don’t think I can address race here without being superficial. With that caveat, I’d offer a sense that the city-suburb divide is no longer simply “a matter of black and white.” When conditions are such that, for example, the students in the city’s schools rank at the absolute bottom in national testing, flight from the city to the suburbs is increasingly by anybody who has the resources to do it.

There is no question that we must repair race relations, and I think that this may be supported by making a different frame for the discussion. Could a broad and rich definition of “sustainability” as a core regional value can be part of this, engaging social considerations in balance with economic and environmental concerns?

2 Active shrinkage

Aaron, I can’t accept your notion that “a lot more people need to leave Detroit.”

I believe, instead, that whatever leadership is here or that may emerge here needs to see the necessity of right-sizing as an obligation to repopulate. This seems almost a moral imperative, a sense that the extraordinary resources that are here – both people and infrastructure – are “wasted” by further depopulation.

Imagination, vision, determination, grit, innovation and more have got to be invested to assure that what has been built will not be thrown away. Pardon me for this, but I imagine scenes from “The Road” when I read your words promoting relocation programs and what might be called migratory unsustainability.

3. Improve the business climate

I really like Umair Haque and his periodic “manifestos.” He sees a great future for business, industry and society, but not from the way they’ve performed in the past.

Today’s article was “The Builder’s Manifesto” in which he suggests that “20th century leadership is stopping 21st century prosperity.” The new talents and ethics that are required now are what he calls “buildership.” Builders, he says, “forge better building blocks to construct economies, polities, and societies.”

But closer to our context here, I like his “Smart Growth Manifesto.” Smart growth, he says, “isn't powered by capital dully seeking the lowest-cost labour – but by giving labour the power to seek the capital with which they can create, invent, and innovate the most.”

I think what I am trying to get to here is a skepticism about the continued elimination of regulation (we’re living with that disaster) and passing the obligation of taxation to others. This is not an argument for bureaucracy or burden, but instead a search for what really matters and a desire that those businesses who may be here or who may locate here will see their obligation as “builders” and their roles as contributing to growth. Won't this take shapers – a regulatory framework – and resources?

4. Change the culture

I agree that the business, management, labor, and social infrastructure of the city has to reconcile with its current size and condition. And I certainly agree that business in the 21st century is agile, virtual and collaborative. But I do not want to agree with your concept that  this cultural change has to be done from the inside, that “no one can just tell Detroit how to do it.” Detroit has generations of business, governing and social institutions with embedded cultures and ways of doing things.

I believe that Detroit needs intervention, perhaps with a spirit of mentorship, and certainly with the tough love of urgency, care, and straightforwardness. I like our currently active intervenors. Robert Bobb seems to be doing good things with the schools, and I might grow to like Whitacre  and what he’s doing for GM. Neither, I expect, are just telling them how to do it, nor are they leaving them alone. Perhaps the “feed a man a fish/teach a man to fish” cliche is applicable here?

5. Renew Brand Detroit

I agree that the city needs an “aspirational narrative that is authentically Detroit.” A key issue for us right now, however, is that this narrative and this brand are being defined by others.

Much of the press both locally and nationally has Detroit on a death watch. People have a morbid fascination that attracts them to the story, but everybody also wants to keep their distance for fear of catching the disease. I have colleagues who have even begun to take their addresses off their business cards. This is ostensibly a recognition of the mobile and digitally connected world we are in where place doesn’t matter as much, but really is because they fear that their talents and their voice will be diminished once their place of origin is known.

I think the best brands, the “authentic” brands, are recognized for what they are, not for what advertising labels them. If there is to be a new or renewed Brand Detroit, it will achieve its authenticity when everybody in the region begins to hear, understand, accept and repeat the story themselves.

It seems that a leader’s voice is essential to begin to shape the new story of Detroit. That narrative has to be one that is new – a different way of seeing the city – but also authentic – something that people “get” as an insightful interpretation of an underlying but newly uncovered truth.

I like the hopeful sense of your “new American frontier” and the “blank canvas” of opportunity, here. But while there may be a lot of physical emptiness, I wonder if the reality isn’t that there is an awful lot of baggage here that cannot be overlooked. I wonder, in other words, if the new narrative of Detroit has to be transformational rather than original.

6. Pursue targeted industry clusters

I like very much the idea of clusters, especially in the context of their formation around talents and competencies. In that aspect, I liked the Brookings idea that “industry may fade, but expertise does not."

It seems that effective wooing of new or different industries may be most effective if it follows a reprofiling of Detroit’s talents (and its environment, as I note elsewhere). I expect this is similar to the authenticity of brand.

We must expect that many from other places will look at this city now as the home of gross incompetency in management. There is also the historic perception of the city as home of “labor” with all of its connotations. Together they can be seen as the key factors that drove an industry born and globalized from there to its death.

Detroit is however (hopefully for a while longer) home of generations of people who know how to design, engineer, fabricate, customize, integrate and market stuff. Attracting other industries to “cluster” here may require disassociating capabilities from their connections to automobiles, and changing perceptions of just who the people of the city and region are and the talents, expertise and energies they have.

7. Rationalize regional governance and infrastructure investment

I am not sure I yet accept your argument against infrastructure. I certainly agree, in the sense of “expansion,” but isn’t renewal essential here? Whether we think of infrastructure as potential (awaiting repopulation) or as requiring an essential right-sizing to the smaller population that is and will be, it seems that a grand transformation plan is necessary.

In his annual review of the state of architecture today, Nicolai Ouroussoff made an observation about the direction of architectural talent in a time of little opportunity. He writes that “perhaps the greatest shift of all this year has been a renewed interest in infrastructure. Encouraged by the debates that surrounded the unveiling of President Obama’s stimulus package, American architects, curators and students have thrown themselves into the task of rethinking the networks — train lines, freeways, bridges, levees, ports and waterfronts — that bind our communities together.”

As Detroit shrinks, and fragments as a consequence, shouldn’t the stuff that binds our communities together be close to the top of the agenda?

8. Secure irreplaceable assets

Aaron, you make a very good plea for the preservation of Detroit’s remaining architectural heritage. Recognizing that there is present neither demand nor resource, your argument for a maintainable mothballing is a good one.

If I sustain a value stream around sustainability, I of course cannot argue against the notion of preserving the city’s historic assets. I am concerned, however, that the subject of historic preservation and rehabilitation is not well understood, appears to many to be superficial, is something that is abundant in times of abundance but is a luxury in times of spareness, and ultimately is about particles more than systems.

The city and the region must bravely assert that the sustainability of the region is dependent on attracting the best companies and the best talent and, for them, the quality and design of the urban environment is a key factor in making a location choice. Every time a company uses a practice that derives its facilities with price as a primary evaluator is practicing urbanicide (and, as we’ve seen, corporate suicide), and violating core principles of sustainability.

So, when thinking about the physical environment, we must consider what we do in a broader and interconnected context. Historic resources are part of this but are a weak driver of accomplishment. Every move to build, whether new or rehabilitation, should take place through an informed organization considering environmental, social, economic, cultural and physical systems, and with a goal not to restrict but to assure that the highest quality and benefit can be achieved with the available and integratable resources.

There is some great work being done in the area’s architecture schools, fostered by a faculty made more robust by the practitioners who have little else to do. Ouroussoff article today concludes, “As architectural work dries up and graduate students begin to contemplate what could be a much darker future, the question is: Who if anyone will tap into this wealth of talent and ideas?”

This is, in other words, a great time for this city to take advantage of an abundance of talent and ideas to help shape the city and the infrastructure that connects us and develop what Brookings suggested is “a different kind of city, one that challenges our idea of what a city is supposed to look like, and what happens within its borders.”

Apocalypse chic, and outrunning the (un)professionals

A couple of apparently unrelated things appearing this week, to keep things moving in the meantime. 

The (un)Professionals and outrunning change

A couple of articles in the New York Times today about the unintended consequences of pricing plans were interesting in the quickening stream of business model redesigns.

In his article, "Is There a Method in Cellphone Madness? Saul Hansell reflects on the apparent inversion in the philosophy of pricing in cellphone plans that appear to cost the best customers the most. There's a psychology at work. He quotes one consultant – “You give people a really good bargain on this bucket of minutes,” explained Roger Entner, a senior vice president for telecommunications research at Nielsen. “People are risk averse, so you have a relatively high overage charge, which gets people to overbuy. You also get really predictable revenue out of it, which Wall Street loves.”

In another place in the same day's paper, Nicolas Carr reflects on "The Price of Free" in internet-accessed entertainment. "With broadband becoming the norm and connection speeds continuing to quicken, what has happened to music companies and newspapers is beginning to happen to broadcast networks and cable companies. People like me are using the Net to bypass the customary providers of television programming, along with the ads they show and the fees they collect.," he says, and worries that higher-cost, higher value programs will disappear.

Somewhere in the midst of all this (and reported on in the same day's paper) was Apple (!), quietly seeking a patent on a technology that would make watching ads on any medium, any technology, compulsory.

Closer to home, but in the same vein, was a posting on BuildBlog expressing concern about the consequences of fee pressures, including free work and "dealing with reality later," brought to the architectural and design professions.

There are, of course, many other data points in this conversation, but it is interesting to note the acceleration of the conversation brought by technological change and impacts on business and the professions from the Great Compression overall. I think that what people are calling (again) the "New Normal" is really not yet defined. Gary Hamel's avoidance of book writing, and his advisory on adaptability here and here seems right in the middle of this stream.

Apocalypse chic I attended an event in Detroit earlier this week centering on the media and Detroit, or more specifically, potential roles for "new media" in and about Detroit. A panel of "new media" people provided insights. These things are always great rah-rah's but always very unsettling at the same time.

The panel was made of six people who were generally presented as, and accepted the creds of, being Detroiters. Their voice was generally the type that says, "if you want the story told in a different way, tell it yourself," with the either direct or implied, "like me." (This tone, even, from one of the chief popularizers of ruin porn.) If I recall correctly, five out of the six came from somewhere else, recently. There seems to be a number of significant implications in this stat, but not now.

Instead, these concurrences on the condition of Detroit and shared aspects American urbanism –

  • In Design Observer, Mark Dery writes about the "Dawn of the Dead Mall" and reflects on the architectural fiction of their remaking and revival. "As we cling by our hangnails to the historical precipice, with ecotastrophe on one side and econopocalypse on the other, that consumer fantasyland is an economic indulgence and an environmental obscenity we can’t afford — the dead end of an economic philosophy tied to manic overdevelopment..."
  • Richard Brich does a nice job of exploring what's left after a city designed for autos in his article, "A Void Paved Over with Concrete." "Our cities are dead zones with small pods of life barricaded between the elements that support the passage, storage and care of cars. In our most densely trafficked sidewalks, it is a hundred feet between businesses whose windows have a chance of being interesting to look in at while walking past. Throw in a bank or two and one has to take a taxi to get between shops where people congregate over a cup of coffee or buy a shirt."
  • Steven Malanga, writing on the City Journal blog about "Feral Detroit" references a must read from the Harvard Institute for Economic Research by Ed Glaeser in which he details the intentional policies of Mayor Coleman Young to empty the city of Detroit. "Though some blame Detroit’s population losses on larger economic forces, economists Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer argue in a groundbreaking paper that the city’s problems are mostly self-inflicted. (The paper, called “The Curley Effect,” gets its name from legendary Boston mayor James Curley, who favored Irish residents and pushed other groups out.) After winning election in 1973, Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, consolidated his power, driving white residents, who had voted against him, out of the city by withdrawing services from their neighborhoods. Eventually, Glaeser and Shleifer write, Detroit became “an overwhelmingly black city mired in poverty and social problems”—and shrinking fast."
  • Detroit figures prominently as Brian Finocki reflects on the use of space for political aims in his article, "The Ruin Machine." "For example, Detroiters are often accused of being in a state of denial about their situation (they are perceived as being victims of nostalgia by longing for what was once a booming city and by operating under the illusion that one day those factories will return operative and a prosperous life will resume.) Yet the media’s predisposition is to reduce the conversation around Detroit to photo ops of abandoned buildings and glossy infographics highlighting the statistical extremities of vacancy achieved by the city.  How hypocritical is this?  Who is perpetuating nostalgia here?"
  • A piece (also reflecting on the "zillions of pictures to illustrate the vast emptiness of Detroit) in the Urbanophile blog by Aaron Renn on "Detroit as the New American Frontier" was resurrected in the New York Times and Time magazine. "One thing this massive failure has made possible is ability to come up with radical ideas for the city, and potentially to even implement some of them. Places like Flint and Youngstown might be attracting new ideas and moving forward, but it is big cities that inspire the big, audacious dreams. And that is Detroit."

Anyway, what I think I liked better this week were these two responses to the growing urban portfolio with similar sets of conditions –

Updates 11/16/09

In Detroit, Agencies Compete to Sell City as a Creative Haven

and

Apple and Bloomberg: Old Champions in the New Economy

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Positive ideas for the world from Detroit – TEDxDetroit revisited briefly

In recent months, I've felt that one of the best things we could do as designers, architects, and consultants is to work with our clients in a mode of group therapy. I've had the feeling that each of us and our clients are in a continuing state of concern about the economy and what recovery means and, for each of us, a move forward feels still a bit lonely, even a bit daring, maybe even threatening. And certainly, focused on the continuing issues of survival, recovery, competition, changing value, shifting markets and many other dynamics, it appears that it's also been difficult for many to raise their heads out of the daily demand and become aware of and even engaged in the seeds of development germinating in other places.

The idea, then, of acting as an agent to get a group together to just see, hear and understand better the context that all are in had the optimistic sense that if we all act together we may be able to act sooner and more robustly.

TEDxDetroit was a good, and large, example of this and, judging from the spirit there and a sense of action in communications afterwords, it seems to have initiated some of the effect I would look for in this group idea. Modeled on the TED concept, but independently sponsored, TEDxDetroit offered a jam-packed day of presentations and entertainment illuminating a great portfolio of locally-developing companies, talent and innovations.

Others have commented on some of the more spirited pieces of the day – great and surprising personal stories, commitments and influences in the community, and otherwise hidden musical talent. I thought I might reflect a bit on some things that interested me from the domains of business that were presented there.

Richard Sheridan

I hadn't expected Sheridan's presentation, and appreciated the insights. His story was about user experience, more specifically user-centered design, and most relevantly the practice of observing and engaging the user of what will be proposed.

These practices and processes are still rare in architectural and workspace design where the nature of the selection process, the quality of the design brief, the client's management of process and the spareness of resources all usually mean a significant separation of designer from user. (Joe Duffy's frustration and resolution referenced in my earlier post is a good example of the implications of this process.)

User-centered practice seems to be a well-developed discipline in product and interface design, where there are many stories of great products, corporate growth and satisfied customers achievable only through processes informed by ethnographic disciplines.What benefits might be uncovered through wider use of these methods in the planning and design of facilities?

Fabienne Munch

Fabienne focused on the characteristics of corporate culture, with some interesting insights into the role of ambiguity and inconsistency in shaping cultures with high levels of innovation.

She spoke of the culture "genome" at Herman Miller as having consistently been one of design expressed generally in terms such as, "it's about what you make," "you decide what to make," and "design is at the core" of the business. Herman Miller's evolving culture allows the apparent inconsistencies of, "it's about how you make it," "the market decides what you make," and "business is an integral part of design."

I liked especially her simple formulation to guide decisions about organizational culture – "what or who would you take from here into the future?"

Dawn White

Dawn's was the first of a number of presentations during the day exhibiting a different kind of thinking about business, with social purpose solidly at the core of the plan.

Dawn White presented a simple business and product concept questioning the paradigm of generating power by things that go around. Rather than powered generators, or even windmills, her company has developed a technology that generates electricity by wind movement passing by tubes that are stationary, silent and modular.

As interesting as the technology concept was her manufacturing concept. Her technology generates 1 kilowatt of electricity over each 640 inches of tubing that cost about 1 cent per foot to fabricate on a machine generating 300 feet per minute of tubing. The arithmetic represents a significant potential capture of underutilized plant space in the Detroit region and a great base for employing the people here who know how to engineer and fabricate metal well.

Her story was a good example of transitional thinking for the area, considering talent more than labor, for example, and seeking ways to uncover and utilize capacity in new ways.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIWTRwM9UKc]

Paul Schutt

Paul's company is significantly changing the perception of the economy, innovation and development in Detroit (and other places) as well as offering a new model for media, in general.

Paul referenced the context of the Michigan Cool Cities initiative and its formulation of the TIDE model – that a balanced performance across talent, innovation, diversity and environment was essential to make the kind of high demand place that is attractive to people and generates growth because of that attractiveness.

Paul expressed his company's interest in people "who are more than one thing" – uncovering,  employing and writing about people who were achieving great things in their jobs, and also influential and engaged in other endeavors as well.

His media company is operating with the observation that frequently "narrative does not match the place." That is, that in cities like Detroit, there is more going on than is recognized and that the surprise generated by these stories is a generator of interest and economic growth.

He spoke of the role of data to shape their own perceptions and therefore their approach to stories about place. One example – 76% of households in Michigan are without children – helps overcome paradigms about the lifestyles that have traditionally shaped the design of cities and strategies for marketing, economic development and promotion.

So, group therapy, of sorts – an opportunity to hear about how others are moving forward with enthusiasm, creativity and energy, overcoming past perceptions and even current conditions, to think  innovatively, take action and influence a different future in the region.

 

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Questions for TEDx Detroit

We'll be attending TEDx Detroit on October 21st. Although we'll certainly be open and ready to listen first, we thought we'd be prepared with a few questions for the presenters who are scheduled to be there.

Here are some initial formulations. If you'd like to help frame our questions, or if you'd like to ask your own, note them in the comments!

Richard B. Sheridan President, CEO and co-founder of Menlo Innovations In your company website, you speak of "creative destruction" as a core value. In a recent post on the Harvard Business School blogs site, Umair Haque posed some challenges to venture capitalists and the concept of creative destruction, arguing that risk aversion made a mirror image of Wall Street and Sand Hill Road – Wall Street underinvested in destruction and Sand Hill underinvested in creation.

Underinvesting in creation seems to be at the core of Detroit's problems, both by the auto companies and their suppliers, and perhaps as well by outsiders who might otherwise have been expected to be disruptive "angel interveners." Haque pointed to Detroit's problems, saying, "Here's how pervasive the venture economy's failure is: Detroit's dying – but we don't have a better auto industry, let alone better energy to power it."

From where you sit, is the challenge more about finding the resources to develop new ideas, or getting the invitation from clients to get creative?

Dan Izzo Training Leader at Bizdom U

Dan, your organization is an interesting component of Quicken Loans, and we look forward to its HQ move into downtown Detroit, and encourage continuing consideration of the broader urban development ideas your team had on its way to this decision.

In your Blunt on Business blog you recently considered the question of mandatory course work for entrepreneurs, and concluded that self-motivation is critical. "Nothing mandatory, everything expected" was your conclusion. In other places, however, the nature of business education is being challenged and rethought. There is a great concern about integrity, transparency, global cultural awareness, and the development and contribution of real value.

Bizdom U commits to the development of Detroit-based entrepreneurs who will not follow traditional business classroom education. When the leading business schools are apparently developing mandatory curricula in response to scandals and collapses, how will your students develop a social, moral and sustainable values mix in self-guided education?

Fabienne Münch Director of Ideation Office at Herman Miller

Fabienne, your mission is to "create new contexts for people to change and thrive." Although Herman Miller has historically, and continues, to innovate in the design of innovative products and environments in the world of work, there certainly has not been much adoption of change in the American workspace and, certainly, not much is thriving right now.

When we know that a different kind of environment is such a strong factor in nurturing the culture and performance of companies, why have we been so unsuccessful in motivating change? And how can this agenda be advanced in the atmosphere of a global economic collapse? Perhaps more pointedly, what's missing in the offices of our locally headquartered global organizations who, apparently, are the biggest losers in the new economy?


Chazz Miller Founder and Muralist at Public Art Workz

Chazz, your mission is "to revitalize Northwest Detroit into a world class Public Art Showcase using Murals as the catalyst for change."

The graffiti murals in the Dequindre Cut have been lauded as "fostering and promoting an essential link between contemporary art and contemporary society." In many cases, however, graffiti is seen as vandalism and presents a tremendous cost to owners of buildings and the public authorities and private companies who manage transportation systems, for example. Malcolm Gladwell has also made a clear linkage between the presence graffiti and the presence of urban crime.

I get the sense that the art that you promote is nothing like graffiti. Could you comment, then, on the influence that organizations like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the College for Creative Studies, the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (and Mocad) may, with their sponsorship of graffiti art, have on the kids you are trying to develop?

Terry Barclay President and Chief Executive Officer of Inforum Michigan

Terry, first of all, thanks for sustaining such a great organization in our region. I have had the opportunity to attend a couple of your programs and find them to be among the best economic forums I've attended.

You will be talking about "how women are changing the world." It would be great to hear how women in Detroit are changing the world, and hope you will tell us some good stories. In this bastion of industrial production, it's be safe to assume that opportunities for women have not been particularly strong compared to other regions in the country, and to also assume that the collapse of the industrial economy here does not improve that condition at all. Is this true, or do you see that the yearning for a transformation to a new economy here may, in fact, present better opportunities for women?

Dawn White Co-founder and President of Accio Energy

Dawn, it will be great to hear about the unique technology at the heart of your wind energy system (or will even we, at TEDx Detroit, have to wait until late 2010 for you to unveil your secret?).

But my question is in another direction. You are a serial innovator and a great model for the transformation of the region not only from autos to other manufactured systems, and from conventional utility to new energy, but also from an older typology of engineering and labor. It appears that the sustainability of our region is dependent on new skills drawn from other places but also derived from a more local industrial craft base. It also appears that the New Economy Initiative has ambitious and exemplary goals along this line. Are you a member of the initiative, and can you comment on what you believe its success and influence will be?

Lee Thomas Anchor/Entertainment Reporter on FOX Detroit and Author of Turning White

Lee, I am sure we will all be very interested in hearing your compelling personal story, especially in light of the attention and misunderstanding that Michael Jackson drew.

But excuse me for stepping to the side for a moment to suggest that I am very surprised to see the TED brand and the FOX brand in the same forum. Could you clarify for us?

Paul Schutt CO-CEO of Issue Media Group Hi, Paul. And simply, thank you very much for the online publications you have brought to our area. I think they are a super model for what might otherwise have been the venue for print media, and are great vehicles for promoting what is happening in the region.

I expect you may address certain issues and opportunities about the transformation of media, and, since your publications are about growth and investment, you'll have comments about how that is best promoted. You do, however, operate in some of the more innovative, attractive and business-friendly cities on the continent. You must have some observations about the cultural and economic differences between Detroit and those other cities. How about commenting on the content differentials between your publications and offer some insights on what they might indicate about the future for Detroit's growth and opportunities to attract investment in a tough and competitively restoring economy?

Pj Jacokes Producer/Lead Instructor at Go Comedy! Improv Theater & GoU: The Improv Academy Pj, although I always enjoy a good laugh, I've never found myself in a comedy club. What am I missing?

Derek Mehraban

Instructor of MSU's New Media Drivers License program and CEO of Ingenex Digital Marketing. Derek, this program presents you as "passionate about helping companies and individuals embrace digital technology."

But holy smokes, Derek!!! Here we are driving down the road – newly defensive to try to avoid the follies of inattentive cell phone talkers and in-another-world texting drivers – and yet you've branded your program as a "new media drivers license program"??!? And, sheesh! – your MSU web site advises students to "Get your license to drive new media."

Well, I guess I needn't go any further...you know the question!

Matt Dugener

COO/CSO of Enliven Software

Matt, your blog promotes the move of power companies to paperless systems as a "green" move. I assume there may be a number of challengers to this equation who believe that saving trees in many cases only fuels the demand for more power and pollution.

Your company is a leader in moving accounting and other corporate operations to paperless systems. Do you have a process to evaluate a company's shift in energy demand throughout the supply chain in order to confidently promote these systems as "green" systems?

Dr. Gary Gabel

Founder of Prism Learning Solution and author of Personal Takeover

Dr. Gabel, Matt Crawford recently spoke to an audience at the College for Creative Studies here. Matt, as you may know, is author of the best selling book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. He does not have good things to say about white collar culture and is certainly negative on the goals and values of American corporate management. I expect he'd be uniquely cynical, as he retreats into the domain of his motorcycle repair shop, of your work and the promise to orient individuals into high performance teams.

Are you familiar with Crawford's work, and what might you say to him about his disaffection with corporate culture and managerial performance? In this regional domain of blue collar work, how do you tune your message to bring the disaffected back into the workforce and make them optimistic about their ability to grow and contribute?

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Some things of interest from other places this week

In a review of some of the things we've bookmarked this week are these trending items.

How Can We Measure What’s Most Meaningful?

GOOD magazine offers some thoughts on performance metrics for innovating organizations, suggesting that "stories are indicative of a capacity and behavior... It is this behavior that is valuable as much as the specific outcome of the innovation or project... the right behaviors lead to the most valuable outcomes."

What Really Kills Great Companies: Inertia

In his periodic column in the Wall Street Journal, Gary Hamel continues his look at the impacts of organizational inertia. "Like a fast-spinning gyroscope that can’t be easily unbalanced, successful organizations spin around the axis of unshakeable beliefs and well-rehearsed routines—and it typically takes a dramatic outside force to destabilize the self-reinforcing system of policies and practices."

GM and the UAW Share the Blame for Saturn's Demise

Sometimes, of course, more active agents of destruction are at work.

Design - Redefining a Profession

Tim Brown, of IDEO, has a new book out this week. Change by Design makes arguments about the role of design in business, something that the New york Times, in its review, calls "a messy, uncertain, often inconclusive process, albeit one that is more fun, and much more productive than tweaking cigarette packets"

TCHO

And somewhere along thtcho1-citrus-200e way I came across this, one of the more delightful examples of the role of design coursing through virtually every component of a business.

The story of a start up, TCHO says there are "Lots of ways to tell the story of the 1.0s. Let’s start with dreams. Dreams of a lifetime, or, more precisely, lifetimes: co-founders Timothy Childs’s and Karl Bittong’s, the dreams that drove them to quit the Shuttle program to make chocolate, or to devote 42 years building chocolate factories around the world."

A copy of one of their videos is over there in my sidebar, but it's much better on their site.

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Emerging influences and ideas to explore

Fuzzy ideas in a spaghetti bowl

Dean Kamen's "Thought Leaders" interview in Forbes magazine provides a delightful and motivational influence in a simple, single question – "What are we going to do about that?" In the context, it is also a call to service, a challenge to find the right and valuable problems to solve, and the importance of trading your time for something more important than money.

I learned a long time ago that the most important part of ending up with a great solution to a problem that maybe is not one that other people would come up with, isn’t in the process of accomplishing the goal. It’s in the process of really understanding the question. The answer is almost always, pretty much after the fact when you look back at it. The answer is almost sort of defined by the question. And I think a lot of invention comes when somebody looks at the same problem everybody else looks at and sees it differently.

Along the way there are also some interesting insights on the elimination of the arbitrary, choosing to be judged by what you make and by history rather than managers, the social environment of creation, and focus on the societal benefits of your success.

Opportunity briefs

In a startling contrast to the Kamen studio approach is this corporate approach.

For an idea to be considered for development, it has to meet Whirlpool's three-pronged definition of innovation: It must meet a consumer need in a fresh way; it must have the breadth to become a platform for related products; and it must lift earnings. (Add-on innovations are expected to deliver results within months, while new-to-the-world ones are given three to five years.)

Without making judgments, it is simply very interesting to note the difference in what innovation is called when the question of "need" is so vastly different.

The Design Observer

The always delightful Design Observer blog launched its version 3.0 this week and its fresh look and organization was another reminded me of the importance of context. Its "Change Observer" tab brings thoughts about the role of design in a larger societal context.

This is what we aim to provide: thought-provoking reports, essays, reviews and dialogues about social innovation, presented through the lens of design. Debates rather than cheerleading rallies. Questions rather than sentiment.

Detroit as the first city to produce all of its own food within its borders

I've had a great concern rattling around in the back of my mind for quite a while about the proliferation of post-apocalyptic views of Detroit and proposals for balancing its now condition. A term used somewhere else – "apocalypse chic" – and referring to the aesthetics of the return to the primitive, evoked the question of why it is that places like Detroit are treated to visions bred of resignation and despair, rather than motivations to a greatness. For too long, notions of "recovery" have bred a futility of nostalgia.

Perhaps my anxiety comes from inability to see a different vision in these abandonment proposals and, in the mode of Kamen's explorations, uncover value in the expansion rather than critical diminution of the proposal. In other words, i tended to scoff at the AIA proposal to turn Detroit into a cluster of "English villages" (scenographic, sentimental, unaware of cultural and economic histories of settlement patterns, etc., and this from the NRDC). But this exploration of the potential of achieving leadership through urban agriculture has enough power in the presentation that I'll have to look further.

creativity, innovation, urban agriculture, Detroit, design briefs, opportunity briefs

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People versus place, chicken or egg – how and whether to restore America's "older and colder" cities

Related to my post yesterday on the repurpose agenda, I found a bit of give and take in the blogs today with Richard Florida at The Atlantic and Ed Glaeser at the New York Times. People versus place as the focus of restorative investment seems to be the subject; chicken or egg seems to be the challenge. Ed Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor, writes in the Economix column of the New York Times that the bulldozing of shrinking cities would be a pretty good idea. I may agree with him, but there is something in his spirit, as well, that does not feel right. Glaeser recalls the history of settlement of the Midwest since the 1900's and more specifically their emptying later in the century. He refers to the outmigration as a "move to sun and sprawl" as if climate and pavement were the choice. I seem to recall other motivators, like highly competitive tax breaks to corporations and strong anti-union cultures, being the catalyst for those who provided the jobs to move, causing those who needed the jobs to follow. This was not a climate seeking move but a political and economic one. Rather than arguing against benefits to the emptied cities of the North, Glaeser might want to try supporting some more sustainable incentives that might keep people where the infrastructure is, rather than building new infrastructure in the rural south where no demand existed before.

Richard Florida's commentary on the subject of shrinking cities, and more specifically on the notion of bulldozing portions of some American cities, also carries some mixed spirit and a bit of false optimism. He agrees with Glaeser that a good policy is to encourage and enable mobility so that people can get to the places where they want to be. We are in a tremendous economic crisis right now because of financial manipulations that have devalued properties, cities, and personal nest eggs. Mobility is in most cases, I suspect, not a matter of education and talent, but of being stuck at the wrong place at the wrong time, having believed in the sustainability of corporations and the trust of financial institutions. To be in New York or California or Toronto and say to the General Motors worker in Michigan or Ohio, "c'mon, get a move on," seems to suggest Florida's agenda is to reinforce his migration data but make superficial his consideration of both current and historical underlying forces.

I appreciate booth Glaeser's and Florida's focus on people, but I am not ready to give that primacy over place. The "benign" or other neglect of shrinking cities no doubt makes less desirable places, reduces the social and economic diversity of a place, and reinforces both further outmigration and abandonment of infrastructure as well as otherwise unnecessary, consumptive, and perhaps overbuilding of new infrastructure in other places. That is, which is chicken, which is egg.

With them, however, I'd be very interested in exploring the potentials and benefits in forward-looking policies, practices and planning that would make Glaeser's "older and colder" places more sustainable physically and, therefore, economically and socially supportive. I expect that encouraging growth by transplants to other places (moving Lake Michigan to Arizona?) may eventually generate shrinking cities in other places as mobility makes money nomadic.