MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Filtering by Tag: 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 |

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

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.”

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.


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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Shop class and individual agency – disaffection and motivation

photo by Marvin Shaouni I was in Detroit last night and had the opportunity to go to Matt Crawford's lecture at the College for Creative Studies. Matt is the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work which has received a lot of recent attention.

By the time he was halfway into his theme, I was feeling a certain unease. His talk felt out of place, perhaps unsympathetic, and maybe even destructive on a campus of creative artistic and craft endeavor and in a community with a collapse of labor.

Although aware of Crawford and his thesis, I went expecting a connection between his appreciation of hand work and the craft basis for the local industry, the evolution of CCS's mission, and the interests of its students.  Matt, however, made no such connection. He presented, in effect, a restatement of his New York Times essay and, although denying he was the voice of a "movement," he nonetheless repeated his uncomfortable segmentation of the white collar world and critical contempt for the paradigms of modern managerial practice. His presentation of the apparent nobility of "individual agency" and its qualities opposed to the experiences of mindlessness in corporations seems very much like a manifesto, and very faulted in the selective comparison.

Matt, although clearly capable of invention (he has a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago and holds a position as a fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia), seems to instead feel more comfortable in the domain of the disaffected. His first job after graduating was on K Street, in effect rephrasing the works and authorship of others and accepting rather than changing an inappropriate production-minded management at a think tank. Now, of course, he revels in his motorcycle repair shop, again withdrawn from a position of influence in innovation and engineering, and exploiting the fruits of others' invention and cloaking it in apparent humble nobility.

The reason this felt so odd was, of course, his lack of recognition of the role that entitlement and opposition has played in the economy of the region where he spoke, and in its stark contrast with the transformational work of efforts such as the New Economy Initiative for Southeastern Michigan. Funded by the Kauffman Foundation, the initiative seeks to start-up more than 400 new businesses in the next three years and, in the process, transform the local capabilities and capacity from the diminished scope of the auto industry into innovations in newer industries such as aerospace, defense and alternative energies.

The goal of the initiative is to “accelerate the transition of metro Detroit to an innovation-based economy that expands opportunity for all.”

The initiative will sponsor and support activities in three strategic areas: talent, innovation and culture change.  Working with other partners in the region and in the state, the initiative will work to: 1.  Prepare, attract and retain skilled workers in southeast Michigan (Talent) 2.  Encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in new and existing enterprises in the region (Innovation) 3.  Change the region’s culture to embrace learning, work and innovation (Culture Change)

While Matt celebrates the nobility of working with your hands, the initiative seems a more effective voice and tool for converting that talent to the greater benefit  of others. I have the expectation that the people engaged in these emerging enterprises will be the authors, as well, of a new way of working, engaging the talent they employ and amplifying the achievements and benefits of their work.

© Jim Meredith

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Building in cornfields, part deux

Early Detroit, French "ribbon farms"

Tabula rasa” was a term frequently used by Elizabeth Diller the other night in Charlie Rose’s interview of the Diller Scofidio+Renfro principals. She was using the term to describe an approach they took that implied that each project began with a fresh look, uninhibited by considerations of experience, precedent or philosophy.

The term had been on my mind recently, perhaps through a direct reference but, I think, more through reflection on what seems to be an accelerating number of explorations and interventions focusing on the city and cities in general, but in the domain of this interest, on Detroit specifically. The history of the stories of the decline of the city has been more recently joined by a rapid flow of articles, photo journals, studies, and now competitions all informed by a general (accurate) impression that there is not much left, and that therefore the city is a tabula rasa on which to test, impose on, intervene with, and explore new concepts for the city and for “city,” and, as we’ll see, for “farm.”

I have written briefly about this before. In a quick recap, I had been recalling the concept of “building in cornfields” first advanced by a client, an executive with Chrysler, in the late 80’s. We were in the process then of designing and building a new palace for Chrysler very shortly after its emergence from near bankruptcy with the benefit of a government loan. As we erected four million square feet of new headquarters and technical facilities for them on what had been a large farm north of the city, Chrysler was in effect abandoning Highland Park, a city completely surrounded by the city of Detroit, and the clusters of shops, labs, plants, offices, design studios and other facilities that had been its home, and the home of its workers, for decades.

It was natural to give at least some passing thought to the exit strategy, to the impact of the void that was being left behind. This executive suggested that the best thing they could do was demolish the buildings and plant corn. “Everybody wants to build in a corn field,” he said.

Now, 20 years later, the first step in that vision, that strategy, is apparently about to take place. Among the reports on the web site of the Detroit Free Press today (the “newspaper” is no longer printed but 3 days a week, another casualty of the large outmigration from the city), was the announcement that Hantz Farms was an entity, part of a suburban financial services firmproposing to till and plant an initial 70 acres of the land in the lots and plots that have become progressively abandoned in the steady intentional and incidental shrinkage of the city (there are more than 40 square miles of vacant property in the city) . This would become, in effect, the largest “urban farm” in the world.

Of course, the potential of urban agriculture in Detroit has been made robust by the failure of the leadership of its leading industries to act responsibly and embrace a concept of a sustainable business through a sustainable product. China, a country that itself is rapidly urbanizing and turning its farms in to cities, has developed a vision and a strategy to become the world leader in the development of the systems and products that has resisted and actively lobbied against for years. Planning to become a world leader in the development of electric and hybrid vehicles within three years, China will be doing what the Obama administration has been trying to get GM, Chrysler and Ford to do while they protest that it is impossible to achieve within the decade. Already suffering from a failure of vision and commitment, already on the brink of bankruptcy, the American companies will now feel even more pressure.

So the industry responsible for its urbanization is now responsible for its de-urbanization.

People are leaving Michigan at a staggering rate. About 109,000 more people left Michigan last year than moved in. It is one of the worst rates in the nation, quadruple the loss of just eight years ago. The state loses a family every 12 minutes, and the families who are leaving -- young, well-educated high-income earners -- are the people the state desperately needs to rebuild.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Ouroussoff referenced the faulted and failed urban development policies of the past as part of the reason for turning Detroit into what he calls a ghost town. He seems to accept the notion of a tabula rasa in the cases of many American cities. He calls for radical new solutions, destruction rather than repair, and extravagant imagination.

In this miserable context of continuous erasure, there is this delight of infill attention. Among the attention Detroit is getting includes these--

Rouse [D] is an international ideas competition focusing on "re-inventing the city of Detroit through the use of digital computation methodologies." The organizers of the competition acknowledge the extensive history of other intentions to restore or reinvent the city. They believe that their approach, however, may actually be a catalyst to action and accomplishment. In the context of a tabula rasa approach, they suggest that "every city has its history and Detroit is no different, but now it’s our turn to “bounce back” and maybe not in the traditional or conventional way, but in a new, unprecedented way that is specific to the one-of-a-kind condition Detroit presents to us. So the solution too, will be one-of-a-kind specific to our Detroit." It is a competition about place, illustrating ideas for specific sites in Detroit, and accepting both micro and macro approaches.

The jury is intriguingly international and includes, David Pigram of SUPERMANOUEVR, Marc Fornes of THEVERYMANY, Skylar Tibbits of SJET, Michael Ashley of MASH-ARKT, David Jackowski of ALVATRON STUDIO, Peter Macapia of DORA, Brian Dubois of 2:37AM / 2:37AM STUDIOS and Jason K. Johnson of FUTURE CITIES LAB. Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich of PATTERNS will act as the competition exhibition's keynote speakers.

Detroit UnReal Estate Agency is about documentation. They say they will "produce, collect and inventory information on the 'unreal estate' of Detroit: that is, on the remarkable, distinct, characteristic or subjectively significant sites of urban culture." The tabula rasa for them is acknowledged in their intention to aim "at new types of urban practices (architectural, artistically, institutional, everyday life, etc) that came into existence, creating a new local ‘normality’ and a new value system in the city of Detroit." Rejecting the "renovation" tendencies of Richard Florida, and the "artistic" opportunities in urban ruins, they  instead seek to "support stimulus strategies for urban transformation...and, simultaneously, to re-interpret and built on the value of decay as well as the intrusion of wildlife in the city." Among the questions they pose as a means to generating new concepts is "How to imagine a new equilibrium between the city, the human communities and the natural elements (plants, water, wilderness)?"

Detroit Unreal Estate Agency has a similar international origin. It is a project of Partizan Publik centered in Amsterdam. They call themselves a "think and action tank devoted to a braver society." Their intention is to "explore, produce and implement social, political and cultural instruments which generate positive and sustainable change to people and their surroundings." The Partizans are Christian Ernsten (founder) and Joost Janmaat (founder), as well as, Amir Djalali, Bart Blaauw, Arthur Huizinga and Jeroen Visser.

[bracket] is at the core of the matter, developing a web publication about farming in general, but with a number of urban farming proposals and with Detroit specific explorations. [bracket]'s platform for its first issue, On Farming, is broad. "Once merely understood in terms of agriculture, today information, energy, labour, and landscape, among others, can be farmed," they say. "Farming, beyond its most common agricultural understanding is the modification of infrastructure, urbanisms, architectures, and landscapes toward a privileging of production."

Bracket, also international in scope, is supported by the Graham Foundation and is a collaboration of Archinect and InfraNet Lab. They put together an annual publication intended to document "issues overlooked yet central to our cultural milieu that have evolved out of the new disciplinary territory at the intersection of architecture, landscape, urbanism and, now, the internet...a publishing platform for ideas charting the complex overlap of the sphere of architecture and online social spheres."

One of its projects, entitled "Your Town Tomorrow (Detroit 2007)" explores the form and history of the farming that was at the foundation of the city, noting that "it has been over three hundred years since Count Ponchartrain sent word back to Paris describing Detroit’s landscape as ' temperate, so fertile and so beautiful that it may justly be called the earthly paradise of North America.'” The brief implies an exploration of a return to the agriculture that lies under the industrialization and de-industrialization of the city.

With all of this as promise, in a sense, the concept of "tabula rasa," seemingly so free, clean, and airy, nonetheless seems to carry a bit of baggage. Considering the concept, it seems there are at least 6 ways to think about, employ or resist it.

  1. It's the wrong approach--There is no such thing as a tabula rasa. No matter the level of destruction, abandonment and decay,there is, resident in this place, a lingering memory of rights and wrongs that should never be dropped, overlooked or assuaged, and will always make its play.
  2. It's the right approach--Every tendency to bring complexity to this kind of problem is to defer its
    solution; the approach should be unencumbered and should uncover and deliver its effectiveness through simplicity, clarity, cleverness and insight brought from freshness, innocence, care, and creativity.
  3. It's not a physical concept--Declaration of the city as without fact and without history allows you to see what you want to see, not what is there;it is a political act that is about power not benevolence, about dominance not compromise.
  4. It is essentially a political tool--When everything else about the city's administration is corrupt or collapsing, when an entire half century can be measured only in decline, when the effect of its politics and policies has created the tabula rasa, the right approach is a political approach and should engage new modes of representation and administration.
  5. It is at its best as a physical concept--Perception is reality. The complication and compromise involved in almost every plan that acknowledges the political and social eliminates the ability
    to see things in new way; approaching the land and space as open and clear will allow new ideas to be implanted, leading more effectively to new perceptions generating more effective politics, plans and policies.
  6. He who throws the first stone--Those who promote and use the tabula rasa approach should be without sin; the concept has a sense of purity associated with it and its intentions and executions should be free of self interest and of the taint of past acts.

I'd be pleased to have your comments about any of the topics in this post.

As I write this, I've been interrupted by comments from my wife who has picked up Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road. She is reading it's post-apocalyptic vision in the context of the economy, not of the the bomb. She carries the sense of the tabula rasa in that case as gray, not the white (or green) I have been imagining.

She conjures up an image of a park in downtown Detroit, a "neighborhood" very close to the CBD and immediately adjacent to the city's newest and best high school. It is difficult, as you move through the area, to see someone who is not disabled in some way, moving on crutches, in wheelchairs, hobbling, or in grocery carts. There is no "order" in this neighborhood, and the streets are effectively public space for anything, not simply thoroughfares. There are only scattered buildings around, windowless, odd elements conjuring some sense of an earlier time before they, too, are demolished and memory erased. There are those who come to the park in generosity to prepare food on outdoor grills and around whom, on a sensed or known schedule, huge numbers of homeless gather, aroused from their otherwise dispersed sleeping areas around the park.

In this case, it is no job, no health, no home, no place, no security, no resource, that makes up the tabula rasa. And it is expanding.

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Making working visible

making-work-visible_1791_002 There are at least two levels of invisibility in my town, two layers of its cross-section where you have to struggle to find signs of life. There is an upper layer-the anonymous and blank windows of the high rise office towers-and a lower layer-empty retail shops and lobbies reflecting the level of occupancy of the floors rising above them.

Colleagues are now in the midst of the periodic ritual of designing infills for empty storefronts in the CBD. The first of these that I remember occurred back in the early eighties. It was a joint venture sponsored by the local architectural professionals and the local artists market. Reasonable successful as a promotional event, artists filled up empty shop windows in the shadows of the GM headquarters, where Saks Fifth Avenue had long served the city and finally pulled up for the suburbs. Their works seemed delightfully in the right place, numbered for reference in the weeks-long auction that took place while they were on view.

In an interim attempt to clean up the city for some event that might draw visitors here from other places, the city commissioned decals for the upper windows of many of the downtown buildings to attempt to convey a sense of life and occupation in the ever declining city. Scenes of curtained windows and table top lamps to be viewed by the "people mover" that cruised the unpopulated city at the second and third floor levels, the program was met with more derision than appreciation, and caused more attention to the reality that it attempted to mask.

More recently, when the Superbowl came to town a couple of years ago, the local architects and contractors teamed up under the auspices of the downtown business association to fill up shopfronts with some form of creative construction. Some baldly promotional and off-purpose, and others only half-heartedly committed, they were left to decay shortly after the event and, as the earlier attempts, contributed to the sense of abandonment.

Another initiative is now in the works. As I watch colleagues prepare their submission, I have too much memory of the past to become enthusiastic and supportive of the present, already seeing the future.

But their work got me thinking. I propose an inversion of the city's cross section, or at least a partial inversion. I want to make work-that is, working- visible. What is up should come down, what is down should become real.

The abandonment of storefronts in the city is caused by the fact that the offices above them are so lightly occupied that the market for the amount of retail space in the city is unsustainable. Preservation of these spaces as "storefronts" under a fantasy of retail restoration only perpetuates, maybe accelerates, decay.

Upstairs, invisible to the world, are the remnants of corporations, professional firms, and others who have maintained their place in the city. Who they are and what they do and how they contribute and why they are here-is invisible. These are lonely places. Nobody shares an elevator with you. Walking the halls stirs uneasiness, wondering who else might be there who should not be there and wondering why you are. We squeeze in under low ceilings and look out of small windows from ever-shrinking space.

I want to move downstairs. I want to be in expansive spaces with high ceilings. I want to be in light filled spaces where high windows bring sunlight deep into the interior. I want to have a reason to put what I do prominently on display. I want to look out and see people, maybe even greet people, rather than look across to an unoccupied building across the way, or down to the streams of people leaving the city.

So, I propose that landlords reconsider the use of their buildings, that brokers reconsider how they promote space and to whom, and I propose that everybody left upstairs goes downstairs. There just might be enough of us to fill up the ground level of all of our buildings. And if we did we'd have a city that is alive. We would see who is here. We would see the work we all do. We would get to know each other better and probably collaborate with each other more frequently. We'd build energy from our own activity and reinforced by the visible activity of others.

The upper floors of our buildings would remain anonymous and invisible and, for the moment, irrelevant. But the ground floors would be lighted, active, visible, productive, energizing, and more than sustainable.

3/24/9 This just in

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Projects for a shrinking city

Photo Credit:  Courtesy Of The Artist Via Museum Of Contemporary Art Detroit, via Washington Post I thought I'd pass along this article in its entirety. It's about some small moves in Detroit that are continued indicators of new settlement patterns in the transition to new futures in difficult places and times.

Featured in the article are Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope. Gina is an architect and artist and currently heads a very clever retail/consultancy called Design 99. Mitch is an artist who contributed to the great Shrinking Cities project and was a founding member and curator at Detroit's MOCAD.

The New York Times

March 8, 2009 Op-Ed Contributor For Sale: The $100 House By TOBY BARLOW

RECENTLY, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town. This struck me as a highly suspect statement. After all, we were talking about Detroit, home of corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, beleaguered General Motors and the 0-16 Lions. Compared with other cities’ buzzing, glittering skylines, ours sits largely abandoned, like some hulking beehive devastated by colony collapse. Who on earth would move here?

Then again, I myself had moved to Detroit, from Brooklyn. For $100,000, I bought a town house that sits downtown in the largest and arguably the most beautiful Mies van der Rohe development ever built, an island of perfect modernism forgotten by the rest of the world.

Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.

Ah, the mythical $100 home. We hear about these low-priced “opportunities” in down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland, but we never meet anyone who has taken the plunge. Understandable really, for if they were actually worth anything then they would cost real money, right? Who would do such a preposterous thing?

A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.

Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee.

But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.

In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.

Toby Barlow is the author of “Sharp Teeth.”

Another perspective in the same day's issue:

All Boarded Up

Previous related posts:

Lawlessness and cannibalism rule the streets

How many does it take?

Detroit wildlife

After the crisis--Macomb interventions

Utopian visions--building in cornfields

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