Transitioning to a Knowledge-Based Economy in Detroit

by May 12, 2014Smart Cities

Jessie Feller Hahn, Executive Director, Meeting of the Minds

Jessie Feller Hahn is the Executive Director of Meeting of the Minds where she is responsible for identifying global urban sustainability, innovation, technology best practices and thought leadership, developing platforms for city leaders to share lessons learned, and building alliances and partnerships across and within sectors.


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This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

In my role as Executive Director of Meeting of the Minds, I have been speaking and brainstorming with dozens of Detroit leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, technologists from the public, private and non-profit sectors in order to curate and plan our fall summit there. Around every corner, I have met innovators developing projects and initiatives that are having a direct impact on the current and future Detroit economy.

Detroit has reached a tipping point and is re-discovering and re-imagining its economic path.

City-regions compete with each other on a global scale. In order to compete, cities have the arduous task of developing and articulating their economic advantages and competitiveness. The economic specialization a city pursues impacts the opportunities of residents working and living in those cities.

Diversity of Knowledge

Take the case of Chicago versus Detroit. Saskia Sassen recently wrote an excellent piece exploring how the two cities’ economies diverged. Both have strong histories of manufacturing, yet Chicago was able to make the switch to a knowledge sharing economy while Detroit did not. Sassen argues that Chicago was able to “re-embed its expertist into a knowledge economy.” Chicago had a distinct advantage over Detroit: diversity in its manufacturing and industrial base. Sassen asks a fascinating question: “What if before the car phase, Detroit had a diversity of knowledges that could today contribute to a diversified economic base, ranging from specialized machine crafting to the making of materials?”

Without a doubt, that diversity of knowledge is bubbling up in Detroit. The city’s education and retraining programs are positioning themselves to prepare the next generation of knowledge workers and makers. Innovative organizations such as TechShop, Ponyride, D:Hive, TechTown, NextEnergy, M@dison, Mt Elliot Makerspace, Detroit Creative Corridor, among many others are providing training and co-working spaces for makers, artists, technologists and entrepreneurs to develop skills, launch businesses and then scale them. Other programs such as Detroit Revitalization Fellows and Challenge Detroit are providing leadership training for residents returning home to Detroit or moving there for the first time. Sisters Code is training young Detroit girls to code. Excellent Schools Detroit is taking a holistic view of education by linking educators, curriculum and parents. All of these organizations, among hundreds of others, have positioned themselves to fill the gap in Detroit and make the transition to a diverse knowledge and new industrial/makers economy. Whether Detroit is in the process of becoming a fully articulated knowledge-based economy remains to be seen.

Connecting the Dots

The key is connecting the dots between early to college-level education, training, skills development, funding and investment, workspace, mentorship, network development and other resources. Only through a comprehensive strategy that targets very young leaders, can a city transition to a stronger economy within a generation. Then the resources must be available for great ideas to receive the funding necessary to scale.

The challenge is linking talent with opportunity while also not falling into the pitfalls of gentrification. Becoming a global city has its social costs according to Sassen. Can a city transition to a knowledge economy without excluding a major portion of its population? Can the transition happen over one or two generations and ensure the majority are included, rather than excluded?

It is a complex and long road to transition to a knowledge-based and new industrial economy. It may take more than a single generation. But Detroit is well on its way. This is why Meeting of the Minds has chosen to convene there in the fall. The ingenuity, bootstrap mentality and commitment to a revitalized Detroit is not only inspiring, it paves the way for other global cities to learn how to reinvent themselves and bounce back from whatever challenging economic situation they find themselves. Other global cities like Chicago should take note — they are not immune from economic or natural disasters. It is also a model for the private sector which, at times, also must bounce back. As the futurist and author Andrew Zolli reminded me last week, cities are resilient, as are the people in them, and can bounce back.

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