Why Motown is poised to come roaring back

April 20, 2015

I’ve seen the future, and it is Detroit.

That statement may seem audacious for anyone who’s read about or visited the city recently. The storied epicenter of the automotive world — America’s richest city just a half-century ago — has traveled a bumpy road for decades. Since the turn of the century it suffered the financial default of General Motors and Chrysler, the exodus of tens of thousands of residents and businesses, inept or corrupt city officials, exploding debt, a declining tax base and, in 2013, the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

Today, the city of 700,000 — down from 1.8 million in 1950 — has 90,000 vacant lots and 70,000 abandoned buildings as well as a 36 percent poverty rate and 23 percent unemployment rate, both the highest in the nation. Motown is, arguably, a city that has run into a ditch.

So, why am I hopeful? There are hundreds of initiatives, from tiny startups to massive public-private partnerships, aimed at jump-starting the beleaguered city and putting Detroit squarely on the road to recovery — not as its former industrial self, but as a hub of innovation. It is a model for how to retrofit a city as a hotbed of sustainability — economic, social and environmental.

That’s my conclusion from a recent visit there to speak at Powering Progress Together, a daylong forum convened by Shell Oil, part of a series the energy company has produced to highlight the nexus of people, mobility and technology in cities. (I also spoke at a similar forum two years ago, in Houston.)

The Detroit event brought together 250 or so business, civic and nonprofit leaders to discuss how the combination of technology, social innovation and government leadership can effectively address sustainability challenges in cities.

This isn’t just academic. Shell Oil Co. president Marvin Odum pointed out that by mid-century, the world will be adding the population equivalent of two new Detroits every week, 75 percent in urban areas. How we build new cities — and retrofit old ones — will influence how people live in a growing, evolving and adapting world.

Detroit was the perfect canvas to paint a portrait of what’s possible.

“A lot of big changes are happening,” Dan Kinkead, director of projects at Detroit Future City, told me during an interview in his office in the city’s New Center neighborhood, a few hundred feet from the historic Fisher Building and the former General Motors headquarters.

Why Motown is poised to come roaring back
Joel Makower, April 20, 2015, GreenBiz.com