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Toward an Innovative City

Urban Social Assembly
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By Chad Rochkind
June 6, 2014

About a month ago I posted a study on my Facebook wall that I wrote with the help of some brilliant people. It was called "Detroit and the Innovative City" and I was shocked to watch the study go viral: racking up over 10,000 views in less than two weeks, reaching every continent except Antarctica, and being shared by leading urbanists and architects at home and around the world. I think the reason why this study resonated with people is because this is a historic moment in Detroit, one in which we can define a very different kind of urban development-- one that is inclusive, participatory, and driven by cross-sectoral collaboration. It's the chance to do something different, to be part of defining history and building a brighter future that has caused so many young socially-minded people to move to the city. It's also why so many neighborhood innovators are feeling energized. Innovation works best when we connect the old and the new, and I see that happening now in Detroit.
The good people of Urban Innovation Exchange are kind enough to want to publish the introduction to the study, followed by an embed of the full report. Thanks to them, my team (Neil Tambe, Cassie DeWitt, Corinne Ray, Jessica Janda, and Joshua Smith), and to the entire community we are building together in Detroit. We are all onto something in this special place we all call home, and I'm excited to see where it all goes. Hopefully, "Detroit and the Innovative City" can point one way forward.


We live in strange and exciting times. Entire industries can fall before the day breaks. World-changing technologies can be invented in your basement. Governments crumble at the click of a Tweet. Global connectedness is a fact of life. The pace of change is accelerating, and if we don’t keep up we will be vulnerable to the disruptive forces that are shaking up the status quo. Perhaps more importantly, we’ll miss out on the opportunity for prosperity that this upheaval creates for our cities.
Taking advantage of these opportunities requires us to think about the world in new ways and expose ourselves to new ideas. This is the heart of innovation. Individually and collectively, we need to share ideas with each other and try these new ideas out in the real world. We need to experiment, take the best ideas and make them scale to the neighborhood, city, and even national level.
For centuries, cities have been the center of innovation because they foster the type of environment in which innovation thrives: environments with diverse groups of people and knowledge, high probabilities of social interaction, and systems to help people execute their ideas. From the merchants of 16th-century Venice to the 20th-century auto magnates of Detroit, urban areas have been at the center of innovation because they help spread knowledge into new realms, which creates new ideas, practices, and products. Research by the Sante Fe Institute indicates that as a city’s population increases, its number of patents increases exponentially. According to Professor Luis Bettencourt, “a city works like a star, attracting people and accelerating social interaction and social outputs in a way that is analogous to how stars compress matter and burn brighter and faster the bigger they are.”
Innovation and cities are important because they underpin economic growth. The Mystery of Economic Growth, a macroeconomic study from Harvard University’s Elahan Helpman, concluded that anywhere from 50-80% of economic growth is attributable to business innovation, the development of new ideas, business practices, and products. Further, according to the same study, differences in knowledge and technology are responsible for more than 60% of the difference among countries in income and growth rates. Innovation is thus a vital component of our economy and culture. Fostering it leads to prosperity while stifling it leads to scarcity and hardship.
In addition to economic growth, the innovation that occurs in cities also improves the quality of life of its residents. In fact, quality of life and economic growth are interdependent rather than independent variables. According to New York City deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, cities are capable of achieving a “virtuous cycle of economic development”: new residents create a new tax base which translates into better municipal services like higher-performing schools, better-kept public parks, and effective policing. This transformation of quality of life brings more new residents and workers, which requires even denser development.
Cities, more than any other settlement form, foster this virtuous cycle, so they are a win-win for improved economic and social health. Innovation, however, isn’t an inevitable result of urban form. It takes the right type of environment—one that cities are uniquely positioned to possess and nourish. The environment must include diversity in people and ideas, high potential for social interaction, and systems in place that help good ideas get off the ground. A city evolves because its stewards practice urban innovation. When the environment of the city itself is innovated, innovation in the business and social realms can occur.
The factors that led to Detroit’s spectacular rise and sudden fall are well-documented but worth recapping since the challenges we face today in Detroit are a result of decisions made decades ago. These factors were threefold: reliance on a single industry, sprawl, and segregation.
These factors are still with us, and much of the work that needs to be done in the city revolves around diversifying our economy, creating transit-oriented density, and providing opportunities for cultural connectivity.
This report seeks to understand innovation beyond a theoretical level; we want to explore how innovation can be used tactically to make a difference in the real world. We want to help you, a change maker, do more than just understand innovation; we want to help you put these ideas into practice, particularly in the social sphere.
We here at Urban Social Assembly have been operating in what we originally thought were two distinct fields: diversity and social innovation. Through our experimentation in these fields and our subsequent research of them, it turns out that the two are inextricably linked. What we’ve learned since our founding is that by bringing people together—by sparking spontaneous cultural collisions—new partnerships are formed, new ideas thought up, new ventures launched.
In few places is this more needed than in the city we call home: Detroit. The moment is all the more urgent in light of the inevitable social pressures of the city’s bankruptcy. This is a unique window in which we can reshape our city and galvanize thinkers and doers across the globe to enlist in the cause of revitalization. In our city the collisions needed to foster social innovation rarely happen without a great deal of effort on the part of organizers. Ours is a siloed city. Consequently, Detroit is the backdrop for this study and the focus of our recommendations, even though we think that our innovation framework is applicable in any urban environment. We’ve taken a global look at innovative solutions that have been tried and tested elsewhere.
Detroit is going through a period of major change as it tries to reinvent itself to meet the challenges of the 21st century, but the time is ripe. We think that social innovation is Detroit’s best tool for solving some of our most intractable problems, while also serving as a magnet for attracting and retaining world-class talent at this unique moment in our history. If we play our cards right, we can make Detroit the social innovation capital of the world.

Read the full study here: 
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