I believe New York City is the center of the universe, of course.
However, in the summer my family and I travel to other places to find out whether that is still true, and my belief becomes an educated assumption. This year we explored some truly amazing places. The praise goes something like this: “If we weren’t in New York, we would be here, in Portland, Oregon,” (or Detroit, Michigan; maybe Los Angeles, California). Here is my report from one of these truly amazing cities and its concept of innovation—as always, my guiding question is: why should the world take notice today? I try to find concepts and ideas that will come to the world tomorrow. Equally importantly, I try to find what makes people, ideas, and concepts successful in the twenty-first century.
“The Detroit of [insert any impoverished region],” has become a common phrase. The German daily newspaper, FAZ, recently wrote a feature article about Oberhausen, a poor region in the north west of the country. The paper called the city “The Detroit of Germany”—Detroit has become the global synonym for a failed city. Little is known about the current progress and rebirth of this US city and its manufacturing. Veteran journalist John Gallagher, who has been covering the urban developments in Detroit for more than 25 years, wrote in his book Revolution Detroit that, “Detroit is the new Berlin.” Meaning it is a city that reinvents itself as the cultural and economic hub of the region. Reason enough for us to take a closer look.
It is still a long way to prosperity, and success will certainly look different in the twenty-first century, but I was impressed with the pockets of the “New Detroit” that I found. Driven by a sense of community, a fighting spirit, a drive for building things, and the unbroken willingness to turn things around, people in Detroit are developing something unique. Art and fashion are leading the way. The new Detroit is expressed well in two fashion brands: Detroit vs. Everybody and DITNB, which stands for Detroit Is the New Black. Here are a couple more examples that express the “New Detroit” which I believe are worth taking notice of.
Now in its second year, the Techstars Mobility Accelerator is Detroit’s answer to the shift from a car culture in the US to a culture of diverse and ubiquitous mobility options. Twelve startups, together with several large corporations including Ford and MunichRE, work from the Techstars office at the iconic Ford Field—a Detroit entertainment and sports center. What makes Techstars in Detroit stand out from other accelerators is this: the whole city seems to embrace, welcome, and support the Techstars companies. This results in each startup having more than ten meetings each day with mentors, investors, supporters, and the city’s business community.
Midtown Detroit and Shinola
The “New Detroit” is nowhere more vibrant than in midtown Detroit. Within a few square miles you will find a Whole Foods (the affluent grocery store that brings up real estate prices around it), the Detroit Art Center, artisan bakeries and breweries, as well as Shinola’s flagship store on West Cranfield. Why do we care about Shinola? It is probably the US’ biggest experiment in retail and branding. Called “The world’s most authentic fake brand” by Inc. magazine, Shinola combines unique consumer insights and the bold idea of bringing back US manufacturing with people and profit. The Detroit flagship store invites you to shop. Even if you don’t need a bicycle, a dog leash, a watch, or flowers, it’s hard to walk out empty-handed, because the store makes offline buying fun again. I ended up with my 15th or so pen and notebook, but it is a Shinola pen and notebook. The world needs to take notice, because the 400 employees are a testimony that the traditional approach to business still works in the digital age: have an idea, develop a concept, test it, and implement it flawlessly. According to the Huffington Post, Shinola aims to be profitable in 2018.
The Eastern Market deserves a special mention, and along with Shinola it is a testament of the importance of physical retail. Technically, the Eastern Market is an almost ordinary farmers market, but it stands for the city’s progress. Every Saturday morning the Eastern Market becomes the center of the metropolis with Detroiters shopping for groceries and enjoying some of the best local food.
Driven by the comeback of the US automotive industry in past few years, Detroit seems back on track to becoming an attractive city where urban people want to live and work. For everyone caring about economic development, good governance, and modern business development, Detroit is a sobering experience and worth a deeper look now.