Shaping the Near Future: An Exploration of the Motor City

We believe that innovation is about shaping the near future, so much, in fact, that it is one of Peer Insight's guiding principles.

This is why I love the city of Detroit. I believe Detroit is abound with possibilities for shaping the near future. Over the past few months, I've spent time in the city and its surrounding suburbs doing design research— fieldwork and co-creation— with residents. I want to share some images and stories from the field.

When you drive into downtown Detroit, certain parts of the city look like World War Z. Buildings are crumbling and boarded up. Graffiti covers the walls and steam billows up from grates in the pavement (some buildings still have steam heating, someone explained). The taxi drivers and doormen that I met all spoke reminiscently of the city's rapid decline. When the population was dwindling, the government raised taxes— more people left. On a cab ride from Ann Arbor to Detroit, my driver, a half-Jewish, white rap and hip-hop artist, Merlyn Wade (PACE), told me he gave up on Detroit after he saw how corrupt the police were. "They were the ones running the dope houses," he explained, "and they had my buddies and I at gun point when we were trying to shut it down, to make the city better." A woman told me about the failure to renovate the old Michigan Central Train Station. Originally built in 1913 to be a main transportation hub, it fell into disrepair in the 1970s and most recently has become a backdrop in movies like Transformers. 

Despite the visual reminders of decay and failure, there is a lot of inspiration and unique business opportunities that are coming out of the city. It is an engineering hub, after all, and Detroit continues to invent solutions for the city. In fact, tech innovation is huge in Detroit. A Huffington Post article reports that the Motor City's tech industry growth is currently outpacing national hubs like Silicon Valley.

The feeling of invention is helped, I think, by the absence of big box stores. While in most cities you can easily drive around and find a McDonald's, CVS, or a Macy's, Detroit's selection of stores is much more local. You can get a burger at Mercury Bar, go to the local pharmacy, and if you must, shop at the one large Whole Foods on W. Lafayette. It's one of the only urban centers I've seen in this country where handmade trumps mass-produced. Ironic, when you consider it's the city of Ford. Detroit feels scrappy, and when you're talking about a bunch of entrepreneurs, that fits. Small businesses like Astro Coffee who are brave enough to do business in the city will help to revitalize this sprawling metropolis.

The Astro Coffee facade.

The Astro Coffee facade.

So, what else is required to jump-start the Detroit economy? Will this become a city ruled by small businesses, Dan Gilbert, and entrepreneurs? Let me know what you think. 

Message me: @alissa_joelle

The old Detroit Free Press building.

The old Detroit Free Press building.

Signs like this are all over the city. I love the hand-painted type. Michigan Ave., Detroit

Signs like this are all over the city. I love the hand-painted type. Michigan Ave., Detroit