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Mikael Eriksson Björling

Things that matters! About digital transformation, design, culture and lifestyle in the Networked Society

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Detroit

Tales of transforming cities

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The fifth report in our Future of Commerce and Consumption report series, The Tale of Two Transforming Cities, depicts two cities that are redefining themselves through ICT and entrepreneurship. In the research for these reports, we visited two iconic American cities, Detroit and San Francisco: Detroit once famous for its motor industry, now more known for all its abandoned buildings and a budding entrepreneur scene; San Francisco known (apart from the classic tourist spots) for the tech companies in the Silicon Valley. Both these cities are redefining themselves through a number of grassroots initiatives and startups trying to solve a number of challenges.

Detroit is particularly interesting because it involves the failure of two of capitalism’s most important institutions: big corporations and government. When traditional institutions like those are no longer around to provide people with a place to be and a sense of meaning in everyday life, it becomes an increasingly individual project to make sense of the world and society. In Detroit, a new scene of small-scale businesses and social entrepreneurs is rising to fill the gap the institutions left and building a new identity. This movement includes the return of local craftsmanship, changed consumption patterns – such as buying local and avoiding big international brands – and community activism. One example of the new type of social businesses that are stepping in where society has failed is Rebell Nell. Rebell Nell is a graffiti jewelry workshop that employs disadvantaged women in Detroit and educates them in financial management to give them the platform to successfully change to an independent life.

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Rebel Nell encourages the rise of local craft businesses

If you find a lot of space and affordable properties in Detroit, San Francisco is the opposite. In San Francisco people are aware that the big corporations and the government are not going to fix the challenges we face. The “creative elite” is taking the visionary lead, both commercially and socially, and expectation is placed on digital technology’s ability to conquer the social and environmental problems of today. Yerdle, for example, is an San Francisco business with a higher purpose – an ambition to reduce the number of new things we all have to buy by 25 percent by swapping things we don’t use.

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Yerdle modernizes swapping and barter to reduce consumption

These types of developments are, of course, something that you can discover all over the world in different cities, with different starting points and different shapes. The New York Times recently published an article about Pittsburgh once known for its steel mills, but is now changing through a new food and tech boom that attracts people to the city. Which is the next American city in transformation we will read about?

Can Motor City become Bike City? The reinvention of Detroit.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to visit Detroit. It is a fascinating city facing many challenges getting on its feet again, which makes it a really interesting place to visit if you want to study entrepreneurship and creativity. My reason for being there was to study the progress of a city trying to redefine its post-industrial self.

What I found in Detroit were super friendly people and a forward-looking spirit. If you don’t know much about the city, Detroit was the epicenter of the 20th century automobile manufacturing industry, with the “Big Three” (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) are still present in the city where Ford Motor Company more or less invented the assembly line principles that served as a cornerstone of the postwar mass consumption society. (It’s also notable that Detroit Electric produced a fully electrical car here between 1907 and 1939.)

The city’s population peaked in 1950 with 2 million inhabitants, and as car manufacturing became increasingly automatized and other work was offshored to other countries, the population declined year by year and is now around 700,000 citizens, with 75,000 dilapidated buildings and only 60 percent of the street lights in working condition. Last year the city declared bankruptcy and a couple of weeks ago while I was there, the city’s debts were restructured.

Many people have, of course, lost their homes, lost their jobs and suffered a lot over the past decades. But what is so interesting is that the destruction of the old Detroit has also fed a lot of creativity and new innovative businesses. Right now, for instance, there is a strong bike movement in the Motor City.

I met with Bike Detroit, a community-based non-profit organization focused on clearing and cleaning bike trails in Detroit and nearby suburban areas.  Slow Roll is another organization working to establish and develop a bicycle culture through group bicycle rides where several thousand people bike together slowly on new paths every Monday. Then you can also find craftsmanship companies like Shinola and Detroit Bikes that build craft bicycles in old factory facilities. It seem like the Motown is on its way to becoming Biketown.

What about the old motor industry? Read the rest of the port at the Networked Society blog.

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