Over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, and that number is rapidly increasing. By 2050, 88% of the US population will live in cities. Cities are imperfect. As an economic developer, I know that if we could find ways to grow jobs and investment in cities like Detroit we could address many of our challenges. But it may surprise you to learn that I don’t think that economic development is enough to cure the ills facing many urban centers.
During Techweek Detroit, I challenged the tech companies present to think about Detroit and cities like ours as a laboratory, a place that will fuel their big ideas. I suggested that cities could be testing grounds and city residents, co-designers.
I challenged tech companies to think about what they could do in terms of:
- City systems and sustainability
- Social networks and basic human needs
- Products of the future
City systems and sustainability
Think of all the efficiencies that could result if tech solutions were brought to bear on bureaucratic city processes or outmoded customer interfaces. Some already exist in Detroit, like text-to-pay for parking meters; the “where’s my ride” app for DDOT riders; and Loveland Technologies’ parcel and mapping technology that helps the city manage its inventory of blighted properties.
But there could be lots of others: public lighting, street repairs, safety and storm water management, to name just a few.
Tech companies can help city government anticipate what’s coming next and bring together big data, next generation buildings, cleantech, the smart grid, and deployment infrastructure to create sustainable, functional cities.
Social networks and basic human needs
Tech can widen the social networks of those who need it most.
Right now, 26% of Detroiters don’t have access to a car. And 60% of working Detroiters work outside of the city, many taking two bus lines to get to their workplaces. What if there was an app to help these people find others to ride share to get to their jobs outside the city?
Not only would this save time and travel costs for hardworking, low-wage earners, it would offset the cost of car ownership for others.
How about an app to help working mothers organize emergency child care within an expanded social network?
It would save working mothers lost wages and time, at the same time earning money for potential caregivers. Employers may even be willing to pay for the app if it meant reducing absenteeism and turnover.
Products of the future
How better to design the product of the future than to learn from the potential consumers of that product? The US is rapidly urbanizing and its demographics are changing to reflect a majority population of what is currently a minority demographic. Detroit’s current demographics are reflective of that future. What if the consumer was involved in the design process itself? Think about the ingenuity of everyday people, especially people who are trying to solve problems with limited resources — necessity is the mother of invention.
What if we could put a 3D printer in the hands of young street mechanics or problem-solving line workers? What new product, device or improvement might they invent?
I’m not a tech person but I do have an imagination and I do live and work in the city of Detroit. If I can think of these examples just by looking around and talking to Detroiters, imagine what real techies could accomplish if they immersed themselves in our city.
Detroit has all of the stuff the tech industry expects – accelerators, money, cool places to live and work, and talented people. We also have something they don’t expect: a living, dynamic laboratory that can inspire ideas and connect them to future customers.
My challenge to the tech industry: come to Detroit, where you can design the tech innovations that will not just make life convenient for some people, but will make our cities better for all people.
Chief Operating Officer