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UIX REPORT: Detroit Innovation Insights

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Since 2012, we have been studying innovators in Detroit. By innovators, we mean people stepping up with new and different solutions to urban challenges. Foreclosure and vacancy, transportation and food access, educational and entrepreneurial opportunity -- issues common to many cities, but particularly salient in Detroit.

Through our reporting, we noticed a groundswell of artists, entrepreneurs, technologists, designers, planners, educators and advocates starting local projects to improve their communities. We wanted to know: Who are these people? How are they doing this work? And do they have access to the resources they need to grow?

A deep curiosity to better understand these often informal yet impactful projects sparked the Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) initiative in 2012. UIX was launched to inform, engage and advance Detroit's growing innovation movement through storytelling, exchange and research in collaboration with Data Driven Detroit (D3) and with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Three years and many surveys and interviews later, we have greater insight into this growing movement of small-scale, place-based community impact work. (For some earlier findings, read here, here and here.) The insights we’ve collected through our qualitative research model and network analysis are valuable not just for Detroit, but potentially for any community looking to retain local talent and promote civic engagement.

Why does this matter? Because the most valuable asset a city has is its people. Studies show that an engaged citizenry is vital for healthy, prosperous communities, and today's civic engagement is taking many new forms. From social entrepreneurship to creative placemaking to open data and civic tech, more pathways to participation are opening.

Are we empowering these civic problem-solvers? Could we do better?

This series will explore these questions in three parts. Here, we reveal key insights collected by UIX and D3 through our three-year research initiative to identify and map this ecosystem of urban innovators and their projects across Detroit. In Parts 2 and 3, we’ll share more about the questions driving our work; the research methods we’ve used to understand, measure, and track innovation; and our ideas and recommendations for supporting this movement.


Let's start with what we've learned in this phase of our research and the questions we first asked to get here, which we’ll fully answer in Part 2. The following are five key insights that emerged from our interviews with Detroit innovators -- particularly early to mid-stage social entrepreneurs leading businesses or organizations with an urban impact:
  • Innovators start somewhere, formal details come later.
    The work of urban innovators takes many forms. How do innovators transform their ideas into projects? How do they operate?   
  • Money can’t rival their passion, but that doesn’t mean innovators don’t need it.  
    With spirited persistence, many innovators operate their projects on lean resources. How do they navigate fundraising, grant-writing, and bookkeeping? What capacities do innovators aim to build?  
  • Innovators want to talk less and do more.  
    Networking is most meaningful to many innovators when small talk and business card handouts are followed-up with tangible learning and exchange. How are innovators connected through a system of support? What types of resources are they sharing?
  • Innovators are vulnerable to burnout.  
    Urban innovation projects come with their fair share of unpredictability and chance. What are innovators’ biggest concerns and insecurities? When are they stretched too thin?
  • Innovation in Detroit is affordable now, but will it stay accessible?  
    The complexities of Detroit are perceived by innovators as both a conduit and a barrier to doing their work. What advice do innovators have for others aspiring to start projects? How can we best support this community of people and projects?  

As we reflect on all we’ve learned from Detroit innovators, we've compiled our key ideas and questions to guide the continuation of our own work and to engage our allies -- especially funding partners, business incubators, civic leaders, and innovators themselves -- in broad strategies to support a healthy and inclusive innovation ecosystem, which we’ll fully explore in Part 3. The following are our key recommendations for supporting urban innovators and their work, in Detroit and beyond:
  • Let’s map further.
    We’ve mapped a baseline ecosystem of innovative projects and the exchanges between them, but believe that deepened data collection and network analysis over time will provide the most powerful insights. How do new resources or gaps in connectivity emerge and evolve?
  • Let’s network intentionally.
    The UIX platform is meaningful, and we want to make sure it’s more than a shared umbrella for our  innovators.  How can we utilize it to enhance organizing and advocacy or bolster access to operational services?  
  • Let’s ask and listen.
    Innovators have a wealth of experience and are often charting new terrain.  Are we listening as they share their ambitions, roadblocks, and needs?  Can this “open-line” facilitate greater understanding between the “doers” and “investors?”
  • Let’s keep valuing talent.
    Detroit is home to so many people who are catalysts in their communities, and we want to better illustrate the “ripple effect” value of investing in this existing talent.  Are we appreciating, elevating, and financially supporting our innovators as the vital assets they are?
  • Let’s make more introductions.
    UIX has a menu of event and exchange models that focus on connecting innovators in a shared place but are also replicable across cities.  If we scaled the UIX platform, could it become a conduit for cross-city learning and exchange between innovators?
Curious about our insights, questions, and recommendations for moving forward? Keep reading.

In Part 2, we’ll dig into our research methods and explore the data points that inform each of our insights. In Part 3, we’ll share how these findings are prompting new questions and generating recommendations for UIX and its allies to best support urban innovators and their work to create more vibrant and sustainable communities.


Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) is led by Issue Media Group with Data Driven Detroit (D3), a Michigan Nonprofit Association affiliate, The Civic Commons and a coalition of media and community partners, UIX is made possible thanks to funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

For the “Detroit Innovation Insights” presentation released in September 2014, click here for PDF.

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