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Three things we've learned from Detroit's innovators

UIX survey gathering
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As the Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) initiative enters its third year, we are reflecting on all that we have learned since we set out to understand and measure social impact within Detroit’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem of innovation.
 
Two years ago, UIX and Data Driven Detroit (D3) partnered to survey innovators one by one and build a comprehensive database to track responses. The data we have collected captures social attributes, perceptions of innovation, and the support systems that innovators access to start, scale, and sustain their projects.
 
At the end of year two, we have a rich survey sample of 113 UIX-featured innovators representing 110 innovative projects. It is important to note that for the purposes of this initiative, “innovation” and “social innovators” include a wide spectrum of characteristics, with survey subjects diversely self-identifying as artists, neighborhood leaders, entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, technologists, community organizers and more.
 
Today, after reviewing our preliminary demographic and network analyses, and before embarking upon a second round of follow-up surveys, we are excited to share three important things we’ve learned from Detroit’s innovators.
 
1.  Social innovation in Detroit is rooted in place.
 
For many innovators, Detroit has been a place they’ve called home for a long time. Forty-three percent (43%) of innovators were born in the city and another twenty-two percent (22%) were born in greater Michigan. Many innovators also live where they work. Eighty-five percent (85%) of innovators currently reside in Detroit, Hamtramck or Highland Park and nearly all of their projects are located within Detroit city boundaries. (Respondents n=102)
 
When asked to rank the significance of various institutions to the success of their projects, “neighborhood” emerged as the top “very important” institution by seventy-one percent (71%) of innovators. On a similar note, seventy-eight percent (78%) of innovators responded that the most meaningful thing they can accomplish through their work is to help "Detroit residents take pride in their city,” closely followed by “build community.” On the flipside, “provide entertainment” and “make money” were least likely to be ranked as “very important." (Respondents n=75)
 
2.  Networking and building relationships are an innovator’s most essential skill sets.
 
An important goal of our data collection has been to understand the “who” and “how” of innovation in Detroit: Who are the people doing this work and how do they do it?
 
To begin to measure “how," we asked innovators to rank the importance of different skill sets to the success of their projects. “Building relationships” and “networking” were the top two skill sets identified by innovators as “very important,” with eighty-three percent (83%) and seventy-four percent (74%) response rates respectively. (Respondents n =75)
 
In a follow-up question, innovators rated their own level of adeptness for the same list of skill sets. Interestingly, innovators also claim to be most skilled at networking, with fifty-six percent (56%) indicating they are “very adept" at networking, and fifty-five percent (55%) “very adept” at building relationships. Skill sets perceived as less important and less expertly practiced included web design & development and data analysis. (Respondents n = 75)
 
This particular finding motivated our ongoing network analysis to better understand and visually map how innovators are connected through a system of support.
 
3. Innovators are social people!
 
One open-ended survey question prompted innovators to list organizations that were critical influences on their work and specify the type of support they offered. Our data mapped the ties between 110 UIX-featured projects and their collective collaborations with an impressive 429 other unique projects and organizations.
 
In other words, innovators are not working independently. To the contrary, they are highly collaborative.
 
We coded our data to identify 14 distinct types of support ties between these organizations.  The most common were: community partner; collateral project; funding, fiduciary or fiscal support; resource sharing; and office, meeting or event space. (Respondents n = 88)
 
In the sprawling ecosystem of over 500 projects and organizations, both UIX-profiled and outside collaborators, there is also a nested network that maps how UIX projects and their innovators access support between one another. Forty-nine percent (49%) of the sampled UIX projects are connected to each other and exchange resources within this local micro network.  (Respondents n = 88)
 
It is important to note that the survey sample has been curated by UIX using a definition of social innovation that is fluid and inclusive to diversity. Innovators voluntarily respond to survey questions and all analyses are kept anonymous. Currently, our support network captures a specific moment in time -- for many innovators, their surveys were conducted early in their work and we recognize that they may be operating at a different scale now.
 
While these analyses and findings remain preliminary, they offer valuable insights into the “who” and “how” of social innovation in Detroit, and prompt the new question: How can the UIX community strategize around place-based initiatives to best support and facilitate exchange between social innovators?
 
The findings also help shape D3’s next steps for data collection. In year three of the initiative, we aim to critically identify metrics to measure how innovators scale and sustain their projects, as well as how their support networks contract or expand as their projects mature.
 
We will be sharing our progress along the way, so check back soon for more insights into what we’re learning about social innovation in Detroit.  
 
Jessica McInchak is a researcher and analyst with Data Driven Detroit, dedicated to providing accessible, high-quality information and analysis to drive informed decision-making. Please direct any questions about the UIX survey and findings to jessica@datadrivendetroit.org.
 
Urban Innovation Exchange is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. For more information, visit http://knightfoundation.org.
 
Data visualizations by Data Driven Detroit
Photographs by Matthew Lewis and Claire Nelson


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