The Atlantic: What America Can Learn From Detroit


No major city in America has been hit harder by the recession than Detroit. Even before the recent near-total collapse in auto demand, the city had been decaying for decades. In the 1950s, its population was around 2 million; today it is less than 750,000.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a study tour (with the Emerging Leaders in Energy and Environmental Policy program) to discover how Detroit's businesses, non-profit foundations, and residents are working to bring the city back. I saw the vacant neighborhoods, the urban prairie where houses once were, and marveled that the average price for a four-bedroom home was only $48,000.

Superficially, it seems a stretch to look at Detroit as a model. But the long downturn that burned through the city's industry has made room for new green shoots that could grow the city back. My optimism about Detroit comes from the partnerships between universities, non-profit foundations, and entrepreneurs that incubating new companies and new industries. I saw three particular examples that of these burgeoning partnerships that can provide lessons for the rest of the country.

Tech Town is a small-business incubator based in Detroit's Midtown area. It connects scientific research being done at nearby Wayne State University with entrepreneurs who can monetize the new technologies. It also provides office space, business services, mentoring, and guidance to over 200 companies in industries ranging from human tissue sampling to web-design to hairdressing. Its success is founded on its location and its ties to the nearby research institution.

Next Energy, based across the street from Tech Town, is a non-profit company that provides support to alternative energy companies by linking them with potential funders and markets. One of its success stories was a cooperative venture between Titan Energy and the Defense Logistics Agency (of the U.S. Department of Defense) to develop an easily transportable solar power generator that is now being deployed with our troops in Afghanistan. Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing new industries in the country, but it is heavily dependent upon scientific research as it develops. Non-profits like Next Energy can provide crucial support to companies trying to commercialize the emerging discoveries.

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