In the fire of 1805, when the city of Detroit was reduced to a pile of ashes, Father Gabriel Richard pronounced what has now become the slogan of the city, “Meliora speramus; cineribus of resurget– “We hope for better times, and to rise again from the ashes.” The economic equivalent of being reduced to ashes may have occurred around 2008 and even now, as city goes through painful changes, it continues to inch upwards.
So what is the 21st century response to Father Richard’s call to action? Having recently returned from a German Marshall Fund trip to Turin, Italy, as part of the Detroit-Turin Partnership Program, I had the opportunity to consider what clues some of that city and surrounding region’s learning and accomplishments around critical public, private and philanthropic sector partnerships can do to inform our own efforts to advance Detroit’s fortunes.
Role of foundations versus role of elected officials:
In the recent times, the role of foundations have taken a stronger hand in efforts tohas become evident in resurrecting the city of Detroit. To criticize the administration is as easy as it is futile,, almost easy – to find solutions is challenging. The New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan represents a collaboration of ten local, regional and national foundations, including is has been demonstrated by several foundations in SE Michigan such as Kresge, Kellogg, Hudson-Weber and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. more. The “New Economy Initiative”that has helped launch multiple initiatives in the city aimed towardssupporting entrepreneurship, innovation, talent and more. In the city of Turin, Italy, foundation investment is also proving instrumental to economic revitalization. In Turin, which is also called the Detroit of Italy, Fiat once employed 100,000 people. Today, it has employs 5,000 or so, – but the city is vibrant, the region is strong. Compagnia di San Paolo of Turin, (or the Society of St. Paul) is one of the region’s largest foundations with more thanover $6 billion in assets. It has its stamp on every possible economic initiative you can imagine – but within these lines of support, you can see a master plan. In Turin as in Detroit, the foundation sector has not s have not criticized public officials or watched in mute disbelief, but has stepped up to be a part of the solution, making important investments that have helped to restore a fragile economic ecosystem.
Outcomes of a twenty-year master plan:
A major difference between Turin and Detroit is the Italian city’s achievement of a focused, long-term plan that they have stuck to over decades. Detroit has a lot to learn in that regard. Consider the following outcomes: in Turin there is an industrial complex, Lingotto, which was once the biggest car factory in the world. It now houses a convention center, concert hall, a multiplex, an art gallery, a shopping center and a hotel. One of the international food chains, “Eataly,” similar to Whole Foods, is bustling with activity. Today, Turin is home to one of the leading design companies (Giugiaro), energy startups, chocolate factories, coffee (Lavazza)–and, of course, an automotive sector still exists with Fiat’s major design center being based here. Strategy du jour versus sustained efforts– – the choice is clear. If we pick a path, how do we ensure that we stick to it? Oh, – grant us the tenacity to not keep wavering with every little change in the micro–cosmos!?
Alignment of forces versus ‘to each one his own’:
You can dismiss the ability to work together as some socialist ‘kumbaya’ complete with a grass skirt dance. But Turino’s know how to work well with each other. We all know that cCreative dissent promotes ideas, but push it too far and it becomesyou’ve got a turf war on your hands. But – not in Turin. The University, fthe Foundations and the local and regional leadership are allwere tightly aligned. The companies were soon to follow. It is likely that we may see a different order to the alignmentpath emerge in Detroit– – maybe Dan Gilbert’s efforts become the unifying force, for example. Or the New Economy Iniatiative’NEI’s leadership could play that role.brings alignment. The point is, the ‘wWho” doesn’t shouldn’t matter. but Iit’s painfully obvious – if we are misaligned due to our egos or insecurities, our future generations will suffer. After all, as poet Gwendolyn Brooks, wrote “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
Picking sectors versus following the market:
This point can be much debated ad infinitum and ad nauseam –- should the regional economic development forces pick a sector? Or should we follow the market direction? In Michigan, we first ignored the automotive sector, chased the sexy life sciences and now we maybe have come be back to a full circle. But if we pick one sector or two, believe in it and push it hard enough, we may become a hub. For example, in the historic Madison building in downtown Detroit, Twitter and a dozen other startups companies are teeming –- all technology startups learning a lesson or two from Josh Linkner or Compuware. In Kalamazoo, life sciences are is the pulse of the economy. What does Detroit want to be when we grow up?
The environment matters:
As much as 45% of waste in Italy is discarded in landfills, which is close to the EU average. A $400 million euro investment in Turin aims to reduce that number significantly. When I asked one of the local officials, how did they justify such a large investment, he looked at me like I was stupid, and then took a deep breath, “This air is something my grandchildren will breathe- – can you put a price onto it?” It was humbling. – Aacross the EU, the environmental metrics and social metrics were almost equal if not more highly prioritizeder than financial returns. The priority is right- – no amount of money can buy back a cleaner earth or water. To a confirmed capitalist pig like me, this was by far the biggest lesson of whatthe USA can learn from the EU. When I asked Mercedes Bresso, President of the EU Regions, on how the average EU resident individual is so tuned into the environment, I got that “you are stupid” look again., “We got it from the United States in the early sixties” she said.
Somewhere along the lines, we got distracted from our environmental goals. We had the data to confirm the social and economic benefits of a cleaner environmental, but it is yet another example of no lacking the political will and thenor long-term plans to come together behind. It is an example of – in more than one way, the broader EU community has succeeding in achieving a shared vision and sustaining it through steady, meaningful improvements. Just think what we could achieve with as a region if we followed this simple but bold path.