Door of a roofless warehouse in North Corktown.
In the last couple weeks of my Fall/Winter sojourn to the City formerly known as "Motor," I began a conversation with an executive on the City side of the Detroit Works Project (DWP), the city's privately-funded strategic planning process underway since 2010. We talked about how to take the findings of the as-yet unreleased report--to their next stage of experimental implementation in support of resilient growth. The work of mainly outside consultants overseen by Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) and the DWP Steering Committee, when released in January the report will suggest routes to growth informed by the City's assets and liabilities (as reported from a series of community "listening" forums, a comprehensive inventory of taxable lands, and the state of social institutions and infrastructure needed to stitch it all together). "What an exciting time in Detroit!" was my general response as I listened to and later read about what could come next.
The DEGC VP who shared all of this with me asked that I put together a plan for segueing from report findings to pilot implementation, as part of my application for a longer-term role in the new "skunkworks" -type office that would organize and lead these pilots. I gladly obliged, drawing on what knowledge I'd gained by closely studying, writing about, and helping formulate infrastructure pilot projects in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I distilled the lessons in a preamble on the nature of pilot projects, a reflection worth reproducing here:
"First, successful pilot projects put something good in the ground fast, rapidly disrupting a status quo that isn’t yielding good results. They are not business as usual. They shouldn’t be perfect or very expensive, or require extravagant administrative apparatuses to prop them up—they should be NOW. A private sector tool, they are born of contexts where product improvement is driven by a profit imperative, and where managers and staff are held accountable to demonstrate possible roads to [usually] single column, bottom line growth. Pilot projects do not often interact in the general market—either for procurement or sales. Good pilots know what outcomes they mean to spur and what they’re trying to test, but are also patient, holding aside deep evaluation and fine-tuning for a specified time, when adequate data has been gathered and analyzed.
"When centrally led in cities, the speed and boundary blurring required to accomplish them can grate against existing departments’ processes. But if you take up and defend them for what good they will accomplish for a city, the same grating is a major source of their magic. Still, some obvious adjustments are required for context suitability. For instance, rather than a single (financial) bottom line imperative, municipal pilot projects should be informed by social, environmental, and fiscal health indicators. Accordingly, when setting up pilot projects that would aim for “healthier” outcomes, we set goals from all three categories, and evaluate their progress along each. Secondly, in cities we have to grapple a little differently with what it means and costs to “disrupt the status quo,” because we’re usually carrying a lot of overhead to reproduce it (see union-protected job descriptions, long-term procurement contracts, complacency, etc.). And so, pilot projects in the public sector can be met with resistance by people who are afraid of losing something they value—their sense of place even—if change happens NOW. Sadly, resistance can form even when many agree that change is needed. In our case of abundant, verifiable evidence that the status quo isn’t working, attempts to forge bold new ways shouldn’t encounter protests they can’t quiet with the resonant and simple: “We’re trying to build a resilient Detroit, for the future,” moral high ground-type response. But in the demonstration period we also need to plot steps—chiefly in staffing, procurement, and constituency engagement—to protect experiments from such pitfalls. Sometimes this means finding meaningful roles for would-be resistors, bringing them into the heart of the process. Finally, and related, in the absence of profit-sharing as a motivator for innovation, project leadership should have a previously-demonstrated commitment to pioneering, demonstrating, and/or defending innovative city-fixing strategies. And accordingly, they should have acolytes/fans/a chorus of followers. Each project should have a likable personality, create buzz, be as closely watched as petri dishes in a 2nd grade science project. Seriously!"
be the city you wish to see. ask me how!