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Michigan Business & Economy

The Next Idea’s parting words: Believe in your idea. It might just help move Michigan forward.

"We have all the parts to build a powerful economic engine, but they need to be connected and synchronized," UM's "Dean of Innovation" Jeff DeGraff says.
"We have all the parts to build a powerful economic engine, but they need to be connected and synchronized," UM's "Dean of Innovation" Jeff DeGraff says.

The Next Idea

 

In late November of 2014, Michigan Radio’sStatesidebegan a series calledThe Next Idea. With support from theMichigan Economic Development Corporationand a team that included the University of Michigan’s “Dean of Innovation”Jeff DeGraffand Executive ProducerJoe Linstroth, the project’s mission was to focus on innovation, creativity and ideas meant to move Michigan forward.

 

In essays and interviews, we met Michigan inventors and entrepreneurs, teachers, artists, scientists, farmers, business people, experts, and just regular citizens who decided to think outside the box to make their state and their communities better.

Three-plus years later, what have we learned?Innovation

 

The Next Idea has considered thenature of innovation, how to tap into our owncreativity, and how totransformthose ideas into the tangible - a business, an invention, social change.

Once created, these ideas need to befundedin order to grow. Our Next Idea contributors have encouraged us to draw inspiration frompastinnovators, and those from othercultures. But they’ve also encouraged us to question the idea that innovation is solely the domain of technically-oriented white men.Other voiceshave contributions of value, and many of our contributors stressed the need for  safe,affordablespaces where they can be heard andshareideas. This not only meansrecognizingdifferences, it also means fostering the creative conflict and thediversity that grows innovation,and allows the best new ideas to emerge. That “churn” is essential for new and better ideas to emerge.

 

Research and design

 

Perhaps because of Michigan’s rich history ofdesign, our residents still have a passion for the creation of useful and beautiful things, fromkidstomomsto guys working in theirhome shops. But we’re also designing ways to help people learn —across disciplines, and using technology in ways previouslyunimagined. Michigan will need to bring that innovative spirit into redesigning our crucial systems to be environmentally and economicallysustainable, particularly in the spheres ofbusinessandinfrastructure. Many of our most innovative minds believe that good design practices of many kinds can help us avoid the calamities of our boom-and bust past.

 

Manufacturing

 

So, what about producing the things we’vecreated? There’s no question thatmanufacturing in Michiganis undergoing enormous change. The necessity of bringing the linked technologies ofIndustry 4.0to our factories seems to be one of the biggest requirements to keep us competitive. We may also need to rethink some of our beliefs about whatconstitutes a good joband how wevalue“the making of things.” And our greatest unknown will be one we’ve faced for centuries - what effects changing technology will have in the future, the extent to which that willdisplace human workers, and the potentially societalchangesthat result.   

Entrepreneurship and investment

Michigan’s business and political communities are working to better support budding entrepreneurs, but we still have a long way to go. Many of our contributors have stressed the importance of educating aspiring business owners to avoid common pitfalls andoverstretch themselves financially. One way to do that is to offer free or low-cost community programs that allow people tostart smallwith their business dreams, then assess whether they want to enlarge their operations.

 

Investment ingrowing startupsseems to be slowly improving, butcapital of many kindsneeds to flow more freely to nurture the business ecosystem. Michigan also shares in the nationwide talent shortage, lacking qualified technical professionals and experienced business managers who can take small companies to the next level. The state has often been considered “fly over” territory forinvestors, but people from Michigan, and even outside of it, are encouraging a focus away from the coasts and onto thestrengths of places like our state. Capital and mentoring are still scarce forwomen,Latinx, andpeople of color, but innovations likemicrolending,hands-on learning, and bettersupport systemsare bolstering gains in those areas.

Education

 

On a national andstatelevel, education is under considerable scrutiny, from how wetrainandtreatour teachers, to the health of ourpublic schools, to the importance of acollege degreeand how tofund it. Our contributors stressed the importance ofinteractive learning,mentorship, and opportunities for kids to see adultprofessionalswho “look like them.” In a relatively short time, programs encouraging girls and women (especially those of color) to pursueSTEM careershave taken off. College students seem to be taking a more activementoring/messagingrole. And libraries are rising to the challenge of helping a stretched educational system by offeringexpanded lending materials, and bringing services to peoplewhere they are.

 

Despite ample evidence that the arts facilitatelearningand foster thecreativeskills that germinate innovation, arts programs inschoolsare often the first programs to getcut. But many in the arts community continue tofind waysto enrich lives andempowerpeople from many backgrounds, whether or not the money is there to do it.

Mobility

 

Yes, we know - the innovation of the future isautonomous vehicles,autonomous vehicles,autonomous vehicles. But how will such a massive change take place when we can’t even address the sorry state of theroadsand bridges those vehicles must travel? And while our corporate and governmental institutions tout this futuristic vision, we are still disappointingly poor at providing basic, functional mobility for working class people who rely on public transportation,walking, andbikesto get where they need to be.

Medicine

 

Big dataand small screens are helping to revolutionize how wepreventand treat disease, recover fromaddiction, andreduce pain and distress. Again, what wecando with technology is often worlds away from what isavailabletodisadvantaged residentsin terms of treatment and cost.

Environment and agriculture

 

Michiganders have embraced alternative energy with enthusiasm and seem eager to move it forward. Whether it’s the importance of tourism, our desire to protect ourGreat Lakesfrom pollution, or a combination of influences, it seems the state will continue to pursue clean energy regardless of national policies and opinions. The diversity of innovative energy solutions is impressive, including ideas forreduction,renewable power,new generating systems, and using existing systems inpracticalandunusualways.

We are also actively pursuing better technology and systems to bring us our food and water. The Flint crisis has forced us to start working on how we provide water inlargeandsmallways. We're also trying to improve ourfood systems— towaste less, to be better for theenvironment, to use produce that’s growncloser to home, and to reach the “food deserts” in our cities. At the same time, Michigan’sbeerandwineculture has become wildly successful — illustrating the truism that “fun” innovations often seem to get more public buy-in than those that attempt to solve thorny, sober problems.

 

Diversity

 

Nationally and in Michigan, diversity seems to be an increasingly fraught concept. Despiteoldandnewevidence that highly diverse communities are more innovative and productive, there are still social, legal, andtechnologicalbarriers forimmigrants,women,people of color,Native Americans,disabledpersons, those in theLGBTQcommunity,Muslims, and evenveterans. Some Michiganders are trying to face questions around racehead-on, while some look topasteras of social strife for clues. Universities are encouraging collaboration between people of diversedisciplinesand trying to make surecommunity voicesare heard in the academic world.

Leadership 

 

Many of our contributors agreed that government is in sore need of innovation -structurally,philosophically, andfinancially. Partisanship andincivilityfeeds the dysfunction and sometimes leads to weak citizeninvolvementbecause people feel irrelevant to theprocess- especiallyyoung people.

 

As government safety net services are reduced, picking up the slack increasingly rests on thephilanthropiccommunity. They are assessing what the potential effects will be of an enormous transfer of generational wealth in the coming years, and wondering what growingincome inequalitywill mean, both for charities and the services they will be asked to provide.

 

Detroit

 

The future of Michigan is very much wrapped up in the future of Detroit, even thoughGrand Rapidsis increasingly a strong economic player in the state. Everyone seems to have an idea about how Detroit should berevitalized. Some see the city as an exciting “clean slate” forexperimentation, and some point to cultural values gleaned from its richhistoryas providing the foundation from which Detroit moves into the future. It’s only natural that sometimes the city willcompareitself to other places, but that’s not always aconstructive thing. What seems to be a strong takeaway from many of our contributors is that Detroit’s renewal must be about its people and its neighborhoods, and aboutsmall businessesas well aslargeones.

Community 

 

At the end of the day (literally), what have we been working for? Ourplacein the world: our homes, our friends, our families. We want to come home to ourneighborhoodsand be sheltered, fed, warmed, and nurtured. We want our houses to befunctional. We want to not live infearof what goes on inabandoned buildingsandempty lots.We want to be able toraise children away from poverty. We fear beinghomelessand without alivelihood. We want toinvestin our neighborhoods.

 

The Next Idea shared so many stories of people workinginformallyand within organizations to make their neighborhoods better in a myriad of ways,donating time,volunteering, or justmeeting over a mealto talk about what matters to them. But often it seems that outside forces shape our neighborhoods more than the people who live there, despite efforts likethis one. Time after time in our interviews and essays, people said the same thing - if you want an effort to be successful, ask the community members what they needbefore you decide what that isand drop it on them.

 

The other consistent trend is the problem of housing — a severe lack of reasonably-priced, functional dwellings. We desperately need innovation in providingaffordablehousing. Our leaders seem more inclined to pay businesses to locate in a place than tohelp the residents there stay in their homes. Perhaps because of so many advances in computer technology, we forget that each human being requires a requisite amount of food, water, shelter, oxygen and energy. We may findcommunity online, but our human animal can’t live inside our screens.

 

So, what's the last Next Idea?There is no limit to innovation, but we all need a starting point. The Next Idea may be winding down, but Michigan will still need “next ideas” from innovators to face the challenges that lie ahead. That’s where you come in. Click on a link in this essay. Listen to some of the people we’ve talked to —maybe join them in their efforts, or build on their ideas. Think big, but also think about how we bring these ideas all of Michigan’s citizens, not just the fortunate few. We hope The Next Idea will inspire you to begin your own innovation journey, for the good of your community and your state.

 

Melissa Ingells Benmark is a contributing producer to The Next Idea.

 A goodbye from The Next Idea.

 

The Next Ideais Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

Join the conversation onTwitterorFacebook, or let us know your Next Ideahere.

(Subscribe to The Next Idea podcast oniTunes, or with thisRSS link.)

 

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