In late November of 2014, Michigan Radio’s Stateside began a series called The Next Idea. With support from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and a team that included the University of Michigan’s “Dean of Innovation” Jeff DeGraff and Executive Producer Joe 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?
Once created, these ideas need to be funded in order to grow. Our Next Idea contributors have encouraged us to draw inspiration from past innovators, and those from other cultures. But they’ve also encouraged us to question the idea that innovation is solely the domain of technically-oriented white men. Other voices have contributions of value, and many of our contributors stressed the need for safe, affordable spaces where they can be heard and share ideas. This not only means recognizing differences, it also means fostering the creative conflict and the diversity 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 of design, our residents still have a passion for the creation of useful and beautiful things, from kids to moms to guys working in their home shops. But we’re also designing ways to help people learn — across disciplines, and using technology in ways previously unimagined. Michigan will need to bring that innovative spirit into redesigning our crucial systems to be environmentally and economically sustainable, particularly in the spheres of business and infrastructure. 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.
So, what about producing the things we’ve created? There’s no question that manufacturing in Michigan is undergoing enormous change. The necessity of bringing the linked technologies of Industry 4.0 to 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 what constitutes a good job and how we value “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 will displace human workers, and the potentially societal changes that 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 and overstretch themselves financially. One way to do that is to offer free or low-cost community programs that allow people to start small with their business dreams, then assess whether they want to enlarge their operations.
Investment in growing startups seems to be slowly improving, but capital of many kinds needs 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 for investors, but people from Michigan, and even outside of it, are encouraging a focus away from the coasts and onto the strengths of places like our state. Capital and mentoring are still scarce for women, Latinx, and people of color, but innovations like microlending, hands-on learning, and better support systems are bolstering gains in those areas.
On a national and state level, education is under considerable scrutiny, from how we train and treat our teachers, to the health of our public schools, to the importance of a college degree and how to fund it. Our contributors stressed the importance of interactive learning, mentorship, and opportunities for kids to see adult professionals who “look like them.” In a relatively short time, programs encouraging girls and women (especially those of color) to pursue STEM careers have taken off. College students seem to be taking a more active mentoring/messaging role. And libraries are rising to the challenge of helping a stretched educational system by offering expanded lending materials, and bringing services to people where they are.
Despite ample evidence that the arts facilitate learning and foster the creative skills that germinate innovation, arts programs in schools are often the first programs to get cut. But many in the arts community continue to find ways to enrich lives and empower people from many backgrounds, whether or not the money is there to do it.
Yes, we know - the innovation of the future is autonomous vehicles, autonomous vehicles, autonomous vehicles. But how will such a massive change take place when we can’t even address the sorry state of the roads and 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, and bikes to get where they need to be.
Big data and small screens are helping to revolutionize how we prevent and treat disease, recover from addiction, and reduce pain and distress. Again, what we can do with technology is often worlds away from what is available to disadvantaged residents in 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 our Great Lakes from 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 for reduction, renewable power, new generating systems, and using existing systems in practical and unusual ways.
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 in large and small ways. We're also trying to improve our food systems — to waste less, to be better for the environment, to use produce that’s grown closer to home, and to reach the “food deserts” in our cities. At the same time, Michigan’s beer and wine culture 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.
Nationally and in Michigan, diversity seems to be an increasingly fraught concept. Despite old and new evidence that highly diverse communities are more innovative and productive, there are still social, legal, and technological barriers for immigrants, women, people of color, Native Americans, disabled persons, those in the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and even veterans. Some Michiganders are trying to face questions around race head-on, while some look to past eras of social strife for clues. Universities are encouraging collaboration between people of diverse disciplines and trying to make sure community voices are heard in the academic world.
Many of our contributors agreed that government is in sore need of innovation - structurally, philosophically, and financially. Partisanship and incivility feeds the dysfunction and sometimes leads to weak citizen involvement because people feel irrelevant to the process - especially young people.
As government safety net services are reduced, picking up the slack increasingly rests on the philanthropic community. They are assessing what the potential effects will be of an enormous transfer of generational wealth in the coming years, and wondering what growing income inequality will mean, both for charities and the services they will be asked to provide.
The future of Michigan is very much wrapped up in the future of Detroit, even though Grand Rapids is increasingly a strong economic player in the state. Everyone seems to have an idea about how Detroit should be revitalized. Some see the city as an exciting “clean slate” for experimentation, and some point to cultural values gleaned from its rich history as providing the foundation from which Detroit moves into the future. It’s only natural that sometimes the city will compare itself to other places, but that’s not always a constructive 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 about small businesses as well as large ones.
At the end of the day (literally), what have we been working for? Our place in the world: our homes, our friends, our families. We want to come home to our neighborhoods and be sheltered, fed, warmed, and nurtured. We want our houses to be functional. We want to not live in fear of what goes on in abandoned buildings and empty lots. We want to be able to raise children away from poverty. We fear being homeless and without a livelihood. We want to invest in our neighborhoods.
The Next Idea shared so many stories of people working informally and within organizations to make their neighborhoods better in a myriad of ways, donating time, volunteering, or just meeting over a meal to 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 like this 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 need before you decide what that is and 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 providing affordable housing. Our leaders seem more inclined to pay businesses to locate in a place than to help 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 find community 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.
The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.