(Article changed on July 24, 2013 at 10:33)
Detroit: An American Tragedy or an opportunity to transform our urban cities
By Ali M. Hangan
When I read the headline Detroit is filing bankruptcy, I was immediately reminded of the ruins of the Roman coliseum that still stand in the heart of modern day Rome. The tragedy that is the city of Detroit can be an opportunity to forge a new vision for the modern American city.
Urban leaders must come to grips with the reality that the American economic base is rapidly shifting away from humans making products and realigning to digitally based service economy. Our Federal Government has budgeted billions of dollars for 2014 in the development of 3D printing and programmable manufacturing robots like Baxter developed by robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks, signals the end of human involvement in much of mass production in the not too distant future. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fastest growing industries are in health, science and technology and cities need to aggressively look to attract and cultivate these industries to their downtown centers.
Even if large cities are able to attract more innovative industries, they too must be innovative in the way city government delivers and manages city services. In the era of heighten expectations for service, innovative industries and the workforce that may follow, will demand a more responsive government. A paper out of the Harvard Kennedy school by Gigi Georges, Tim Glynn-burke, and Andrea McGrath suggest cities look to the tech sector and entrepreneurs to develop more innovative mechanism in government. The paper highlights Boston, New York and Denver as case studies, but Detroit in is advanced stages of decay, may offer a cleaner slate for innovation and taking risks with new ideas, for a more efficient delivery of government services.
Cities need to incubate a more innovative workforce. The challenge to train a workforce may prove to be expensive in the midst of a crumbling, public school infrastructure. Cities should offer incentives to entice and encourage the development and use of Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) as they may offer a low cost solution for training a local workforce for the needs of local industry. In a recent article in USA Today, MOOCS are expanding in universities around the country and the top 10 universities have embraced the new learning format. Despite some early disheartening data on the completion rates of MOOCS, they offer a promise of training a workforce with modern skills to work in emerging industries more efficiently than attempting to reform post high school institutions.
Transforming a city for the modern economy can be a challenge for city leaders especially when confronting the realities of entrenched political interests, but voters should demand from candidates a new vision for sustaining their city that is aligned to the modern economy.
Detroit, as in many large urban cities, will be difficult to transform for sure, but the bankruptcy of Detroit offers us a cautionary lesson: adapt to the new economic realities or face same fate as the ancient monoliths of the Roman Empire
Ali Hangan, is a Desert Storm Veteran, former city commissioner and High School economics teacher in Pomona, California.