Action Speaks Volumes: Lessons from Detroit's Urban Innovation Exchange

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune of visiting Detroit for the first Urban Innovation Exchange (UIXDET). Over a three-day period, more than 500 people from across the U.S. came together to share ideas, stories and lessons from the forefront of community transformation. I was delighted to participate in the Art of Place panel to present CoSign, a collaboration between the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation and the American Sign Museum that unites business owners, artists, designers and sign-makers to create unique storefront signage in neighborhood business districts throughout Greater Cincinnati.

Though the projects highlighted during the conference varied in size, scope and outcome—from pop-up art performances, to social barber shops, to tiny houses—there were several key insights discernible from the presenters at large. In an effort to better share, scale and replicate transformative work taking place throughout our region, I've compiled a few lessons heard from the sideline in Detroit (and experienced from the front line in Cincinnati).

Be opportunistic 

Joan Vorderbruggen from the Minneapolis-based Made Here knows what it takes to pull off a dynamic, city-wide event, and do so in a way that showcases local creative talent and highlights vacant storefronts in the process. Her secret? Right place, right time, right questions. Joan credited a simple inquiry to her neighborhood association as the key to her early success with the Artists in Storefronts project. Her neighborhood association had recently compiled a catalog of all the vacant properties within a specific district but had no plan for the data. Joan jumped on the opportunity and used this resource to her advantage, quickly turning a list of faceless addresses into vibrant storefront installations.

Flip the model

Erik Howard, founder of The Alley Project (TAP), knows how to transform blight into beauty. TAP engages youth in Southwest Detroit in positive acts of creative expression, turning empty alleys into colorful street art galleries. At it's core, TAP encourages street artists within the community to use their skills in a way that is legal, safe and in support of enhancing the neighborhood, rather than vandalizing it.

Keep it small and simple

Can a four-by-five-inch postcard breakdown stereotypes? Hunter Franks thinks so. The Neighborhood Postcard Project fosters community connection by encouraging individuals to share positive, personal stories about their neighborhood via snail mail. The project—started in San Francisco last spring—demonstrates how small, person-to-person gestures can often lead to surprising, wider-scale change over time.

All considered, the presentations and site visits at UIXDET were extremely insightful. However, I found the most valuable takeaway to be the sideline discussions with so many bright attendees. It’s no surprise people are hungry for opportunities to connect and learn from one another. My experience in Detroit reminded me of such.

On a personal note, while I always enjoy visiting our sister-city to the north—it was my home for quite some time, after all—I returned from the trip inspired by the myriad of opportunities I see in Cincinnati. I expect there will be more reasons for Cincinnati to share notes with our regional neighbors in the near future, and perhaps even do so on home turf.

Moreover, I was reminded that social/cultural/civic change always starts small and usually quite simply. There is no shortage of good ideas for cities, but ideas will remain as such until brave individuals step up, step out and move them forward.

In Cincinnati, we have the talent, we have the assets, we have the champions and we have the resources to invent amazing. Let's share it with the world. And keep building. Onward we go.

To learn about more projects featured at the event, check out 13 ideas for your city from the first-ever Urban Innovation Exchange.
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Megan Deal is program director at People's Liberty, where she oversees the design residency and internal innovation programs. Megan's past work includes the development of PieLab–a restaurant and cultural hub in Greensboro, Ala.; and D:hive–a talent attraction and retention storefront in downtown Detroit. Megan lectures frequently on the role citizens can play in designing the future of our cities. A Detroit transplant, Megan presently lives in Findlay Market with her red bicycle.