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Lessons from Detroit: a new city rises up

05 August 2013 | John Weigelt, National Technology Officer, Microsoft Canada

The city of Detroit made headlines in early July as city officials sought bankruptcy protection from creditors. Detroit is not the first U.S. city to file for bankruptcy protection, but it is the largest. Much like the fable of the frog in a slowly heating pot of water, it seems that this event was a long time in the making. While the ramifications of bankruptcy are still coming to light, it’s important to look at the positive opportunities that the decision enables along with the challenges that will no doubt be highlighted in the media. These positive opportunities for Detroit can be applied to cities everywhere.

Remember, it’s cyclical

If there’s one thing that history tells us is, it’s that fortune, good and bad, is cyclical. Sometimes cities are beset almost instantaneously by calamity—the explosion in Halifax, the Great Chicago Fire, and the San Francisco earthquake come to mind. In other cases, cities deal with catastrophes over long periods of time, as is the case in New Orleans on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. The cycles may span several years or even generations—consider the ancient cities of Rome or Athens, where the ebb and flow prominence and prosperity covers centuries. The historical lens of the past shows us that people band together to rebuild when things seem bleakest.

Embrace a new status quo
The population of the city of Detroit dropped from over 1.8 million people in the 1950s to now just over 700 thousand. This decline took place over a 50-year period, so like the poor frog in the pot, Detroit may have misinterpreted its situation. But being jolted away from the status quo gives government, residents, and the private sector an opportunity break from their existing frame of reference and look for different approaches to meet the needs of the city today and down the road. This moment for Detroit is beyond valuable. It may well be a fiscal call to action that motivates leaders to address systemic challenges, much as physical calamities have done in other cities.

Do new with less

Today’s Detroit is an object lesson of a city needing to do new with less. While the city’s residential tax base has steadily declined, it continues to occupy the same land area and remains accountable for traditional city services in its domain. Detroit must manage the same number of traffic lights, respond quickly to fires, maintain its fresh water systems, and continue to address fundamental services that citizens take for granted. Cities everywhere are looking for ways to be more effective in providing services on a limited budget. Being able to take a fresh look at how a city provides services can allow city leaders and residents to break the tethers of legacy thinking. Perhaps something small like the energy-saving Halifax LED street light project or something larger like Barcelona’s Innovative City Governance program provide the perspective other cities need to get started. Like those cities, Detroit needs to step away from a preconceived way of doing things to enable lasting change for the community.

So as we look ahead to the challenges faced by the world’s cities as well as those close to home, let’s take a lesson from Detroit, and seize our opportunities to build new communities of prosperity.

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John Weigelt
National Technology Officer, Microsoft Canada

Microsoft on Government Blog posts

About the Author

John Weigelt | National Technology Officer, Microsoft Canada

John drives Microsoft Canada’s strategic policy and technology efforts. He is the lead advocate for the use of technology by private and public sectors, economic development, innovation, environmental sustainability, accessibility, privacy, and security.