What do you do when you encounter something that you don't immediately understand? For me, the question first conjures an image of my family’s first computer, acquired in the late 1980s. I recall my childhood self reaching for the instructions and tapping in lines of copied code into the terminal to explore the operating system. Computer manuals, in that era, invited a curious user to change the way a machine worked.
I’m a native Michigander. I grew up in an immigrant household in the metro area. When I moved to Detroit in 2000, there was no cheerful welcome center, no Model D, no manicured waterfront, no popular appetite for social impact as we define it today, no creative capital stimulus, no tech incubation, no $4 lattes, and no talk of $100 houses. No instructions. There certainly was no evidence of the ubiquitous “blank canvas” myth, either. Whether disenfranchised or not, 25 percent or more people lived in Detroit over a decade ago than they do now.
Back then, I saw an opportunity to build relationships and learn more. Meeting with Citizen District Councils gave me insight into the role that neighborhood anchors play in communities. Working directly inside Detroit Public Schools opened my eyes to the complexity the education system. I also experienced things I still can't quite unpack, like the time I had a gun held to my forehead outside of my home. Or how the original Motown offices were demolished to make room for Super Bowl XL parking, with cultural artifacts reduced to streetside flotsam and jetsam.
A lot has changed since those days, but one thing remains constant: Detroit seems to be in relentless search of the right plan to lead the way. Can a city rely on a singular, scripted manual? I find that it’s unrealistic to expect people to live as if you could open a box, read the instructions, dump out the parts, and put them into a prescribed motion on a preset game board. It's even more incomprehensible to imagine people trying to play this metaphorical game if they can’t understand the instructions, let alone find where the game box is stored. People care the most about places, products, and processes when they authentically influence what’s included in the recipe. The cities that provide such opportunities are the ones most likely to lead in the future.
This is why I work in Detroit to build bridges and convene people around the collaborative creation of transformative tools.
A story that I’m proud of is about how my company, The Work Department, helped create a community-based framework with Allied Media Projects
. In 2009, at the same time the city was struggling with a 27 percent unemployment rate , we secured a $1.8 million fund as part of President Obama’s early digital literacy initiatives with the National Telecommunications & Information Administration. In concert with New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the U.S. Department of State
, and diverse Detroit grassroots communities, The Work Department
practiced human-centered design to build what was first called the Neighborhood Planning Platform, then Neighborhood Operating Manual, and finally the Commotion Construction Kit
. The program expanded into Detroit’s Community Technology Project and in Red Hook, Brooklyn and since used in disaster response during Superstorm Sandy
. This work currently shapes international Internet policy development overseas. It also feeds into the new Resilient Communities program which will lead New York City’s Economic Development Corporation’s RISE:NYC
to demonstrate and promote equitable social innovation.
This the opportunity in Detroit -- to create and embrace even more participatory systems that build upon community assets and encourage iterative design.
From my experience of watching a platform or "kit" grow into so much more, I've learned that it's possible to design and facilitate co-creative processes that combine approaches from the “top down” and “bottom up.” And either way requires a lot of intention, organization, time, and trust. It's less about an immediate or dramatic effect and more about the increase of impact. Places become cities with a functioning civic life when all people find a happy, healthy, and safe home within a complex web of intersecting pieces of infrastructure, both seen and unseen. A city can be imagined as a process that involves the talents of its engaged people to create a flexible sort of organism.
Perhaps there’s more meaningful potential in the current wave of Detroit’s revitalization. What would happen if we committed to even more intentional collaboration? What do accessible interfaces look like? Remember, an interface isn’t just part of an app, it can be a park, community center, or social process. Tools only become useful when people use them. It's a creative science.
Mimicking what works in other cities, from Berlin to Brooklyn, is not enough. Detroit should explore how it can export and exchange its ideas with these places This is already happening in fields as diverse as urban agriculture and collaborative design.
Smart plans make social impact when you put people first. There's no shortage of stories like Young Nation and Create Northeast Detroit (NED),
where grassroots leaders are listening to and working with their fellow neighbors, block by block, to nourish equitable, resident-led development.
The Work Department works to make complex ideas and resources more readily accessible and foster inclusive design conversations, especially with historically marginalized communities. Most recently, we helped Detroit Future City to develop A Field Guide: Working with Lots
, a resourse that has the potential to model the future of vacant land in Detroit.
Could we consider an opportunity to find common ground among many diverse manuals? Resiliency requires layers of communication that keep people and processes in collaboration with one another as circumstances change, like our human bodies or computer operating systems. When people work together, more potential is revealed. In the spirit of a message we recently created alongside parents for Detroit Head Start, I think we’re ready to step into a new path. It’s little steps for the long run.
Nina Bianchi (@NinaFuture) is a partner at The Work Department, a design studio that uses human-centered and participatory design. They empower businesses and organizations to more effectively carry out their missions and realize greater impact. Nina dedicates her work to building partnerships, both locally and internationally, that unlock better ways that people can learn, grow, and shape the future together.
Illustration by Michael Burdick.