Detroit is Flat

The sky is falling and Lou Glazer knows it.

Behind him and above him dark storm clouds are fast approaching. He looks up from the center of a pretty green park in downtown Plymouth and says, “We can make it, there’s still time.” He’s here for an interview and a photo shoot, something he says he’s never comfortable doing. Soon, the town square will be deluged with sheets of rain and hail, the air charged with lightning and thunderclaps. But Glazer doesn’t flinch.

Glazer is an urban planning theorist who says Michigan must alter the way it thinks about itself if it is to remain competitive in a rapidly changing global economy. For the past two hours he’s been talking about the importance of looking at things as they really are. Now he’s being tested by the elements, and he’s holding his own.

Glazer is curious, however, about one little detail: “Should I smile?” he asks the photographer. “I never know whether I should or shouldn’t.”

The question is an appropriate one from a man who in 2006 delivered what could stand as one of the most important economic development documents the state has known. Glazer is the president of Michigan Future Inc., a think tank based in Ann Arbor that published "A New Agenda for a New Michigan," a 30-page report that pulls no punches in saying that the industrial age that helped shaped the state’s history is over. As in dead and gone forever. R.I.P.

“People must understand this fundamental point,” says Glazer, a native Detroiter whose family moved to Southfield in the early 1960s. “The decline in the state’s economy is not cyclical, not something that will bounce back in time. This is something that was apparent to us 20 years ago, but leadership in government and industry did not want to hear that message. They are beginning to hear it now. But now there is no other choice. (We must) stop living in the past, embrace the future. There is no other option.”

Aligning Michigan with the 'Flat World'

When Glazer talks about the state of Michigan’s economy he chooses his words carefully. They tumble out of his mouth deliberately, as if each one needs to be taken with grave seriousness. Indeed, those whose lives are defined by the region’s rich automotive heritage might construe his message as heretical and apocalyptic. Say the word Detroit in nearly every corner of the world and the city’s relationship to car manufacturing is usually the first association people make. It’s a powerful legacy, but one that Glazer says must be set aside if the region is to survive, let alone remain competitive in the global marketplace.

“All you need to do is open your eyes to the fact that the industrial world is disappearing,” he says. “I’m talking about realities, not just projections.”

Glazer keeps company with some of the heaviest hitters in regional development. While Glazer says that he and his colleagues at Michigan Future Inc. are “not philosopher kings,” the poetic language he uses when he speaks and writes suggests otherwise.

He talks of seeing “what is, not what we think should be,” the need for “new narratives” and the “acceleration of creative destruction.” Glazer says we must reinvent local and regional culture so it is “aligned with the flat world.”

That last concept comes from Thomas Friedman’s best-selling 2005 book called The World is Flat. The New York Times columnist writes about the 10 forces that he says, “flattened the world,” meaning the accelerated social and technological changes that took place after the proliferation of cell phones, the Internet, open source software and other means of electronic communication pushed the information age into hyper drive.

“Leading edge communities have knowledge-driven and entrepreneurial economies,” Glazer says. “Michigan’s economic growth has been slower than the nation’s growth for more than three decades. We were once a leading edge community — but that was 100 years ago, when we seized upon the innovation of the day, and became the world’s automotive manufacturing center.

“But we are losing ground fast.”

Human resources

But to become an economic powerhouse like Detroit — which Glazer says was perhaps “too successful” by becoming reliant on one monolithic industry and lacking economic diversity — is easier rhapsodized and theorized than actually done. But how is it done? Glazer has a one-word answer: “talent.”

In the recent report, Glazer defines talent as a “combination of knowledge, creativity and entrepreneurship. The places with the greatest concentrations of talent win.”

The report quotes Forbes Magazine Publisher Rich Karlgaard, who says, “The most valuable natural resource in the 21st century is brains. Smart people tend to be mobile. Watch where they go. Because where they go, robust economic activity will follow.”

Glazer says Michigan needs to keep its talented young people in the state, rather than see them exported to areas of creative concentration like California, Chicago, New York and elsewhere.

“Successful cities are distinguished by being younger and more affluent,” he says. “What keeps them there? It’s quality of life, a multicultural make up in the central city, and neighborhoods with entrepreneurial spirit and intellectual (vigor). We can’t be wonkish about this fact: the populations in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are aging — even Florida has a greater concentration of young people than we do. We have to, we must, care about this.” 
A 'New' Michigan

In "A New Agenda for a New Michigan," Glazer lists ways that the state can prepare itself for the economic realities of a post-industrial world.

• The top priority, unsurprisingly, is to prepare, retain and attract talent.

• Resist the pressure to save jobs and enterprises that are no longer competitive.

• A cultural shift that instills a love of learning that begins in K-12 education and lasts a lifetime, critical in a world where economic growth is driven by knowledge and innovation.

• Kindling entrepreneurial spirit. Meaning: not only starting up new businesses, but a rejection of thinking of employment as a long-term entitlement. Instead, competition and constant reinvention of one’s career would become the norm.

• Be welcoming to everyone. Successful places attract people from all over the planet. Outsiders are important to the economic and social mix. We must develop a culture that celebrates diversity and nurtures tolerance.

Glazer says that for the state to prosper, metropolitan Detroit and, to a lesser degree, Grand Rapids must become the “main drivers of a prosperous Michigan.”

Most importantly, the vital lifeblood of those cities must be districts that are dense, safe and walkable; a mix of commercial and residential properties, with an active arts and entertainment scene.

To make this happen Michigan Future Inc. proposed, in an earlier study called Revitalizing Michigan’s Central Cities, that government play a major role by providing quality public services at a reasonable cost and by being development friendly.

“Government can improve infrastructure, and create the right environment for creative serendipity to occur,” says Glazer, who cut his teeth working for SEMTA — an agency that was the forerunner for the SMART transportation system — in the 1970s and was Gov. James Blanchard’s deputy director of Commerce from 1983 to 1990. Former State Sen. Doug Ross, Dwight Carlson and Glazer started Michigan Future in 1991.

“Government in Michigan needs to first recognize how the economic realities are changing,” he says. “They’re now starting to get it.”

Over under sideways down

Illustrating just how it is changing, he compares what we commonly refer to as “climbing the ladder” to what he calls a far more appropriate and applicable action in today’s new economy: rock climbing.

“To be successful you have to have the ability to spot opportunities when they arise and turn them to your advantage,” Glazer says. “It’s no longer a linear path to success. Sometimes you have to move sideways, sometimes down, in order to react to the crevice.”

But Glazer also wants to create a new style of leadership for the region, he says, and “build a constituency with clout.”

“People with talent is the ingredient we need the most,” he says. “The paper ('A New Agenda for a New Michigan') is a vehicle to help create that leadership, and help build a movement.”

Before you begin thinking Glazer’s message veers too close to the messianic or is preaching only to usual choirs, think again.

“It’s a waste of time to deliver the message to people who already know the story,” he says. “It turns people off. They don’t need to hear it because they are already part of the solution. We need to reach a new audience, build new human assets, change the conversation.”

Glazer looks out the window that opens up to the park where in a few moments he will smile — or not — for the photographer.

“In a post-industrial Detroit, in a post-Katrina New Orleans we have to find new ways to think and act. That sounds less apocalyptic,” he says, glancing out the window and seeing what’s coming. A smile crosses his face. “It’s going to rain. I better get out there.”  

To read Michigan Future Inc.'s report, "A New Agenda for a New Michigan,"
click here.


Wayne State University's New Welcome Center

Lou Glazer by Walter Wasacz

Next Energy

One Kennedy Square

Mosaic Youth Theatre

Detroit Bus at Grand Circus Park

All Other Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.