Cities Partner Insights

How Sharing, RoboCars, and 3D Printing Can Reinvent Industrial Detroit

Detroit skyline illustration via Shutterstock

Detroit skyline illustration via Shutterstock

By Bill Coughlin

“The age of the industrial city is over, at least in the West, and it will never return,” declared Edward Glaeser in his book “Triumph of the City.” Detroit, whose decline he blamed on the “extravagant success of Ford’s big idea” that “brought hundreds of thousands of less-well-educated workers to vast factories,” was Glaeser’s best evidence.

The Harvard economics professor might be right about Detroit’s past. But a Motor City renaissance is determined to prove him wrong about its future. And Detroit’s industrial character will almost certainly be the key to its rebirth.

Detroit has a lot going for it.  It has a huge landmass to work with, a virtually unlimited supply of fresh water (although collecting revenue from its distribution to residents remains problematic), four-season recreation, and tens of thousands of experienced automotive and other sorts of engineers working in or around Detroit. And in the last couple of years, the city’s downtown has become a magnet for tech-savvy entrepreneurs.

What’s missing is a solution for its surrounding neighborhoods and communities that doesn’t require simultaneous miracles in funding and reeducation. As President and CEO of Ford Global Technologies, I believe Detroit’s industrial base can—and should—supply the solution not only for Detroit’s reinvention, but for the reinvention of other industrial cities around the world.

I propose we invent Detroit 2.0 in the age of democratized robotics by leveraging our next generation of industrial innovations to redesign neighborhood communities around a repeatable core and shared assets. Specifically, I’m suggesting sharing RoboCars, robots, and 3D printers in the open-source lab we call Detroit to reinvent the industrial city.

Consider that robots are available today that can play with your children, scrub your floors while you sleep, and even work safely alongside you on the job. The manufacturer of that working robot, Rethink Robotics, has also proven that anybody can learn how to “program” a work robot like its Baxter within hours—no expensive college degree necessary. (Rodney Brooks spoke about Baxter at Techonomy 2012.)

Though fully robotic automobiles are still years away, once RoboCars are in production, neighborhood communities will be able to share. A new kind of taxi and truck driver will emerge—one more like today’s air-traffic controllers and drone operators. And retraining can be provided primarily through free or low-cost massive open online courses.

Ford logoAutomakers like Ford are also using sophisticated 3D printers to make functional parts to speed up the vehicle development process. 3D printers are not yet ready to replace high-volume manufacturing plants, but they could be shared by several businesses in the same neighborhood to print a wide variety of parts on demand.

And just like the advent of reproducible parts a century ago, 3D printers will transform manufacturing, beginning with speeding up product development. Importantly, anyone in the neighborhood can begin transforming ideas into prototypes with just a few hours of training. Just visit a local TechShop to experience what a difference a supportive community can make.

Imagine a neighborhood core that could be replicated around the city: the auditorium of a community center could be used at different times as a movie theatre, a church, a synagogue, and a classroom for MOOC lectures; the same community center building could house a TechShop with 3D printers and Baxter robots; offices could be reserved like hotel rooms for consultations with neighborhood bankers, lawyers, photographers; and everyone could come and go to the community center using a small fleet of self-driving cars. They would know a few roads, operate at neighborhood speeds, and could be remotely monitored or controlled by a human operator. Residential homes could also be redesigned for multigenerational human and robot cohabitation.

There is probably no city in America more ready for a rebirth, and no better place to invent the future that city dwellers need. I was born and raised within the City of Detroit, so I know that there is no shortage of people who work hard—and are aching for the chance to help build a better future for our city.  With a compelling vision to create a new city neighborhood from the ground up, and a diverse mix of companies where the American pioneering spirit still lives, Detroit will be able to exit bankruptcy with a reinvented industrialized neighborhood that would do the innovators at IDEO proud. Detroiters helping to build could earn their way with sweat equity, as well as earn from their work in the industry and services being provided from the neighborhood. And, of course, royalties could be earned from the inventive solutions brought to life by Detroit 2.0. Let’s get started!

Bill Coughlin is president and CEO of Ford Global Technologies.

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