Cities Learning Society

Making Detroit a Movement: The Power of Narrative

Building a narrative for Detroit

What if we built a narrative for Detroit? Could it become a movement?  (Image via Shutterstock)

The article below has elicited enthusiasm in Detroit and beyond, and as we’ve finalized our Techonomy Detroit program for Sept. 15, we invited Hagel to make his case onstage as our closing session. Following that, a panel of Detroiters and the entire audience will brainstorm what it takes to take Detroit’s narrative, and the movement it can inspire, to the next level.

Throughout history, certain cities at certain moments in time have had an outsized impact: on the surrounding region, but also on the culture, the politics, and the economy of the greater country and society of which they are a part. Consider Athens or Florence or, although not a city, the modern Silicon Valley.

With the right elements in place, cities are uniquely suited to bring together a set of actors for rich learning and performance improvement that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Despite its challenges, Detroit could prove to be a powerful example.

It is useful to think about Detroit’s future, a future that builds on a rich legacy of innovation and diversity, in terms of a movement—of individuals as well as companies, nonprofits, and public sector institutions. In this sense, a movement is an organized effort that amplifies our individual and collective impact. Mobilizing such a movement requires this range of institutions to collectively integrate their purpose and mission with participants on a broader scale.

Narrative provides focus and inspiration

The good news is that Detroit has already attracted a rich cast of participants. Its precipitous fall, juxtaposed against its history at the nexus of not just automotive but industrial America, made for a compelling story and has already, in response, attracted resources, talent and money. Now, it is worth pulling back to consider how to achieve more. Detroit is neither a patient in need of triage nor a blank slate. It is an extant city, complete with residents, infrastructure, institutions, stories and history. A well-crafted narrative can incorporate these elements, while also helping to motivate many disparate people and resources and refocus them on the long-term.

What is a narrative? It is a call to action around a long-term possibility. Like stories, narratives appeal to our emotions and our imagination. They make lofty concepts tangible and immediate, almost forcing us to engage with them. But stories are contained (they have a beginning, middle and end) and about someone else, while narratives are open-ended and unresolved; their resolution depends upon our own choices and actions. They are about us and the role we can play. Although narratives exist at the individual level, social and institutional narratives are what draw people together and can drive and shape their choices toward a long-term vision.

The interplay between individual, institutional, and social narratives can set up a reinforcing, virtuous cycle, which ultimately creates a regional narrative that will further attract and shape certain types of institutions and individuals.

For example, Silicon Valley didn’t start out with a narrative—it wasn’t even a defined place on a map—but the region’s ethos and identity, as well as its narrative, emerged over time. It was the result of the cumulative refining and reinforcing effect of the individual narratives of the companies and visionaries who came to work there. One way to sum it up might be: “There’s a new set of technologies that create enormous new possibilities. You have an opportunity to build something new and change the world. But you need to come to Silicon Valley to harness this potential” Such a narrative is large enough to encompass many players and many perspectives. It acts as a guiding light for otherwise independent activities to proceed in a way that gives credibility to that long-term, regional vision.

This points to another important aspect of narratives: they can be threat-based or opportunity-based. Threat-based narratives, which have been used effectively over the course of history, serve to heighten the perception of risk, minimize the potential for reward, and shorten time frames in response to heightened stress. The result is a reactionary approach that brings entities together around triage, fixing and defending.

The alternative is an opportunity-based narrative that builds trust and encourages collaboration while shifting the focus away from the short-term. It has to speak to the role others can play. Angela Blanchard of the Houston Neighborhood Centers has often been quoted as saying, “You can’t build on broken” in describing a strength-based approach to identifying the resources and strengths you already have. This approach is critical for arriving at an opportunity-based narrative, one that inspires and creates openings for others to be part of achieving something bigger and more transformative than just fixing current problems.

Such narratives can’t just be written up; they must emerge, evolving from actions aligned around the nascent opportunity. For example, Code for America has a narrative of sorts built around the nascent opportunity of open data policies in its tagline, to “build a government by the people, for the people, that works in the 21st century.” It reflects the organization’s belief that technology allows people to engage in government in a way not previously possible and that individuals must participate to determine the outcome. It is broad enough to not specify what the outcomes might be or exactly how they will be achieved. Code for America reinforces its narrative by creating the conditions for others to participate and by pursuing dedicated, ongoing advocacy around the original opportunity, open data.

Creating the conditions for productive engagement

This brings me back to the other important element for making a city a rich environment for learning and improvement. I call it a creation space, and it is necessary to facilitate learning and build trust-based relationships through short-term actions focused on local challenges. The short-term actions, and the learning that ensues, reinforce the broader narrative, making it more credible and attainable. Meanwhile, the opportunity embedded in the narrative attracts participants to the creation spaces, places like schools, libraries, maker spaces, hack-a-thons, and community centers and ties them together around a common vision. They come to these spaces because they can learn faster and have a greater impact here than they could acting individually. Much of this sort of energy is evident in Detroit already.

It is incumbent upon the many non-profits and other organizations that are coming together for Detroit’s future to establish more creation spaces that will enable lots of different kinds of people to continue to build and shape the narrative of Detroit.

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