The Detroit Project

As many if you may know, I’m somewhat of an ideas guy. I’d like to share with you an idea of mine that’s been floating around.

I think I have a solution to the San Francisco’s ongoing issues. It’s overcrowded with technology startups. Unable to expand outward, rent and property prices are skyrocketing. Traffic is miserable. Long-time residents are being driven out of their homes. And whenever people try to develop new buildings to alleviate the issue, residents protest, both because these new buildings are favoring the rich, and because people don’t like the idea of a town they find so charming changing to a point where it’s no longer recognizable.

This is a human-made problem. None of these technology startups have a particular need for being on a coastal city; they’re technology companies, not shipping companies.

Meanwhile, America’s filled with ghost cities that suffer the very opposite issues. Their decreased occupancy leaves them with expensive infrastructure meant to support a larger population that the smaller population can no longer afford to support. Their economies are in the tank because incumbent industries abandoned them and the growing industries are looking to new darlings. With the mass exodus of people, housing prices are low to the point where you can buy homes for less than five figures.

Solution: Let’s turn Detroit into a desirable city for tech-driven companie, similar to San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin.

Here’s how:

We need to make the city desirable to trendy people who love tech startups. Detroit’s actually in a great position for this because if you look in any startup office (or, as they like to call it, a space), the ones that are considered nice don’t look like offices, but abandoned factories or warehouses. We just need to furnish them, and we’re done!

You need to move a lot of hipsters into Detroit as well. Hipsters are like trendiness canaries for coal mines, and if you send them in and they thrive, then you know the city will be considered hip. Plus the hipsters give the technology workers something to make fun of while they simultaneously emulate them. Hipsters also have a knack for thinking of trendy business and shop concepts that are quirky and would be successful in a big city, but non-hipsters are too sensible to ever think of them. Portland seems to have a surplus of hipsters, so we’ll bring some in from there.

Residential neighborhoods are another challenge. The ones with the cheapest housing are really dilapidated (and squatters are an issue). The secret weapon: gay couples. Get some neighborhoods with dilapidated housing but good nearby schools and bring in creative gay and lesbian couples. Before you know it, that neighborhood is desirable in no time.

Start buying up some buildings and start setting up incubators. Buy some blocks of houses, remodel and bring in entrepreneurs, telling them that in exchange for 10% of their equity, they don’t need to worry about essentials like housing or a workspace. Herman Miller is Michigan based so you should be able to truck in some trendy desk furniture and Eames chairs for a great price.

Being in Detroit’s going to give your startup a competitive edge: your housing and building costs are a fraction of what they are in SF, allowing you to bring in scrappy early employees for a lower price. If you’re an engineer living in Detroit working for an early stage startup for $65k a year you may as well be royalty. That $250k in seed funding wouldn’t cover your artisan coffee budget in SF, but you could have a small team working for a couple years on lots of great ideas if you’re in Detroit. Make the same investment, get twice the startups with twice the chances for success. Sounds like a win in my book.

You aren’t isolated from the world, either. Detroit’s airport is a Delta hub, connecting you to pretty much any major city. We’ll get Google to put in Google Fiber throughout the city (which will be really handy because everyone stripped the copper out of the empty homes to sell it as scrap metal). The population density is low enough that your 4G connection will actually perform pretty well.

And you know how SF is notorious for having a lot of homeless people with nowhere to go? Well, Detroit has a lot of empty houses with no one to live in them! With the ridiculously low building costs we can earmark some cash to create places to live for people who have suffered from a perpetually bad economy. And all this revitalizing is a lot of work, too… sounds like maybe there are some job opportunities on the horizon for the many people who are living in Detroit but need a break?

And on a more serious note, Detroit has something San Francisco is losing quickly: character and a sense of the plight of the working class American. In San Francisco, maybe it feels like the biggest problem you have to solve is that you need to interact with a human on the phone to get food delivered and you wish you could just get it with an app. If you put your startup in Detroit you’re going to have a perspective on life and your potential users San Francisco just can’t give you. I love a good delivery startup as much as the next guy, but I think there’s room for some more noble problems that are ready to be “disrupted.”

What do you say world? I’m an ideas guy, you’ll just have to run with this.

One response to “The Detroit Project”

  1. Zak says:

    Insightful as always. I’d just like to add that Silicon Valley is an example of what economists call “clustering”. It occurs for many reasons other than just trendiness or internet speed.

    It’s difficult to replicate. World governments like Russia and South Korea have tried to create their own “Silicon Valley”, but it’s a difficult task.

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