How being smart(er) could have saved Detroit

Detroit in 1910 (Woodward Avenue). Can the city be like this again? (Picture by mgsmith via Flickr)

Why innovation is key to Detroit's future and success

Detroit just filed for bankruptcy. That’s right: bankruptcy. That’s right: Detroit.*

In the 1940s it was the fourth largest city in the US behind New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. It is home to Joe Louis (the famous World Heavyweight Champion), Motown (the renowned record company) and many many more. But perhaps the key driver of the city’s success – and what turned it into the go-to-place for people in pursuit of the American dream – was the fact that it was the birthplace to and epicenter of the American automotive industry. After all, Henry Ford manufactured his first cars in this metropolis.

And now it’s all gone. The city is broke. The ‘Paris of the West’ has lost its people and attraction.

But how could this have happened? Between 2000 and 2010 Detroit lost almost a quarter of its population. Did the people leave because there were no more jobs? Or did they leave because the city was not attractive enough? Or in other words: did the decline in manufacturing lead to de-urbanization or did de-urbanization lead to the decline in manufacturing? It’s the chicken and egg question.


By 2050 7 billion people will be living in urban areas. That’s an estimated 70% of the world’s population. And most of those cities will be located in the developing world. So how can cities like Detroit survive among this competition? How can any city make sure it claims (or doesn’t lose) a place in the world of 2050?

Innovation is smart

Well, innovation is certainly key to success. And in the context of urbanization, being a smart city means being an innovative city.

Alas, innovation is not always recognized as such.

Woodward Avenue is Detroit’s (legendary) ‘main street’. Up to the middle of the last century this highway boasted an impressive network of electric (!) streetcars. But with the rise of the auto industry gas powered buses gradually took over and ousted the electric trams. Did the city take a wrong turn?

Perhaps though there’s still a chance for revival. Maybe Detroit can celebrate a comeback and rebuild what was once known as the ‘Motor City’. The city has been innovative before – it can be innovative again. And maybe becoming smarter by becoming a smart city is the solution.

For Detroit, the recent turn of events don’t mean the end. On the contrary: The future for Detroit has only just begun.

* Unlike 5 Detroit startups that recently made it to the ‘Top 25 Made in America Brands to Watch’. And on another note: Ford was recently named one of the top 10 brands in the US.

Categories and Tags
About the author

Patrick Naumann

Hi, I'm Patrick and I work for the corporate communications team in Zurich. Before joining ABB, I copywrote for an ad agency, briefly interned at a TV network and seriously mastered the art of law. When I'm not blogging, I'm usually tweeting, liking, sharing, commenting, filming and enjoying life. I'm a fan of the digital editiion of the National Geographic Magazine, the audio track of The Economist and the print version of TIME magazine.
Comment on this article