I was in Detroit yesterday learning more about incubators. I came away thinking about metaphors.
My morning began in TechTown, where Faris Alami gave my research associate, Neesha Modi, and me a heady introduction to all that is taking place. TechTown is at once a research and technology park, a business incubator, and a collection of enterprises part of revitalizing Detroit.
We met in TechOne, a five-story facility where GM once designed the Corvette that looks out over the 12 city blocks that TechTown hopes will become home to all types of vibrant businesses. TechOne is home to IT and medical/biotech companies, as its name suggests, but it is more than that. For instance we met with Marion Jackson and Barbara Cervenka, co-directors of Con/Vida, a nonprofit organization that promotes the work of Brazilian and Peruvian artists by organizing exhibitions and selling their work. We also met with TechTown’s former executive director, Randal Charlton, whose new venture, Boom! The New Economy, is helping adults 50 years and older create new businesses. But Jackson, Cerveka, and Charlton–themselves in the 60+ age bracket–might bump into middle school and high school aged tenants of TechOne who are there learning how to apply science to solve global problems.
TechTown also offers support services to entrepreneurs hoping to launch Detroit-based businesses. This program, “Thrive,” supports entrepreneurs of all stipes, from one individual who needed support to purchase a truck and start a small transportation company to another who is developing a radiation-free breast cancer screening device.
Our next stop, the Green Garage, is another mixture of place, tenants, and business creation. The Green Garage (the place) was a show room for Model T’s, but since the Detroit riots in the 1960s its windows had been bricked in, it had lost its charm, and it had generally fallen into disrepair. You’d certainly never know that today, as it has been spectacularly restored using reclaimed building materials and is worthy of a cover of Architectural Digest.
And that only begins to scratch the surface of what the Green Garage is. The Green Garage is designed to be a net zero energy building: consuming no more energy than it can produce. This is no idle boast, as the facility is constantly deploying new technologies like solar tubes for lighting and chest refrigeration systems and metering and monitoring everything that comes in and goes out of the facility. It represents the very possibility of creating and operating buildings without imposing a cost on the planet.
The tenants at the Green Garage are carefully selected for their “green” approach to business and for their fit with Green Garage’s sense of community. I had a conversation with Chad Dickinson, a transplant from Nashville and new tenant, who has designed state-of-the-art recording studios in a holistic way without using blueprints. Dickinson by Design is his Detroit based business. Using vintage power tools in his workshop in a corner of the Green Garage, Dickinson creates beautiful, “green” furniture from 99% reclaimed and recycled materials. He is using his craft to create affordable, long-lasting furniture and woodworking that create inviting homes, just as these homes can help reclaim the city.
But what might be most remarkable at Green Garage is the work being done by its co-founder, Tom Brennan. A former business consultant, he now rejects the idea of creating businesses in the typical way: idea, business plan, financial backing, make money. Instead, he teaches a type of business creation that places any organization squarely in the midst of the other organizations to which it is connected. Brennan believes that any enterprise must create positive economic, community, and environmental benefits for all organizations in its ecosystem, not simply itself.
This idea is reminiscent of Paul Hawken’s description of a series of mutually beneficial business relationships in Kalundorg Denmark. The waste (in the forms of heat, steam, gas, sludge, etc.) from various industrial processes became the inputs for other producers. For instance, gypsum, which was the byproduct of a power plant, was used to make sheet rock. Fly ash, the waste from producing coal, was used in constructing roads. These input/output relationships all arose by happy accident, not design.
Brennan suggests that we need not hope for such fortuitous accidents; these sorts of relationships should be baked in to our efforts to develop businesses. And, again, these relationships should benefit all parties in the ecosystem, not just immediate partners, by improving each element of their triple bottom line.
Which brings us back to metaphors.
The Green Garage explicitly embraces the idea that businesses are like living systems, not machines. For living systems to thrive, they must take care of themselves and the environment of which they are part.
TechTown, in contrast, conjures up the image of Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. A number of business experiments are taking place in parallel–even rubbing shoulders. There is a sense of energy and pragmatism but, by and large, these efforts form a greater whole mainly in the sense that each success creates jobs in a city that badly needs them.
On the drive from TechTown to the Green Garage, Neesha and I stopped for lunch at the Avalon Bakery. Avalon’s funky appearance belies what it is: something of a powerhouse that serves 1000 customers daily and delivers baked goods to 40 additional locations in southeast Michigan.
Avalon embraces the Buddhist principle of “right livelihood,” its motto being “Eat Well. Do Good.” Avalon has the ultimate respect for the earth, never using anything but 100% organic flour. It is also an anchor tenant of the Detroit “Agri-Urban” movement, bringing social and economic benefits to its immediate neighborhood and beyond for the last decade and a half.
All of which raises the question, “Do these metaphors matter in creating businesses?” That is the question that I’m thinking about right now as I reflect on how a city in need can be returned to greatness.
How do you restore Detroit economically while honoring its culture and community and improving the environment? And how do you balance the impulse to let things grow organically at their own pace with the knowledge that there are many people living on the economic edge?