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IdeaLab 2013 recapped

On a cold and snowy Friday in Ann Arbor, the two-day annual conference of the Revitalization and Business student group at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business culminated with the third annual IdeaLab, collaboratively produced by Model D, the Urban Innovation Exchange, and the University of Michigan.

In the warmth of Ross School's Blau Auditorium, a group of Detroit entrepreneurs, social innovators, and business advocates were rife with ideas and passion for business in the City of Detroit. And students at the elite business school were all ears.

The event kicked off with a slideshow of "The Year in Pictures" by Model D's photographer Marvin Shaouni, a great reminder of all of the inspiring stories we have covered in 2012. Model D publisher Claire Nelson gave introductory remarks.

The format was a fast paced alternation between videos produced for UIX by Detroit Lives! highlighting individual innovators making big impacts in their Detroit communities and live presentations by Detroit innovators.

First to the stage was Andy Didorosi, founder of the Detroit Bus Company and Paper Street in Ferndale. Didorosi told the crowd about the day he became a businessman. He was only sixteen and working as a dishwasher when he bought a car from a police auction for $100, which he fixed up then flipped for $1,200. Now an old man of 26, Didorosi is at the helm of two innovative businesses.

The Detroit Bus Company is evolving rapidly, having recently announced a contract with the City of Hamtramck to provide the small enclave city with transit services, which they are calling HamDOT. Didorosi spoke about the opportunities that can arise from challenges in cities where things are getting better. "When cities get better, certain things get worse. Parking has become the biggest issue downtown," says Didorosi, who is working with downtown employers to help solve this problem by providing bus service to their suburban commuter employees.

Elizabeth Garlow of Michigan Corps and Kiva Detroit talked about an image she thinks about in her approach to building community interaction in Detroit: empty porches. Even the most welcoming porch won't attract people to sit on it. She suggests we think about building the collective capacity of people before we think about building amenities. "If they will come, they will build it," she says.

Eric Giles, chef and co-owner of the Sunday Dinner Company, added a jolt of energy to the program, speaking of the love he felt from the speakers and the audience as he paced around the stage. He defines his business as a social enterprise that is only 25 percent restaurant. The other 75 percent is about people building. The company employs neighborhood kids, returning citizens, seniors, and young mothers, 97 percent of whom have no culinary experience. In other words, they employ Detroiters. And they are winning culinary awards while doing it.

Matt Clayson of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center took a more introspective approach about how Detroit can inspire innovation. Clayson played devil's advocate to the conventional notion that Detroit's lack of density is one of its largest hindrances. For Clayson, Detroit's lack of density is something that sets it apart from other cities. The ability to step back and see details everywhere in Detroit's architecture and landscapes and not be mauled by throngs of people while doing so is extremely important to the reflective innovation process.

"There is room to think here," Clayson said.

Michael Forsyth, a Detroit Revitalization Fellow and the man behind the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation's Detroit REVOLVE pop-up retail program, talked about making the "best out of the wurst." This isn't a typo. He is referring to his experience in Berlin and how the German capital's reuse of industrial sites and disused spaces inspired him to rethink what could serve as a retail location. Detroit's unorthodox spaces inspire him to innovate when thinking about the evolution of retail in the city. "We try to embrace a new form of investment, giving entrepreneurs a space to try something without a substantial investment," he said, referring to how his program uses pop-up shops to showcase both retail spaces and new businesses.

Tawnya Clark, whose pop-up food business, the Batata Shop, is progressing towards becoming a brick and mortar establishment, spoke of the innovation that is happening in the support network of Detroit's food business community. She participates in FoodLab Detroit's development program that encourages food entrepreneurs to start triple-bottom-line businesses and gives them the tools and training to do so.

What would a forum on innovation in Detroit be without an appearance by Jerry Paffendorf of Loveland Technologies, architects of open data projects like whydontweownthis.com? As always, Jerry got the audience to think big as he talked about the ongoing tax foreclosure crisis in the City of Detroit and urging listeners to consider Detroit, the United States, and the tax system as massive crowd funding projects. While Jerry doesn't pretend to have solutions to the huge issue of tax foreclosure, his work is giving people x-ray glasses they can use to collaborate towards solutions.

Tunde Wey of UIX wrapped things up by reviewing the people and projects that have been featured by UIX throughout the year. "The people we are profiling see obvious needs and are filling them." Though the needs may be obvious, innovation is required to fill them, particularly in an environment like Detroit. The sojourn to Ann Arbor succeeded in spreading the excitement of our presenters to a new audience. Of course, the conversation will continue in Model D and on the UIX Civic Commons page.

Model D's IdeaLab was part of the annual Revitalization & Business Conference hosted by the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan.

Photos by Walter Wasacz
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