Harvard on Detroit: It’s a long road to recovery, but our “Vacancy” sign is clear to all

By Karen Dybis for Detroit Regional News

Wanna be a rock star? Come to Detroit.


That’s one takeaway a group of Harvard Business School professors had Thursday night during a presentation on their year-long project on U.S. competitiveness.


Granted, most of the evening was rightly focused on the weighty issues of whether the United States has the mustard to compete globally. A large part also was dedicated to discussing the sustainability of the current resurgence of the Big Three (it was great fun to watch the back-and-forth discussion; it’s as close as I’ll ever get to “The Paper Chase” in real life).


But those last five minutes finally touched on what I came all the way to The Henry Ford to hear – the impression of these four Harvard professors on the city itself. Their words were grim, pointed and introspective. But they were tinged with optimism.


I say tinged with some purpose – there was a feeling, a flavor, a fleeting moment of hope for Detroit somewhere there between their words. And I don’t mean to get all wicked smart on you, but I like it when Harvard profs give us some love.


More on competitiveness later. Here’s what they said about us.


The best part of what they said was that they had spent Thursday touring the city; in particular, they met with folks at Quicken Loans. They saw the Offices That Gilbert Built. They met with some of the kiddos that are roosting there, including the high-tech startup companies.


“Why Detroit?” the professors asked. The answer? Because in Boston, these startups would be no big deal. Just another small fish. In Detroit, they’re someone. They’re special. They’re like Metallica, Hendrix and Justin Bieber all rolled into one.

Another question – this one from an audience member – came up during the after-glow portion of the night. So what about the city? What can be done about a problem called Detroit?


“Problems that are a long time in the making are a long time in the fixing,” said Willy Shih, professor of management practices. (Let me interject: Word.)


Shih, who is co-author of “Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance,” also noted that cities like Pittsburgh, which the Harvard competitiveness project studied, were able to pivot from despair to success by finding new industries, such as biotech.


“You have an enormous skill base in the people here,” Shih added, so we need to find a manufacturing industry that uses that skill base.


The costs here to start a business are lower than the West or East coasts, added Chester (Chet) A. Huber, former CEO of OnStar and a senior lecturer at Harvard. Low cost + lots of talent = a nice base if someone(s) act as the catalyst to get things started.


Now, ironically, Huber still has a house here. But even his place in Grosse Pointe isn’t going to sell for what it’s worth, so he’s still got a foot on the ground.


Our advantage, Huber believes, is that our “Vacancy” sign is hung high. People know we’re open for business. But we need to reach critical mass. And the question always hangs over us: Will it take this time? Will our recovery be real? Will the fabled renaissance really occur?


Just one thing Detroit and all cities need to know: Don’t rely on politicians or the government for help, noted Prof. William W. George. (The former Grand Rapids resident also is the former chairman and CEO of medical device manufacturer Medtronic and author of “7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis.”)


“There’s no messiah coming here from Washington,” George said. “A community is only as strong as its leaders in the community. Each of us has to step up and take action.”


And Detroit cannot be left behind as the suburbs recover. As the good professors (and umpteen others) agree, having a hole in the donut is ridiculous. None of us can think of any places where the downtown or city center is dying while the outlying areas are thriving. Over time, it just cannot work.


So how do you fix things here or anywhere within the United States for that matter? How do we get competitive? How do we re-establish manufacturing and innovation? How do we create that commons where we all care about our mutual success?


George summed it up: Improve K-12 education. Diversify your cities. Focus on skills training. Encourage entrepreneurship. Develop technology. Center on health because a healthy worker is a good worker.


Pretty smart stuff out of those boys from Boston.


To finish, George gave us this quote. I think it’s a fitting finish here as well:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” ― Robert F. Kennedy