Vom Bankrott zum Startup Hub – die Detroit-Story

Detroit Razi Jafri

Im Juli 2013 meldete die US-Metropole Detroit nach Jahrzehnten des wirtschaftlichen Niedergangs Insolvenz an. Doch der totgeglaubte Patient Detroit wird nun wiederbelebt: durch digitale Möglichkeiten gepaart mit Menschen mit einer Vision. d!conomy-Sprecher Razi Jafri vom Henry Ford Learning Institute ist einer dieser Visionäre, die den Wiederaufschwung in Detroit vorantreiben. Wir haben uns mit Razi Jafri über die Detroit-Story unterhalten.


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The Detroit-Story


Razi, your home town Detroit has encountered several decades of turbulence. Can you summarize shortly what led to Detroit filing for bankruptcy in 2013?

Anytime you have a major catastrophic economic disaster like the one Detroit experienced in 2013 there will be a myriad of reasons that led to it. In Detroit’s case, those include economic and noneconomic factors. Furthermore, it’s not a singular event. The bankruptcy filing was just the culmination of years of economic and population decline in Detroit. Some of the major factors include free trade, which led to the loss of Detroit’s manufacturing base by opening up the economy for foreign competition including companies like Toyota and Volkswagen attracting workers to the southern United States and of course the outsourcing of jobs overseas. This in turn led to a massive decline in population and commerce as residents fled the city due to lack of jobs, opportunities, and even crime. Additionally, Detroit’s reliance in a singular sector didn’t help either. The automotive industry, which when it began to decline, had a major impact on the local economy. Ultimately 2 of the 3 major auto companies in Detroit filed for bankruptcy. However another major factor is decades of government corruption and mismanagement including overspending and extreme debt. The debt at one point reached nearly $20 billion including massive pension and healthcare liabilities for city workers. These conditions only served to further fuel the economic and population decline and increase the crime rate, which reached a boiling point in 2013. In the end, with a massive population decline, thousands of foreclosed and abandoned houses, an economy in complete shambles, and an incompetent city government, Detroit had no choice but to file for bankruptcy.

But what goes down must go up: You are involved in a number initiatives that want to revive Detroit metro. What are your current projects?

I am currently involved in several community development projects related to education and youth development, social entrepreneurship and technology, and photo and film documentary work. I am currently the Associate Director of Youth Development at the Henry Ford Learning Institute, which is a design and innovation based nonprofit focusing on education. In the past, I have run the Detroit program for Kiva.org, which is an international microlending nonprofit, which serves entrepreneurs in low income communities with no interest crowd-funded loans. I have also taught in a Detroit high school. On the tech side, I am developing a mobile app platform for purchasing meals for people in need at restaurants, food trucks, and cafes called CrowdFeed. In my spare time I have also been documenting various stories in Detroit through photography and film projects, focusing on the changing urban landscape.

What role does digitization play in your plan for change in Detroit?

In my opinion, digitization and tech plays a large role in bringing change to Detroit. Specifically in helping citizens by improving city services and amenities. There is also a large opportunity for the corporate community to play a bigger role in implementing technological improvements in the city in partnership with the city itself.
As for my own work, my passions rest at the intersection of social impact, entrepreneurship, design, and tech. I am working on an app that will try to make an impact on the issue of food insecurity. Furthermore, in my new role as Associate Director of Youth Programs at the Henry Ford Learning Institute, I am overseeing the development and deployment of a new digital STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) platform, called Ford STEAM Lab, that aims to put the power of deeper learning in the hands of young people, launch their long-term career interests, and empower them with critical workforce mindsets and skills for social mobility.
HFLI is the curriculum provider and a thought partner in the development of Ford STEAM Lab, a digital blended-learning curriculum that feeds the STEM pipeline by taking students through a six-part “hackathon” style process of exposing them to careers in STEM and tech entrepreneurship. I am now in the middle of deploying Ford STEAM Lab through out-of-school youth programs and providing related training and implementation support to interested organizations, schools, and districts.

Besides your background in mechanical, manufacturing, and quality engineering, you also have an artistic side in your work. Does business too often fade out the creative aspect?

Absolutely it’s a major gap in most organizations. It can help lift people out of creative and intellectual stagnation. There are many ways to incorporate the arts and design into any workstream. Furthermore, I believe that art, design, and storytelling will play major roles in the future of manufacturing and many other industries.

What vision do you have for Detroit?

There are many areas in which Detroit can make a major impact on the world, again. The intersection of technology, design, and social entrepreneurship is where Detroit can really make its mark. Detroit is facing so many challenges, which can feel overwhelming, however it also bears a great opportunity for social innovation. One such opportunity was the city’s recently awarded City of Design designation by UNESCO. With the designation, Detroit joins a worldwide network of cities committed to investing in creativity as a driver for sustainable urban development, social inclusion, and cultural vibrancy. Detroit became the first U.S. city to receive the designation, joining 47 cities from 33 countries as new members of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. The Creative Cities Network is comprised of cities that represent a strong legacy in one of seven creative fields, from Gastronomy and Literature to Design. Member cities commit to collaborate and develop partnerships, promote creativity and cultural industries, share best practices, strengthen participation in cultural life and integrate culture in economic and social development strategies and plans. Furthermore, more and more young people in Detroit are looking for ways to combine their education and passion with their interest in making the world a better place. Some are even leaving traditional, stable jobs to work on their own social impact projects. Detroit has an established culture and entrepreneurial infrastructure to lure this talent. Now is the time to capitalize on this momentum and actively court more social entrepreneurs.

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