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3 behavioral hacks for Detroit

I went to Detroit and asked a few people why someone would move to Detroit.

The answer? Detroit has potential.

We may rate job candidates  higher who have potential vs. actual proven talent. We may like “up and coming musicians” more than the top of the chart pop band. We may even  love the hidden diner that only insiders know about. But… is it possible to love a city just for it’s “potential” enough to move there?

For Detroit – it seems possible. Or at least that’s the call to action being broadcasted to the world. As reported by Business Insider in 2015: “For any individual who wants to build a company or contribute to the city, Detroit is the perfect place to be,” said Bruce Katz, codirector of the Global Cities Initiative at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “You can come to Detroit and you can really make a difference.”

However, when asked what attracts people to live in Detroit, the answers are sparse. There isn’t a strong education system, jobs are not plentiful, there are still violence problems, city transportation is very weak and while houses are cheap, renovations are expensive.  Given all of these elements working against it, what creative steps could the city take to realize it’s “potential” to be the power force it “potentially” deserves to be?


3 behavioral ideas for Detroit to attract, grow and retain great people:

Fake it until you make it.

No one likes going to the empty restaurant. If we see a bustling restaurant next to an empty one we’ll patron the busy one every time. Detroit is an empty restaurant. Abandoned and blighted houses line most streets. And sadly there’s little incentive to invest in these houses because people know they can’t get a higher appraisal for their home improvements. This all adds to the declining population or the ’empty restaurant’ problem.
Can Detroit artificially fill the restaurant? This could look like paying people to move to Detroit and refurbishing homes despite the low financial return.  This creates the illusion that the streets are coming alive again and that the “potential for improvement” is real.Detroit could also pack the parks with people on one day a month and have newspapers write about the crowds. The city could try to create scarcity within the schooling system such that people want to move their kids downtown vs out of downtown. If we imagine Detroit is just one big restaurant and we need to fill the tables anyway we can, the creative possibilities are endless.

Invest early

Potential comes from the future population as much as the current one. With this insight, Detroit just instituted a community college “tuition free” benefit to high school students that qualify for 2 year college.  This means every high school student can get a free 2 year post high school education.
The recommended behavioral change? Give the tuition benefit to Detroit children at birth.
It’s been shown that by funding 529 college accounts before kids reach age 4, we can change the mindset of the family and thereby increase college attendance.  This is a small tweak in that the funding amounts wouldn’t change, but the timing of the distribution would change to be much earlier. If children know they have a future in the education system from an early age it’s possible we can intervene in their trajectory.
How else could you encourage young people to engage in their education and future work opportunities?
Taking the same principles as early tuition reimbursement, Detroit could provide kids with their own space on the internet.  Imagine you give birth to your child and in addition to receiving a social security number for your newborne, you also get a domain name. e.g., SallyBrown.det.  Or MattLarson.det By giving every Detroit child their own custom domain name, the child may be enticed to learn how to use the internet / computers, to create and maintain their public reputation online and to forever engage in their identity as a Detroit citizen.

Coordinate efforts vs. try one off attempts

Homes in Detroit are blighted and need to be restored or  torn down. In order for them to be restored, Detroit needs manual labor to do the contracting. However, the city lacks the required trained people to do this. What are the options? They could train some people to do the work, but if the homes aren’t torn down for fear of not having enough workers to restore them, there won’t be any jobs for this newly trained workforce.
For the system to  work, Detroit will need to coordinate the labor demand and the labor supply in a way the sets both up for success.  The risk? If coordination is off,  it could be potentially disastrous. People would be newly trained but jobless and homes would have been bought but reclaimed without the workers to help.
So while water is still an issue and schools are being shut down todaypeople are hopeful. There is uplifting potential all around and of course these three small behavioral nudges that can help in tiny ways to realize this potential.

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