Detroit: Future home of “You Can” Land

Known historically as a city of innovators and creatives, the recent Detroit narrative is shadowed by bankruptcy, blight, and a struggling labor market. At 30%, Detroit’s rate of youth unemployment is the highest in the nation.

The Fall 2016 Civic Accelerator program is designed to address this very issue, and represents our first initiative focused on supporting regional startup ecosystems.  Specifically, the Fall Civic Accelerator  support and invest in early stage startups addressing the challenge:

How might we improve educational outcomes and ensure workforce success for youth in Michigan and the Great Lakes region?

To kick off our Fall Program, we hosted a Community Innovation Lab in partnership with SMALLIFY, an global innovation firm and methodology based in Silicon Valley.  The Innovation Lab was a special convening of local and national innovators, practitioners, employers and funders – including youth leaders – to share what is working, identify gaps, mobile resources, and develop innovative solutions to address the issue of youth education and employment in the region.  The participants were diverse and represented various companies and industries, including the Department of Commerce, Ford Motor Company Fund, General Motors, Michigan Community Service Commission, Microsoft, Opportunity Detroit, Public Allies, Skillman Foundation, and Starbucks.

The first portion of the lab included an opportunity for attendees to learn who else was in the room, discover more about the assets they each bring to the table, and introduce them to the innovation mindset – combining improvisation and visual thinking. Once everyone was warmed up, it was time to dive into SMALLIFY’s Rapid Innovation process. Each group began by identifying key opportunities and barriers faced by Opportunity Youth, “meeting basic needs, re-imagining the education system, supporting parents, educators, and students alike, bridging the digital divide, collaboration between private and public sectors, and many more.”  Next, the working groups began visualizing potential solutions and pathways to youth success using a “theme park” construct.  For example, many of the theme parks, including “Curiosi-D” and “You Can Land,” contained rides and experiences that connect students with near peer mentors, coach parents through the FAFSA process, and even offer Virtual Reality tours of college campuses, company headquarters, or global destinations.

Through this process, our team gathered several key insights that will inform the design of our Fall Accelerator, as well as our venture recruitment and selection strategies.

  1. A Shared Urgency & Willingness to Act/Invest in Young People in Detroit & Region
    • Speramus meliora; resurget cinerbus: “We hope for better things; it will arise from ashes” is relevant as Detroit and the region rebound from recession and loss of major industries.
  2. Philanthropy & Auto Industry Have Historically Driven Social Impact
    • Past dependence on one industry is changing as the auto industry leads and others join
    • Detroit needs more civic leadership, private sector, public school & gov’t engagement
  3. Successful, Neighborhood-Level Programs in Place — Need to Connect, Scale & Fill Gaps
    • There are many committed leaders and programs – from the Detroit Boxing Gym to ACCESS Centers and Public Allies – that are making a difference in young people’s lives
    • Many of these programs are not scalable or well-connected & significant gaps exist
  4. And Maker Initiatives Are Growing in Detroit
    • Creatives – designers, engineers, artists – stayed and are flocking to Detroit with many maker spaces and programs; this is a natural fit for this auto-focused region
    • Ponyride, i3 Detroit and TechShop are examples, plus incubators and working spaces
    • The programs tend to be fragmented, don’t always have youth or innovation at the core, and don’t connect enough with Detroit creatives and industries of the future
  5. Cross-Sector Lab Participants Were Optimistic & Aligned Around Needs – from Innovation Island to Success Pointe, to “Can-Do” Lands! Consistent themes and solutions centered on:
    • innovation, tech, STEM, new industries readiness, financial literacy
    • parent and teacher training/engagement; mentors/navigators for youth
    • youth voices need to be heard & their stories need to rewritten
    • institutional change/alignment needed from schools to local gov’t services
    • basic needs – food, transportation, infrastructure, digital access

As a continuum to this Lab and in order to scale and invest in solutions, The Fall 2016 Civic Accelerator will select and support 10-15 innovative early stage for-profit and nonprofit ventures, based in the Midwest or interested in expanding to the region, who are directly addressing the opportunities and barriers surfaced in this event and positively disrupting the education and workforce development sectors. Through alternative learning models, experiential training, 21st Century job-ready skills, and pathways to economic mobility, we’re looking for innovative technologies, platforms, and other models that prepare youth for the 21st Century workforce and improve educational outcomes.

Applications for the Fall 2016 Accelerator are due by Aug. 19. Apply, or learn how your organization can partner with CivicX at