The League Launches New Program on Developing Great Places


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Over the past several years, the League has worked with many partners to create how-to guides, conduct data-informed studies, and carry out dynamic placemaking activities in communities across Michigan. We’ve now built a new online collection of resources, success stories, … Continue reading

I’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues, friends, family and neighbors about my upcoming visit to Boston. The curious ones ask, what’s your work event? When I tell them, proudly, the Harvard Innovations in American Government awards, the nearly inevitable response is some sort of wisecrack. “Innovation and government, that’s an oxymoron!” “How much bureaucracy is involved in the awards presentations?”

Hey, I like mocking government inefficiency as much as the next person. But the frequency of this response is emblematic of a deeper problem in America, which political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call “American Amnesia.” We have collectively forgotten the degree to which we owe our prosperity to proactive government investments in research & development, infrastructure and public health made in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Other scholars take the premise even further. Not only is government an important partner of prosperity, it is the primary driver of innovation. Building on the work of Mariana Mazzucato, Ben Tarnoff puts it this way in The Guardian: “…nearly every major innovation since the second world war has required a big push from the public sector, for an obvious reason: the public sector can afford to take risks that the private sector can’t. Conventional wisdom says that market forces foster innovation. In fact, it’s the government’s insulation from market forces that has historically made it such a successful innovator. It doesn’t have to compete, and it’s not at the mercy of investors demanding a share of its profits. It’s also far more generous with the fruits of its scientific labor: no private company would ever be so foolish as to constantly give away innovations it has generated at enormous expense for free, but this is exactly what the government does.”

So yes, there’s plenty of innovation in government, from the federal level down to the local. Check out the wonderful finalists for the aforementioned Harvard award if you don’t believe me. Or our “how-to” library on this site. Or the Alliance for Innovation. I could go on, but the point is: we need to support more of this innovation rather than waiting for the private sector.


marks-carts-thumbnailIt started as an idle thought when Ann Arbor businessman Mark Hodesh pondered the unused lot behind his Downtown Home and Garden store: What about food trucks?

In two short years, the once-vacant lot has become a hot spot for local foodies and sparked a statewide food truck movement. Mark’s Carts now provides employment for dozens of people, and has already kick-started two brick-and-mortar restaurants as well as a seasonal beer garden. ”It’s moved downtown’s center of gravity one block west,” said Hodesh, and boosted foot traffic for his happy neighbors. An unexpected bonus: the new lunch crowds cut across the city’s disparate demographics, painlessly bridging the gap between student and “townie” populations.

innovate2That’s the kind of organic placemaking that can happen when city officials open their doors to innovative thinking. It was one of the case studies presented at a recent Governing Innovation Workshop sponsored by the Michigan Municipal League at the Innovatrium, an Ann Arbor-based consulting firm that helps organizations reinvent themselves through creative thinking.

The goal was to help city leaders learn how to recognize the innovators in their own communities, and how to restructure their own processes in ways that will help them “connect the dots” to make these “small wins” a reality.

“When you ask what stops innovation, money isn’t one of them,” said workshop leader Chris Mueller. “It’s stuff like lengthy development time, lack of coordination, a fear of taking risks. We need to think smaller, faster, wider and let those small wins build momentum. But how do we become the host of the party and not the party itself? That’s the challenge.”

innovate1Sometimes it’s learning how to get out of the way, said Ann Arbor Community Services Area Administrator Sumedh Bahl.

“A city has rules for a reason, but there are always ways to help them navigate the rules,” said Bahl. “We have a role as regulators but our role as government is also to facilitate. When you leverage your citizens as a resource to get things done, you make them a partner to solve the problem.”

innovate4Jonesville Village Manager Adam Smith was inspired by the story of Detroit Soup, a neighborhood group that hosts a simple monthly dinner where attendees vote to fund small community projects with the money raised by the meal. Smith hopes to try a similar event in the Jonesville High School cafeteria, where attendees would vote to support projects proposed by student entrepreneurs.

He’s already met with officials from Jonesville Schools and the Hillsdale County ISD and is planning to present the idea to his village council soon.

“This is the kind of thing that could really start our young people on the road to success, and maybe someday they’ll look back and say this is where it all began,” said Smith. “It’s all about building relationships, and us just being the facilitator.”

innovate3The League is hoping to work with the Innovatrium on similar workshops in the future, and is working with Mueller’s team to improve the workshop’s model to make their innovation-themed learning even more applicable to local governments.

We’ll also follow up with Jonesville to see if they’ve been able to make their version of Soup a win for local teens!