While it’s sad to see Detroit forced to seek bankruptcy protection, it’s not exactly a surprise either. If anything positive is to be made of the situation, it’s that the city is now a case study in how not to adapt to changing times and realities.
In a nutshell, the Motor City is in dire straits precisely because it couldn’t stop being the Motor City – it couldn’t diversify its economy from auto manufacturing fast enough, thereby leading to a steady, decades-long exodus of the population. As the people left, so did the tax base and so did the services. If there’s a better example of resultant urban decay, it’s hard to find.
Detroit could have escaped its present fate had it emulated Pittsburgh. The two cities used to be joined at the figurative hip, with one supplying the steel needed by the other. Pittsburgh officials, however, saw the writing on the wall a long time ago and smartly moved to diversify their economy. The “Steel City” is now hardly anything but; it’s a medical, financial and even robotics centre, with one of the healthiest economies in the United States to show for it.
It’s obviously too late for Detroit to diversify now; any revitalization is going to require dramatic political action and intervention. There are plenty of suggestions floating around, from huge public works projects to massive government bailouts. The Washington Post published a roundup of some of the craziest ideas over the weekend, which ranged from making the city a completely tax-free zone to giving it to Canada (I think I speak for my country in saying: we don’t want it).
None of the ideas seem particularly feasible, at least on their own. Detroit’s rehabilitation, if at all possible, is going to require a multi-faceted approach and many years to accomplish. What that will be at this point is anyone’s guess.
But since the crazy ideas are being lobbed around, I thought I’d toss in a few of my own.
Over the years, the city has served as the setting of much dystopian science-fiction. Why not embrace that image? My suggestion, as crazy as it may be, is to build a giant wall around Detroit, at which point at least five economy-building options become possible:
Robot testing ground: Pittsburgh became a robotics centre by developing world-leading programs at universities such as Carnegie Mellon. Lacking such institutions, Detroit could attract roboticists by giving them freer reign to test their creations. With fewer and fewer regular citizens running around by the day but an ever-escalating number of criminals, the city seems like the perfect place to test out robot police officers. It doesn’t even have to be that dystopian – such robots could be programmed to be courteous to the few citizens remaining, perhaps to the point where they even thank them for their co-operation.
Reality TV arena: We’ve had reality TV shows that have required contestants to jump from moving trucks, scale helicopter ladders and fire tank cannons. Why not experiment with new methods of law enforcement – not to mention entertainment – by having convicted felons compete against each other amid the deserted urban decay while being chased by colourful, WWE-like law enforcers? A hockey-themed show could even take advantage of the city’s long history in the sport.
Profiling hotbed: Speaking of high crime and law enforcement, how about testing the upper limits of profiling and big data collection? A new police department could be opened up where such information was tested in the interest of predicting crime before it actually happened. Add in three-dimensional, gesture-controlled computer displays and some flying cars and you’ve got the police force of the future.
Mega-prison: Since we’ve already erected walls and there are a lot of criminals there, why not just evacuate all the remaining law abiders from Detroit and ship in all the nation’s incarcerated? The most important thing to avoid in this scenario is having the president’s plane fly over the city. If, by some fluke of nature, it was forced to crash land in the city, an unlikely hero would have to be found to perform the rescue.
Memory modification: How about making the city a hotbed of neuroscience by lowering the regulations regarding experimentation on humans? We’re only a few years away from being able to modify memories, which means Detroit residents’ minds could be reprogrammed so that they forget they’re actually living in Detroit. Rather, they could think they’re secret agents working toward freeing a colony on Mars from tyrannical rules. And what the heck, since we’re at it, the city could allow physical modification at the same time, making possible heads growing out of people’s stomachs and triple breasts.
Anyone else have any dystopian-lunatic ideas?