My Challenge Detroit impact project with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation’s Motor City Match program sought to increase the visibility of their brick and mortar retail businesses through leveraging the public mass transit provided by the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT). I picked this focus for my project, because it seemed so simple. However, it was through this project that I realized the inherent complexity of simplicity.

To outsiders, many of Detroit’s challenges seem so obvious that solutions themselves are assumed be simple. And by simple- I mean easy. Not only are the solutions projected to be turn key and logical, but the necessary human and capital resources minimal. “Detroiters are housing insecure – let’s build more homes. Detroiters are food insecure – let’s grow more food. Detroiters are underemployed – let’s create more jobs.”

Researching Greater Retail Visibility via Public Mass Transit

Similar to the aforementioned statements, my impact project possessed a level of naiveté which disallowed me from realizing the obvious nature of the problem I was trying to solve and which obscured its complexity from my vision. The approach to my project was so simple: “Many Detroit neighborhoods lack pedestrian foot traffic. Pedestrian foot traffic is good for retail businesses. Public mass transit generates street level pedestrian foot traffic. Thus let’s use public mass transit to help retail businesses.”

As a mass transit user in Detroit who is accustomed to more widely used systems, I quickly noticed when I moved here that I was often the only pedestrian on the city blocks in Northwest Detroit. This lack of foot traffic, which is key to the economic viability of any physical retail district, provides stark contrast to the streets of New York City and Boston which coincide with rapid mass transit routes.

When I began my project, the solution made sense: Convince DDOT to provide free interior advertising for Motor City Match, add signage for the Motor City Match businesses, and encourage for Motor City Match business to promote the bus route which operates along or near the same roadway on which the business is. Yes, I understood that I would encounter the usual hurdles of implementations, stakeholder requests and personalities.

Seeing complexity

However, as I began interviewing key project stakeholders and transit experts, I began to understand why so few businesses advertised on us, by we could not easily add bus shelters with signage, and how the program could easily be unsustainable. I encountered the regulations, capacity constraints, and organizational gaps which revealed the real complexity of a very simple project.

Who’s gonna pay for it? Who’s gonna oversee the maintenance of this work? Who will manage this program? Who get’s paid?

Through listening to community stakeholders, I learned that the solution I was developing would not effectively be managed by any one partner. A coalition would be needed and would be difficult to construct due to the limited capacity of each partner.

Capacity: Being realistic about what can be accomplished

During my time as a Challenge Detroit fellow, the concept of capacity has become increasingly tangible. Before, when I was working for, the company’s NYC office had a small team but always had a strong budget for marketing and programming. At the Zicklin School of Business, project budgets were often tight, but there always enough people to complete tasks. However during my time as a fellow I encountered the reality that many organizations in Detroit lack the human, financial, and in some instances, social capital necessary to sustain and maintain programs.

As I began my impact project, I realized that a simple solution for retail visibility would be needed, but that I could not be simple minded. I had to understand both the root problems and the nature of the organizations that would be needed to implement the solution. By acknowledging and negotiate the complexities of potential partner organizations, a solution, which can be supported internally within each partner and that simplistically addresses a complex problem, can be developed.

Beneath Detroit’s seemingly obvious challenges are complex realities and structures. We must strive for simplicity born out of a deep understanding of our challenges and opportunities. To be simple minded and stubborn about our city’s future will only allow for the original and very visible problem to persist.

Being smart, accomplished, or rich will solve our city’s problems. Instead, the development of sustainable solutions requires patience and humility. It requires a willingness to learn the history of the problem, address each component of the problem, and to incentivize the need for the necessary partners to implement and sustain the solution.