Dear Mr. Bezos,
I hear you’re looking for a new home to grow your business. Detroit is not my hometown, but after many years of searching for a home, I found it here. I've lived in Kentucky, California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, Maryland and other parts of Michigan, but I’ve never been welcomed to or impressed by a city more than Detroit. I set up shop here, and you should too. Let me tell you why.
One hundred years ago, Detroit was home to a revolution in manufacturing. Henry Ford disrupted a time- and labor-intensive process by putting it on an assembly line. This advancement in manufacturing (and the production demands of a world at war) helped to create opportunities for high-school educated blue-collar employees to lift themselves into the middle class, raise families and put their kids through college. Henry Ford’s assembly line wasn’t just new technology, it was also a social innovation.
Amazon carries on the lineage of great technological and social innovations, from online shopping to Alexa. But for a company known for pushing the next idea, is an 8 million square foot megaplex really how Amazon plans to compete with Apple, Facebook or Google for top talent? Having studied innovative cultures and work places for the past six years, I challenge you to look beyond the megaplex model, which, in the long term, leaves Amazon employees culturally isolated. Think bigger. What if with HQ2, Amazon could bring about another wave of technological and social innovation?
Rather than a megaplex in an established downtown corporate district, Amazon should invest in workspaces around Detroit connecting existing buildings and communities into an expanded vision of HQ2, an Amazon (net)Work. Why? Statistics on quality of life suggest that commute time to work is one of the major predictors of social and financial mobility. Co-locating work and home lifts people up, improves mental and physical health, and reduces congestion. The key feature of the digital revolution is that we can bring centers of work out to the people, rather than carting people to work. As we make this transition, personal transportation evolves towards a relaxing leisure activity and away from a maddening necessity.
Instead of faster public transit for employees, what Amazon needs is faster information superhighways. The U.S. has some of the slowest internet speeds in the developed world. At a recent roundtable on mobility someone asked ‘Wouldn’t teleportation be great?’ With haptics, a VR room, and a little imagination, Amazon can move its executives at the speed of light. You can be in two (or 10) places at once within a distributed headquarters, and host meeting in Amazon’s cloud. This disrupts an outdated, 20th century model of work. Employees save on commute times, cut down CO2 emissions, and increase quality of life.
Alexa, sign me up.
As "Earth’s most customer centric company," have you thought of treating employees like customers? Let’s face it, not all employees want to live in urban centers. Cater to top talent in every demographic, in all parts of the city with locations nearby to each. If Starbucks can put a coffee house on every corner, I’m sure Amazon can put a (net)Work hub on my street corner, too. The future of work is at places where employees can stay local while thinking, interacting, and working globally.
Corporations of Amazon’s scale have to embrace a global context. As a faculty member at Wayne State University, I am witness to a campus and community that embraces and welcomes a melting pot of cultures from around the world. I’ve seen first-hand how this city powers innovation thanks to its diversity. Detroit is a city of natives blending with immigrants, with skills in manufacturing, finance, design, and innovation. I am certain Detroit is poised and ready to supply a workforce that will trail-blaze with Amazon and lead the global economy into the next century, the way it did with Ford 100 years ago. Together we can show the world how to build a new generation that offers entry into the digital middle class and grow a city of digital natives mixing with digital immigrants.
Jeff, I’ll be the first to admit Detroit doesn’t have what you’ve asked for, but I’ll be the first one to tell you we’ve got what you need. Innovation is all about bending the rules to solve the right problem and there’s no better home for innovation than Detroit. Drop by and I’ll show you all the cool stuff we’ve got going on. Make no mistake about it, there is opportunity waiting in Detroit.
See you soon,
W. Ethan Eagle
Dr. W. Ethan Eagle is an assistant professor at Wayne State University.
The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.