Michigan has the parts to build a powerful economic engine. They just need to be connected.

Feb 15, 2018

The Next Idea


Well, it’s been three years since we started The Next Idea. The aim of the project was to showcase the wide array of amazing people and communities here in Michigan, and how they make innovation happen every day, everywhere, and in every way.


Looking back, we have heard the diverse voices and perspectives of artists, educators, community leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, and inventors; the young and old and everyone in between from all the regions of the Great Lakes State.


Anyone looking for creative ideas, domain expertise, or best practices for innovation need only search the hundreds of essays and interviews on The Next Idea page. Collectively, they contain a blueprint for moving our state forward.

I would like to leave you with a few thoughts on the challenges that still lay before us.

Education, or our lack of it to be specific, continues to be our biggest obstacle. Our primary and secondary school test scores in key STEM areas continue to fall below the national average. More so, the achievement gap continues to be unacceptably wide.

To compound matters, falling teacher wages and school conditions in the state have driven many of our most promising prospects out of the profession, creating a shortage of qualified applicants. We need to recommit ourselves to supporting our teachers, not only though competitive pay, but also better working conditions. The future of this state starts with our children.

"'Focus' should be our slogan for the New Year, and for the foreseeable future. Let's focus on what is unique to Michigan."

The relatively low number of Michigan residents with college degrees can be seen as an extension of our challenges with K through 12 education. While there are many career options that do not require an advanced degree, well-paying professions — particularly in an increasingly technology and data driven economy — typically do. The cost of a quality college education continues to escalate well beyond the rate of inflation, putting a college degree out of reach for many Michigan students. If we are to keep our best and brightest young adults here at home, we need to find imaginative ways to help them finance their education, such as the Kalamazoo Promise.

Perhaps the most self-inflicted impediment to innovation in our state is regionalism. Simply look at the voting record of our legislature, and the east-side, west-side schism becomes obvious. We are one state, but for all practical purposes operate as two, diminishing prospects all around.

To a native son like myself, raised in Kalamazoo and living in Ann Arbor, the value of building economic bridges between the two sides is obvious. We have all the parts to build a powerful economic engine, but they need to be connected and synchronized.

Ann Arbor has more venture capital per person than any city in the United States. It is a dynamic technology incubator and entrepreneurial hub. Grand Rapids has a strong community of mid-cap companies, many family owned, with plenty of good paying jobs. The Detroit comeback has been astonishing. Many of the largest companies in America are in headquartered in the greater Metro area. They are experiencing a revitalization as autonomous vehicles and alternative forms of power generation are rapidly creating new markets.

While it's promising to see business leaders from both sides of the state beginning to rebuild Michigan’s economic engine, linking small to medium to large companies, it’s discouraging to see what can only be described as useless political infighting. Maybe it’s better to just move forward without the support of our legislature. They can’t even fix the roads in a state best known for its automobiles. 

Let’s get behind transportation 2.0. There is a huge shortage of truck drivers in U.S., so the current market for viable, commercial autonomous vehicles is enormous. As car ownership dwindles, ride sharing will expand. New forms of mass transit are needed in our largest urban corridors and our most distant rural areas. Think hybrid buses, light rail, and regional jets.

“Focus” should be our slogan for the new year, and for the foreseeable future. Let’s focus on what is unique to Michigan. We are a world leader in power generation, including clean tech. We are surrounded by 84 percent of North America's surface freshwater — an increasingly scarce commodity. Let’s reinvest in our water treatment plants, and new methods of water reclamation and conditioning. Let’s improve and increase trade with America’s largest trading partner, Canada, by building that bridge.  

Finally, let’s get into a new state of mind so that we may create a new state of Michigan. Sure, we were once the Arsenal of Democracy, or the Motor City, and even the Water Winter Wonderland. But that was long ago and far away. It’s time we tell ourselves a different story. The story about how we are overcoming our challenges, constructing hybrid solutions, and driving innovation ever onward. What happens next is full of promise. We are optimistic, brave, and resourceful. We have to be, given the weather.

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and our partner on The Next Idea. 

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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