6 Innovators Guild Detroit

IG: Detroit Update

After a few days here in Detroit, the groups have made amazing progress on their challenges. The challenges were:


  • DIY Lighting: Solutions that help citizens create outdoor lighting
  • Digital Community: Online infrastructure for connecting—offline and in-person
  • Air Monitoring: Citizen-powered systems for monitoring and reporting air quality
  • DIY Soil Safety: Creating ways for ordinary citizens to better understand their soil
  • Compost Rotation: Developing solutions for scalable urban agriculture

We’ll roll out more details about each team’s work over the next few weeks, but here’s a preview.

Air Monitoring

Talking about air monitoring

Within a few hours of beginning our challenges, the air testing team (above) strapped a particulate sensor to a laptop and took it out to grab samples and talk to local residents about air monitoring. Their conversations revealed that there’s a wide spectrum of perceptions about air and air quality. Their ultimate goal is to provide citizens with ways to regain agency over their air. Inspired by Detroit’s vibrant graffiti culture, they have identified opportunities for both data collection and creative expression that make the invisible visible, via tools both to collect data and “tag” pollution.

1980-01-01 00.00.09-2


The lighting team, (De)Constructing Light, (above) discovered through talking to residents that light and community are closely related. Without communication, a neighborhood is just a neighborhood; light is a pure form of communication that helps us form community and make connections. Offering people ways to reshape and personalize the things they care about and use every day makes them care about those things more. Educating residents about what’s possible was an important first step, and more important than actually building a perfect light.

In a workshop on Sunday at the Mt. Elliott Makerspace, the team showed a group of kids that finished objects are not always finished—we can take things apart and reuse them in different, and sometimes more useful, ways. They led the workshop through a project that involved taking apart and re-imagining a flashlight, teaching participants that disassembling an object can be a metaphor for empowerment.

Compost team

Team Compost

Joe and Nadya

David Mellis

The compost team, Black Gold, (above) is educating and enabling people about home worm composting. They’re also making available a community-wide composting system. The team decided use worms for a few reasons: they create usable compost as much as six times faster than aerobic composting, and they generate higher-quality compost; in addition, using worms for composting eliminates the need to flip compost, one of the more labor-intensive and difficult aspects of aerobic composting. Finally, the worms self-perpetuate, so they can be shared with friends and neighbors indefinitely.

Community team

Detroit Digital Board

The community team (above) is creating a network of billboards and interactive in-store displays in community hubs around Detroit, the Detroit Digital Board or D-board. The D-board will allow for richer information sharing within and across communities, by showcasing local events, community resources, and positive messages in public spaces. This project will allow Detroiters to inform themselves, changing the urban environment by conveying positive, community-focused information.

Soil samples


The soil team (above) has created CitySoil: Detroit, a three-part plan to engage, educate, and share information about how to test soil and improve soil performance. They’re working on ways to educate residents about what questions to ask about their soil; how to test the soil and what to look for in the results; and how to share this information with neighbors and other residents through tools like interactive maps and data visualizations.

This summer we started talking about forming a group for innovators, and decided to begin the initiative with a hands-on project in Detroit. We knew that things would grow and change, and that we’d need to be agile and flexible (two qualities important to fostering innovation). Members of the Media Lab team have made a few trips to Detroit, and a group of Detroiters came here to the Lab to see what we’re about on our home turf.

This event has changed from what we’d originally envisioned, and we’re glad of that—we think that now it more accurately reflects the kind of work already being done in Detroit, as well as plays to the strengths of the Lab and our member company and event co-producer IDEO.


This work builds upon Knight Foundation‘s already existing commitment to foster information sharing and engagement in Detroit communities. Together, the Media Lab, IDEO, and Knight are excited to work on a series of design challenges with a mix of the Lab’s own special alchemical blend of uniqueness, impact, and magic.

So what’s next? We’re heading back to Detroit October 5-8 for our first meeting, and to get things started we brainstormed with and listened to our new Detroit friends to come up with a few starting-off points that fit with the needs and concerns in their communities. We framed some challenges that will, we hope, empower all of us and create community.


  • DIY Lighting: Solutions that help citizens create outdoor lighting
  • Digital Community: Online infrastructure for connecting—offline and in-person
  • Air Monitoring: Citizen-powered systems for monitoring and reporting air quality
  • DIY Soil Safety: Creating ways for ordinary citizens to better understand their soil
  • Compost Rotation: Developing solutions for scalable urban agriculture

We’ll have one team per challenge, with each team made up of Detroiters + Media Labbers + IDEO designers + expert friends + industry innovators. We envision the challenges as jumping-off points for the teams. Some might end up with a totally different result than the challenge, but the important thing is to look, listen, and learn from our surroundings and collaborators.

We’ll all be blogging, tweeting, and posting while we’re in Detroit and after we get home, so that others can see what we’re working on, meet our Detroit collaborators, and join the conversation. Our hashtag will be #IGDetroit.

We’ll check back in again with a blog post before we head to Detroit, to share more details about some of the team members.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Compasses Over Maps

At the Media Lab, I’ve been working on principles that define our DNA and our world view. One of these is Compasses Over Maps. The idea is that in a world of massive complexity, speed, and diversity, the cost of mapping and planning details often exceeds the cost of just doing something–and the maps are often wrong.

We experienced this firsthand during our trip to Detroit over the weekend.

In early July, we announced a new initiative: The Innovators Guild. Our idea was to bring the best and brightest chief innovation officers on a field trip to work together with our students, faculty, and local innovators in a community and do an impactful hackathon. The plan was to do a one-time thing in a bunch of cities around different themes. Detroit was the first on our list.

The general idea—the compass heading—was right, but the details were wrong in many ways.

We knew we had to go in to listen, be humble, and not try to be top down and prescriptive, but we were surprised nonetheless.

We met incredible people—smart, practical, passionate, driven, focused—doing amazing things. These people were tired of privileged “do gooders” coming in like tourists doing unsustainable superficial stuff and then just taking off or convening meetings and doing a lot of blah blah blah. “Are you here to blow smoke up our ass like everyone else?” There was a lot of baggage and they were skeptical, and rightly so. Detroit is “exciting” in many wrong ways to people who want to “help.”

But before we innovated on anything, we needed to listen and build trust. We realized immediately that to do that we had to think long term and in a sustainable way, while working closely with the people on the ground. This wouldn’t be just a three-day hackathon, but rather a long-term project connecting us to a network of networks in Detroit.

Urban Farm

Brother Nature Farm in Detroit | Joi Ito Photo | CC BY 2.0

We were amazed and humbled by the complexity of Detroit’s various networks, as well as their tensions and cohesion. Once we started making individual connections, we found that beneath the skepticism was a passion and cautious excitement. We discovered that there were definitely connections that could be cultivated into real relationships where we would learn, share, build, and grow together.


Greg of Brother Nature Farm | Joi Ito Photo | CC BY 2.0

One of these relationships is with Jeff Sturges, our guide on the ground in Detroit. Jeff runs the Mt. Elliott Makerspace in the basement of Church of the Messiah, and is just the first of many like-minded, creative individuals we anticipate inviting to the Media Lab as part of an ongoing collaboration.

We are super excited about the future of the Innovators Guild and our engagement in Detroit. And while our map was wrong, we listened and pivoted to this new plan, which I think is even more exciting. We returned to Boston completely energized and inspired, and can’t wait to go back to Detroit with more of our team to see what kind of work we can do with our new friends.

Joi Ito is director of the Media Lab.


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