G-Sync: We are the future now (reflections on UIX Detroit)

G-Sync's Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen traveled to Detroit last week to attend the first UIX Conference and reflects on why we are the future now. "This changes everything," says Allen. Need a nudge to start something new in your community? Read on.
As I drove back from Detroit on Sunday, I couldn't help being a bit overwhelmed as I processed nearly a week's worth of experiences from the Detroit Design Festival, DLECTRICITY, and the first Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) hosted by UIX Detroit and Claire Nelson, director at UIX.

It was hard to leave the conference, but it was harder to leave the city that had rewarded my visit with a cascading series of moments. Aided by my Brush Park Airbnb choice, I enjoyed the ability to ride my bike everywhere in the city due to its flatness, from the Bronx Bar to Cliff Bells to the Temple Bar, where I was entertained three times during the week with three very different experiences, ending with the best dance party this side of the '80s, Haute To Death
For all my racing about and not denying myself the traditional late-night Detroit One coney and chili cheese fries, I even managed to drop nearly 10 pounds. What a trifecta: inspired, well-fed, and a weight loss clinic all rolled into one city.
But the reason I was in Detroit was not to tour a bunch of facilities, as we have done over the past three years via Rapid Growth's bus trip series, but to listen to speakers from all over the Midwest who are facing the same issues that so many of us deal with at the local level every day.
Startups, artists, and community activist freely mingled throughout the three days of presentations and on-site tours that included stops at spots like McClure's Pickles and the bursting-at-the-seams ponyride – all the while fully exploring the complex topics of The Art of Place, The Future of Food, and The Maker Movement. 

Although Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corporation, meant his second day opening session speech to be a wake-up call for the food systems, as he shouted "Wake Up" to the shocked audience, it became abundantly clear this was the emotional punch every attendee at the UIX needed to hear. It was a rally cry to urban folks to wake up and start a new way of living in our cities. 
Carmody's talk really set the tone for those who would follow, including Kim Barman from Tiny Diner of Minneapolis, whose vision of how locally sourced food enjoyed out in the public arena with other community members can help rebuild our neighborhoods via the art of conversation. She has taken the oft-quoted "triple bottom line" method to a whole new level. Now, she's inspiring others to join in a model that is easily exported to other markets as a result of the UIX platform.
Even Detroit's Devita Davison, who used to work for Carmody at Eastern Market before going to work with FoodLab Detroit and the Detroit Kitchen Connect, brought a much-needed revival style presentation as she brought home the uneasy topic of why diversity, access, and collaboration are needed to ensure all people's needs are being addressed in the city's evolution. She presented fascinating tales of engagement around food justice, even sharing why she looks to church kitchens, a venue often quiet and unused for six days of the week, to become innovation centers where people are able to incubate new food methodologies for the community's betterment. 

Food is as big an issue in Detroit as it is here in Grand Rapids, with three out of the four Hatch Detroit startup competition winners coming from the food industry, including the 2014 project winner that Davison assists, Sister Pie. But if you think food talk is simply trendy, a host of speakers made sure we understood that the act of eating – or, in the modern sense, dining out -- is critical to a community's development and ability to connect.
Even people like Amy Kaherl of Detroit Soup reminded folks that if something isn't working for you, then tweak the code. In this example, Kaherl had tried to make the international Sunday Soup model work in Detroit, but when faced with declining numbers she, along with her members, decided that to jailbreak the code was the best way to make it more Detroit-appropriate. In the end, Detroit Soup has awarded more than $80,000 in micro grants, with the funds coming in via tiny donations from members attending the monthly event.
And lest one think UIXDET was simply an Up With People special edition devoted to the joys of city living, my spirit was rightly leveled when the keynote closing speaker, Mayor John Fetterman of Braddock, PA, so honestly shared the realities facing those who are attempting to perform miracles within the urban landscape with limited resources.
As he flashed on the screen a quote from HBO's Game of Thrones, numerous audience members' hands shot up into the air with camera phones. They were capturing this key phrase, which is really probably the best road map for any urban innovator to have tattooed on his or her arm: "Chaos isn't a pit, chaos is a ladder."
At the end, as many of us reflected in conversations on the emerging themes of this event, one theme rang especially true to all of us attending: Little things do matter and add up. So if you want to do something in your urban environment, you are going to have to fight for that vision and be willing to invest time and energy because there is not a lot of money out there. But passion is contagious so shine on.

(Okay, so the take-away cannot fit nicely on a t-shirt due to its complexity, but it is a fitting place to start.)
Luckily for those of us who attended as well as those who followed the social feeds of #UIXDET from afar, this conference was just the beginning. The next steps happen now, as the Knight Foundation's $5 Million Cities Challenge Grants applications open Oct, 1. Applications accepted through Nov. 14.
One of my personal take-away moments from my time in Detroit was not something I heard a speaker deliver but a conversation I remembered with then-GR Current director Jeff Royce at one of our many coffee meet-ups last year.
"What has been one observation you have encountered within Grand Rapids' emerging startup eco-system that you think gets missed?" I asked Royce who, at the time, had recently relocated his family here from Atlanta to become the director of our startup incubator space in downtown Grand Rapids. (Royce left GR Current in September 2014 to become the president of The Iserv Company.)
"I believe many miss that a lot of folks who have been in the workplace for some time often have a great idea or plan that is easier to move to an actionable step than most really think is possible," said Royce. "The sheer amount of life work experiences and connections of someone, say, in their 40s or 50s enables them more easily to take an idea to the next stage rather quickly."
But Royce reminded me that one thing is often missing from the generation he is referencing: the ability to take a risk. As we get older, it's crystal clear to me that taking risks is, well, riskier. All of us are conditioned to perform a certain way as we hop on a path to our golden years. But is playing it safe always the best path to a meaningful life?
UIX Detroit's conference, through its diversity of speakers, including late bloomers within the startup scene, showcased exactly how this could be possible. My stack of freshly acquired business cards offers proof that others understand and are willing to join entrepreneurs of any age at various points along the journey.
If there is a second annual UIX Detroit, I would love to see more people from West Michigan head over to the conference. It may not be what you think you need, but I can say, having attended with my eyes wide open, I am really glad I did because the changes in me have already begun to take hold.
As sponsor of this first UIX conference event, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's President Alberto Ibarguen (on stage with the foundation's Carol Coletta) had much to share with the standing room only crowd, saying, "That kind of creativity is what you can come to expect from this place."
And that kind of encouraging message from someone on the outside of our region is exactly what many of us need to hear. It gives us permission to live up to our ability to create a new life, just by stepping up and moving away from fear.
The Future Needs All of Us
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
Be sure to check out these four placemaking activities in G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!
Photos provided by UIX Detroit photographer Doug Coombe.