USC Price School of Public Policy

New inquiry highlights important lessons from Detroit for other American cities

December 2, 2016

Bold leadership, effective strategies, changes in roles of governance, philanthropy offer potential help for other American cities.

Shining a light on the strategies and leadership driving the revitalization of Detroit, a new inquiry by The USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy examines the potential relevance of these forces for other American cities and their significance for national urban policy and practice.

The analysis, undertaken in partnership with The Kresge Foundation and published in the Winter Issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), contends that the work underway to transform Detroit represents a potent force for change for legacy cities in the American Rustbelt, and that all cities can learn a great deal from the experience of Detroit.

“This work makes clear that changing roles and relationships between government and philanthropy, innovative economic strategies and new approaches to cross-sector leadership have the potential to make a real difference in addressing the needs of American cities,” says James M. Ferris, a professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the Director of The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy (The Center). “Detroit’s experience offers highly relevant insights for all cities to chart brighter futures.”

The SSIR supplement, Bold Leadership and the Future of American Cities: Drawing on Detroit, is based on a series of interviews and roundtable discussions with leaders from the public, private and philanthropic sectors in Detroit and across the nation. A national advisory committee provided ideas and context for the inquiry, and leaders from across the country provided input at a national forum on leadership and the future of American cities in May of 2016.

“It’s easy to suggest that the inventive approaches that are developing in Detroit were only possible because of the economic crisis,” says Elwood Hopkins, Founder and Principal of Emerging Markets, who co-led the inquiry with The Center. “But there was already a scaffolding in place and a nascent capacity for cross-sector collaboration that was borne from previous experiences and efforts working together.”

The findings are reported in four articles examining opportunity in urban crisis, the role of philanthropy as catalyst, the importance of building economic flywheels, and the role and importance of cross-sector leadership. The analysis offers important ideas and has significant implications for governance and philanthropy. Key insights include:

Traditional roles must change in order to solve urban problems. The inventive approaches and strategies seen in Detroit represent a new framework for urban governance in which the roles and responsibilities of philanthropy, business and the public sector are rethought and rearranged, and leaders adapt and collaborate to solve problems.

Philanthropy can be a catalyst for change. Philanthropic leaders can take risks and foundations are uniquely positioned to play catalytic roles in cities. They can spark new action within government and the market, help negotiate partnerships, coordinate fragmented resources, and strengthen the capacity of civic leaders to carry out complex, sustained revitalization initiatives. As Detroit illustrates, foundations can even catalyze solutions to fiscal emergencies.

Economic flywheels enable regional economic growth. The strategy in Detroit emphasizes small businesses and the creation of small retail districts where business communities can form, and the impact of revitalization can be expanded. Challenges remain in forging connections to anchor institutions, regional industries and global trade in ways that create a flywheel effect.

Cross-sector leadership needs to be the norm. Detroit has fundamentally challenged and changed notions of what urban leadership looks like and demonstrates the need for public, business, and philanthropic leaders to work together in new ways. There is a critical need for cities to balance traditional, formal leadership structures with expanded leadership models where individuals and institutions work collaboratively to solve public problems.

“Philanthropy has acted boldly in Detroit in reimaging the city’s future through a number of catalytic actions,” says Rip Rapson, President and CEO of The Kresge Foundation. “The challenge of revitalizing Detroit has created an opening for philanthropy to step up in a leadership role, making big bets on civic infrastructure. We are thoughtfully marshalling enormous forces and innovative ideas to create a new and better future for Detroit, and, in the process, trying to shed light on how other American cities might learn from this work and how to apply these lessons.”

In examining the effort to revitalize Detroit, the inquiry identifies two key elements that have made the experience possible and offer lessons for government, philanthropy and others for moving forward.

The first is the vital importance of cross-sector leadership. Detroit has fostered the development of leaders, institutions and ideas from all sectors and sections of the city, collecting ideas and creating a sense of momentum. And, while it has built a broad and diverse base of leadership, it has also drawn upon exemplary and visionary leaders who stand out as examples for others and model effective practices. Leadership has also evolved into more flexible roles with those in the public, private and philanthropic sectors taking on different tasks and responsibilities depending on circumstances and capacities and reinforcing each other. These leaders have formed and drawn upon formal and informal networks to nurture collaboration and achieve shared objectives.

Secondly, the inquiry identifies a set of frameworks and approaches that have been effective in Detroit and offer potential for other cities. These include creating a capacity to organize ideas and recognize how they fit into larger systems, and establishing ambitious long-term strategies as early as possible. It is also important to build a protected environment where leaders and institutions can gain respite from chaotic forces in order to develop new ideas, take on new roles and risks, and develop new strategies. Cities in distress must also mount tangible efforts to build or repair public trust. The report further urges cities to prepare for crises before they occur, cultivating leadership, building institutional capacities and forming relationships across sectors that can help them become more resilient.

“Our hope is that this work will lead to a broader, deeper conversation about problem solving strategies and leadership styles that come with a changing of roles across the sectors,” concludes Ferris. “We believe that such bold leadership can give rise to new models of urban governance that can help to assure a bright, vital future for American cities.”


Bold Leadership and the Future of American Cities: Drawing on Detroit can be downloaded online as well as via the Stanford Social Innovation Review, where it is being published as a supplement in its winter issue (ssir.org).

The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information:
Please contact Nicholas Williams, Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at npwillia@usc.edu or 213-740-8557.