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Four Lessons In Resilience From Detroit

“We’re All Pollyannas,” says the founder of TEDxDetroit.

Four Lessons In Resilience From Detroit

At Fast Company, we’ve been closely following Detroit’s tribulations, like its bankruptcy filing earlier this summer, as well as the spirit of its community of entrepreneurs.

Both will be on display on October 2nd when the 5th annual TEDxDetroit conference draws about 1,000 people to the Cobo convention center, along with corporate sponsors like GM and Quicken.

Charlie Wollborg, the head of a local marketing firm, was one of the first people to reach out five years ago when the TED organization put the word out that it would sanction locally-organized offshoot events.

“When they announced the TEDx program they said they were looking for volunteers and I immediately raised my hand,” he explains. “They said, ok, have at it. I said, who’s in charge? They said, You are.”

Despite the continued bad news coming out of the city lately, Wollborg says he’s looking forward to this year more than ever. “The theme hasn’t changed since 2009,” he says. “We’re shining a light on the city’s rebirth.”


Researchers find a definite link between determined optimism and the ability to weather adversity. When I ask about the grimness of the latest news out of Detroit, Wollborg jokes, “Nonsense! We’re all Pollyannas here.” But seriously, he says, “That’s one of the reasons we did this. If it was burning, bleeding, or bankrupt, that was the only story they were telling out of Detroit.”

The conference this year is packed with successful stories of local entrepreneurs, scientists, activists, and artists: from the Backyard Brains crew doing crowdfunded DIY neuroscience, to a regional resurgence in breweries, wineries, and cider, to Detroit Bike City, whose Slow Roll is the largest weekly community ride in the country.


Psychological resilience is fed by the strength of people’s social networks and relationships.

Jason Hall, a lifelong Detroiter, started the Slow Roll, a Monday night bicycle ride, when he was looking for a house to buy and fix-up in a forgotten part of the city. Last week Slow Roll drew 1,300 people, many of whom are would-be homesteaders like him. “Every week we plan a new route that takes people through the good and the bad,” he says. “We’re not sugarcoating what Detroit is, but there’s so much positive stuff going on if you allow yourself to see it.”


Andrew Zolli’s recent book Resilience, a system-wide study of the title trait, argues that loose, decentralized networks made up of many small pieces can recover faster after a big shock than large, monolithic institutions.

Stories about big efforts like the bailout of the auto industry or Quicken chair Dan Gilbert’s efforts to buy up and refurbish areas of Detroit’s downtown are well-known. From the beginning, TEDxDetroit has focused instead on the kinds of one or two-person efforts, like Hall’s. It turns out there are a lot of those stories to tell. “This year we had 100+ applications for 24 slots,” says Wollborg of TEDxDetroit. “We could do one of these every month.”


Resilient ecosystems are diverse ecosystems; monocultures (think big-agriculture, like Florida’s orange groves) are fragile.

Wollborg uses the metaphor of “charged particles,” the idea that putting people with divergent backgrounds in a room together will yield more than the sum of its parts. “As you sit in the auditorium you go from the right brain to the left brain and back,” he says. “We have beat poets, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, thinkers and doers. We want to be a creative spark– a perpetual motion machine of cool things happening in Detroit.”

[Image: Flickr user John Roney]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.



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