October 27, 2009
Can Detroit Be Saved?
Taking Matters In His Own Hands
Recognizing the shortfalls in the city’s public school system, particularly in the sciences, Keith Young decided to do something about it on his own. As founder and executive adviser for Ecotek, a nonprofit scientific research organization, Young helps develop future global scientists and young inventors. “The goal is to put them in a position, through hands-on work, to be able to compete with other folks around the world,â€ he says.
There are currently 15 children, ages 10 through 17, in the 5-year-old program, funded through Young’s business consulting service combined with not-for-profit grants. He cites that virtually all Ecotek projects, including the development of biofuels from ingredients such as soybeans, corn, and grape seed oil, originate with United Nations member countries. He asserts: “The expectation is that through my experience and background and access to resources, it will create opportunities for our kids to work and develop as global leaders.â€ His goal: open up as many research laboratories as possible in the United States and abroad while ensuring student scientists are able to develop inventions and gain recognition–not only in the form of scholarships–but also notoriety in their fields.
Young believes the sciences are critical to Detroit’s future. “If we do not bite into this apple called scientific research and get on the cutting edge of biotech, biomaterials, geospacial technology, and all the different technologies that drive location-based knowledge, we’re finished, it’s over,â€ he says. “We won’t be able to sell enough cars to recover what we have lost.â€
Overhauling a city is a dauntingly complex task–one fraught with thousands of potential missteps that could derail any potential progress. Once the nation’s eighth largest city and producer of nearly half of America’s steel, Pittsburgh hit rock bottom in the 1980s when competitive pressures from Germany and Japan led to a decline in the U.S. steel industry. Eerily reminiscent of Detroit’s situation, Steel City was battered by widespread layoffs (unemployment reached a staggering 18.2% in January 1983), mill closures, and mass departure of nearly half of its population, from approximately 600,000 residents to some 360,000 by 1990.
However, the city administrators shifted its economic base by attracting new industries and offering incentives to a range of corporations. “We’ve reinvented ourselves since the downsizing of the steel industry and some of our other industries in the 1980s,â€ says Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center. “That has allowed us to diversify into things like high-tech industries, robotics, healthcare, nuclear engineering, financial services, and education.â€ In addition, foundations and corporations endowed many of the city’s arts institutions, contributing to a higher quality of life.
While struggling with many issues urban centers are facing in today’s brutal economy, Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate (as of July) was 7.8 % vs. 9.7% for the entire U.S. And while the city’s poverty levels are high at 20.1% (the most recent figures available), it remains substantially below Detroit’s 33.8%. “I think Pittsburgh is actually doing better than the rest of the country,â€ says Masich. Underscoring this, Pittsburgh was named most livable city in the U.S. by The Economist earlier this year.