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Detroit hosts World Economic Forum summit as organization ramps up activities in city

The Detroit News 
Dec. 7, 2021
Jordyn Grzelewski 

Detroit this week played host to the World Economic Forum’s inaugural summit on cities, as the Switzerland-based non-governmental organization ramps up its new global Centre for Urban Transformation that will be headquartered in the city.

The invitation-only event convened participants from business, government and civil society for a series of virtual and in-person events Monday through Wednesday. The focus on cities, Jeff Merritt, the forum’s head of urban transformation, told The Detroit News, was “a no-brainer. … The majority of the world’s population is moving more in that direction and that’s the hub of the global economy.”

“Our city governments in particular are having to bear an unrealistic burden of that responsibility, in terms of the expectations for solving these problems,” he said. “And so the World Economic Forum’s an international organization for public-private collaboration, and our work is really about advancing public-private collaboration to make more sustainable, inclusive cities.”

Public-private partnerships were touted by city business, government and nonprofit leaders as the driver of some of Detroit’s progress and as a possible solution for many of the thorny issues it continues to face, such as poverty and wealth inequality.

“There is so much that government can’t do by itself,” said Mayor Mike Duggan. “We don’t need any more think tanks, we don’t need any more papers. We need public-private partnerships. We know what the barriers are that are holding our residents back.”

Workshops and activities at the summit focused on topics including infrastructure, urban design, green buildings and health. Speakers included several mayors from around the world, including Duggan; Christian Ulbrich, the CEO of commercial real estate firm JLL; and Mary Culler, president of the Ford Fund, among others.

The World Economic Forum in August announced plans to establish a global Centre for Urban Transformation downtown that would serve as a hub for public-private collaborations. The center, which currently has space in Bedrock Detroit’s First National Building but eventually plans to locate within the Bedrock-owned site of the failed Wayne County jail project, will work in collaboration with WEF’s offices in Beijing, Geneva, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo, the organization said at the time.

The forum’s presence in the city prompted a protest downtown Monday, the Detroit Metro Times reported, with demonstrators speaking out against the use of tax dollars to fund public-private initiatives that they said have failed to benefit city residents.

“The goal of government is to deliver for its residents,” Merritt said of such criticisms. “So should you be using tax dollars that don’t deliver for the residents? No, absolutely not. … our mission is to ensure that we’re focused on equity and we’re focused on benefits for all.”

Meanwhile, Detroit was chosen as the initiative’s headquarters, he said, because: “We think there’s a story to tell here in Detroit.

“We also think there’s a lot of real big challenges in Detroit that need addressed and that we see an opportunity here for Detroit to learn some things from the rest of the world, to share some things with the rest of the world and develop some unique collaborations.”

He noted, too, the way the city has used public-private partnerships in the past to address some of its challenges, such as the Strategic Neighborhood Fund that is leveraging philanthropic dollars to revitalize 10 areas.

What the forum’s Detroit-based initiatives will look like is still taking shape, he said. But one program the center is developing is a fellowship program to “better connect local efforts to our international global network.”

And in October, the forum announced the selection of Detroit, Denver and the Miami area as participants in a “City Strategy Dialogues” initiative that will focus on a priority in each area that local government resources can’t fully solve. Detroit’s priority area is yet to be determined, Merritt said, though he said he’s particularly interested on local economic development strategies.

“I do think that there’s a lot of opportunity here to look at how are we creating wealth generation here in a way that it’s not just about moving money from here to there,” he said. “We actually have to be bringing more money into Detroit.”

Wealth creation was one area of improvement that Bedrock CEO Kofi Bonner pointed to in a panel discussion during the summit: “We have to fundamentally deal with the fact that we’re dealing with a capitalistic system,” he said. “And in that capitalistic system, in order for people to thrive, they must grow wealth.”

Asked about how to bring members of the public into the fold of public-partnerships and center Detroiters in such efforts, Bonner said organizations such as his have to execute on their promises. To that end, he said, Bedrock is identifying “fairly large areas of property” where it can partner with the city and others on “district-scale improvements that begin to deal with sustainable infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, Culler, who is heading up Ford Motor Co.’s Michigan Central Station redevelopment in Corktown, acknowledged the project’s potential pitfalls: “We’re moving 5,000 people into the oldest neighborhood in Detroit, so all you have to do is look around the country and understand what kind of impact that might have.”

“We’ve been working for the last three years to try to get ahead of it. I have gone all across the country, I have benchmarked a million projects, I’ve tried to see how people have handled gentrification,” she said. “Nobody has done it well. My feeling is, we can crack this nut here. And we’re going to crack it.”

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