What makes us all the same… but all different?

One of my earliest childhood memories was looking across at my sister and trying to figure out why we seemed so different from one another. I was blonde and my sister was brunette. My hair was thick and curly; my sister’s was straight and fine. As we got older, the differences in our personalities, our talents, our strengths and weaknesses, even our outlooks on life, became more obvious and pronounced. All those character traits that say we are, each of us, unique and that go a long way in determining how we relate to the world. I still find it fascinating how two people with the same genes, brought up in the same environment, with the same care, love and attention, can develop into such radically different people.

That notion of the divergence in all our lives leads on to other questions, like how we face the problems, disappointments and successes that are part and parcel of existence. What is it that makes one person capable of overcoming adversity, and even grower stronger in the face of it, while another person folds under the pressure? I think the differences are there somewhere in our characters. Those indefinable inner strengths which make one person stand up and fight while another accepts defeat. I was thinking about this while watching the depressing news about Detroit, the largest city in America ever to declare itself bankrupt. The 20th Century is often called the American Century. Just think about the extraordinary ways the US has dominated the economic, scientific, political and cultural landscapes of the globe. And if you wanted to choose two icons of that 20th century American genius and confidence, you might well pick one of the mass produced automobiles, created in the Motor City of Detroit, and the music that was borne on that back of that industry; the Motown sound.

So how could such a thriving, thrusting, confident city, famed the world over, be allowed to decline to the extent where it becomes bankrupt; an entire community failed? Many cities in America were badly hit by the economic downturn and by the tough, new global competition for industry and jobs, especially from emerging powers like China. But despite their problems, other US cities have managed to pull themselves around, to rebuild and re-organise. What is it about Detroit that led to its failure?

If we look at those two famed products of the city; one is manufacturing and the other is in the creative industry. These two sectors are unrelated but both a shadow of their former selves; the Detroit car industry is on its knees and the Motown label was long ago bought up and folded into a larger, faceless entertainment industry giant. But people still drive cars and they still listen to music so the problems were not about the core products being produced. It would seem, in both markets, that the issues were about presentation, price, position in the global market, technology and design. Perhaps most importantly it was about an inability to adapt to new trends and technologies and keep up with people’s changing tastes.

We know that American car manufacturers continued to produce oversized, gas guzzling behemoths while most American car buyers were going out and purchasing smaller, more economical models made in Europe and the Far East. Those big car makers cut investment in their industry and showed a lack of respect for their competitors. They were unwilling to adapt to changing times and markets and seemed to disregard what their customer base wanted. The start of the decline of Motown could be traced to its move from Detroit to LA in the seventies – it lost its connection to its base, its core essence. But its continued decline mirrors much of what happened to the music industry, in the US and abroad. The way we listen to music has changed radically. The way we buy music has changed. The internet and technology has transformed the business. Free illegal downloads and the ability to publish and record music on-line has made some observers question whether there will even be a music industry in a few years.

Detroit and its industries failed to adapt to these market forces. It failed to find new markets or new strengths. Its failure has led to mass unemployment, which has a major impact on individuals, families, community spirit and city confidence. Unemployment, poverty and financial woes break up families; broken families help create broken communities. Despair leads to alcohol and drug abuse and increases in crime. This downward spiral continues as investors are scared off locating new businesses in areas with such problems. I’m sure if you’re still reading this blog you’re wondering where I’m leading with this. In light of such serious issues, it might seem trite to talk about the importance of good design. But I believe there is a strong connection between the built environments we live in and our social, economic and emotional well-being. If we are to look at what makes a city or a community thrive or fail, we have to look at all aspects of its unique character. And part of that character is its design. Design is a cornerstone of the built environment, in the buildings; the parks and roads, the communal and public spaces and the educational and social facilities. If the design is wrong, then it affects everything else. The way we feel about the spaces where we live and work speaks volumes about whether we feel secure and comfortable. A well designed space, be it a house, a car factory, a recording studio or a shopping centre, has an impact on the way we work, live and behave inside it. A city or a community is like a person; it is unique and flawed and with its own special character. And just like a person. its character can help that entity to survive the tough times. I hope Detroit finds a way out of its current problems. The city has shown the unique strengths of its character in the past and if it can galvanise them I believe it can rebuild itself.


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