Looking at Detroit through Shell’s New Lens Scenarios
What is the alchemy that makes for a great city? What is the spark that gives it its own distinctive life? Rather to my surprise, I found myself asking those questions when I flew into a cold and blustery Detroit in early April to present at Shell Powering Progress Together, a conference that delved into the issues and challenges of creating sustainable cities. This was my first visit to Detroit. As I was riding in from the airport, my driver, on learning the purpose of my visit, guffawed and asked, “You got some time? Let me show you a few things, young man,” inferring he was a fair bit older. So we swung past the towers of Downtown, skirted my hotel, and headed out into the famous urban blight.
And there it was, row upon row of derelict houses – abandoned, boarded-up, gap-toothed with glass-less windows, but studded with lived-in buildings where it seemed some stubborn homeowner was holding out against the oncoming nemesis. Here and there, I saw both isolated buildings and clusters of buildings that seemed to be spruced up – not just one, but a community of people making a statement of pride that they were doing something tangible and concrete to get things done. This appeared to be both a city in decline and a city seeding its renewal.
A day later, I did a couple of pre-conference engagements, including taking an “urban field tour,” which gave me a feel for the place and for those “small seeds” being planted by some extraordinary individuals who believe in Detroit and look to turn it around: an urban farming initiative, the Riverfront Conservancy, Eastern Market, among other places. All very obvious, I am sure a local would say, but certainly new for me. I asked Tyson Gersh of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative the obvious question: Just what motivated him? He seemed nonplussed at first, pausing for thought, but then responded with an analogy about following a piece of string and seeing where it led. I tried to figure that one out, and in my mind, I translated that into another analogy – following one’s curiosity, building from the bottom up, and ending up by realizing the big picture.
As we passed close by the Art Institute, our guide mentioned the famous Diego Rivera fresco housed inside. I am also aware that it is not just the Rivera fresco that distinguishes this museum – and that this is one of the finest art collections in the US – but also that it was under threat last year because of Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. The fact that the collection has been saved is, of course, a great expression of faith in Detroit’s future, but the rationale underlying its saving was that it contributes to the sense of “livability” that every great city has at its heart, the idea of a community making connections.
So how does this relate to what I had to say at Shell Powering Progress Together? My presentation was on cities and what our Shell Scenarios work, specifically our New Lens Scenarios, published in 2013, has to say about them.
The Shell New Lens Scenarios looks at the global energy landscape, going all the way out to the end of the century, using a simple schematic framework. In the first scenario, called Mountains, change is guided from the top with governments taking the lead. It’s a story about gas in tandem with carbon capture and storage (storing carbon emissions underground) as our leading primary energy source. In the second scenario, called Oceans, people power pushes change from the bottom up. This, by contrast, is all about the growth of renewables, in particular solar energy taking the lead in the latter part of the century.
In both scenarios, urbanization is a key determinant of future energy use. In Mountains, we have planning from the top, with city authorities rolling out big projects with a focus on investing for the long term. In Oceans, it’s a story of people pushing from the bottom up, and it’s all about local collaboration and small-scale solutions sparking radical change.
How does this connect with Detroit? Well, scenarios are not forecasts; they are stories of what is possible looking at the world from the vantage point of today. Our two scenarios appear to set out alternative pathways to urbanize. But the truth is, they are really two sides of the same coin. Planning is critical, but it has to recognize and connect with what people want and need. There are the city authorities and the business entrepreneurs – bringing the money in is crucial. But there are also the individuals and communities – the lifeblood of city neighborhoods that give cities, and each of their separate neighborhoods, their own distinctive buzz. Neither can work without the other. Bringing Detroit back means nurturing economic revival and investing for the future; but it also means creating “livability,” connecting people with each other in environments that people can relate to and therefore want to live in. Urban transformation has to work from the outside in, as well as from the inside out. Bill McDonough, world-renowned architect and one of the speakers at Shell Powering Progress Together, quoted Claude Levi-Strauss, who defined a city as a “congestion” of people. It is people who give cities their passion and vitality.
Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese artist, was once asked to name the one big change he would make to Chinese cities. His response: free the people. What did he mean? People migrate to cities because they have a dream of what they want to do, for themselves and for others. I was struck in conversation by people from Detroit talking about Detroit at a Crossroads or a Detroit Revival, because they have a dream of what they can achieve, starting small, bit by bit, but eventually building big.
But I also made the point in my presentation at the conference that other cities are not standing still. A couple of years ago, Foreign Policy magazine set out a list of the 75 most dynamic cities of 2025. 40 per cent of those cities are in China; and half of those Chinese cities, no one has heard of before. But the list also noted that it was based on a projection of absolute GDP growth from today. I couldn’t help thinking, given that Detroit had the highest per capita income of any city in the United States in 1960, if you did an extrapolation into the future based on that, you would have missed the true story of Detroit for the last 50 years. So which cities buried in that list are the future “Detroits”?
One thing you learn when doing scenarios: When you see a straight line, watch out for the bend that lies ahead. I don’t know of a life that goes in a continuous straight line. And I guess that’s also true of cities and, in particular, as true for Detroit as for those 75 cities on that list as well. Truth, as the saying goes, is often stranger than fiction.
But Detroit’s circumstances today are unique. The cities story in our New Lens Scenarios is pre-occupied with the growing cities of the developing world, which will have to accommodate an extra 2.7 billion people over the next 40 years. Or to put it a little differently, that means building a city to house the population of two Detroits every week. Space will be at a premium. Detroit, by contrast, has shrunk in population size. And space, or rather the lack of space, is not the issue. It is the creative use of space that Detroit has to figure out.
The New Lens Scenarios are concerned with the massive ramp-up in energy use that all these additional people in the developing world will require. By contrast, in cities in the developed world, total energy usage will essentially remain flat, but energy will be used more cleverly and more efficiently to drive growth.
Cities globally are growing and changing. Detroit is part of that change. Like the Red Queen that Alice meets in Through the Looking Glass, it will have to run fast just to stay in the same place. To get anywhere, it will have to run at least twice as fast. Or, in terms of that global cities race, it will have to be twice as clever.
I thought Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan struck the right note in his opening remarks for Shell Powering Progress Together with his example of the new investment that he had attracted to make high-tech, light-weight composites for a range of uses, from aircraft to autos. The example seemed to me to fit the idea of looking back to tradition – which, in the case of Detroit, is all about mobility and travel and expanding people’s mental horizons in that way – and looking to re-invent that tradition for the future through technology and other means. This is an idea that Shell can certainly find a fit with our own ideas on how the energy landscape is changing, and what it means for us.
One key learning from our cities work: the need for business, civil society and government – that’s politicians and city officials – to pull together. In my short stay, I saw quite a few examples of that collaboration, with people pulling together and not looking down, but to the upside.
I talked with a fellow conference attendee, who told me that he used to work in Detroit until he moved away ten years ago. He hadn’t been back until this visit, and he was visibly marveling at the change he saw. This was a visit that gave me much food for thought. I left Detroit unexpectedly exhilarated with the many small changes that I saw, and with the hope that one day, I will have an opportunity to return to see what has become of them.