This week, I explored Detroit’s role in the “Arsenal of Democracy,” the slogan used by Franklin D. Roosevelt to describe America during World War II. The United States promised to help their Allies fight Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan by selling them military supplies. Roosevelt explained, “For us this is an emergency as serious as the war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.” The automotive hub of Detroit was a crucial component of this plan. The government encouraged the retooling of Detroit’s main industry, and the city changed over from cars to war machines at a remarkable speed. World War II brought new opportunities and challenges for Detroit. Although job opportunities increased, these changes brought overcrowding, shortages, and emotional loss as the war progressed.
I found this history to be particularly relevant to our work this summer as DukeEngage fellows. Leveraging existing resources to meet emerging needs is a fundamental aspect of innovation. Such innovations have the power to drive social change and create positive (and potentially negative) impacts. The “Arsenal of Democracy” tale also proves that when the right stakeholders get involved, Detroit has immense capacity for growth. However, rather than investing in growth for the sake of international relations and war, powerful voices should encourage innovation to address community needs. The organizations we are partnering with continue to draw on Detroit’s history of resilience and rising to the challenge in the innovation space