Taubman students partner with state to help ‘onboard’ young people


The state of Michigan’s new chief growth officer, Hilary Doe, was looking for fresh ideas about how to grow Michigan’s innovation economy by attracting and retaining lifelong residents.

Undergraduate students in the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning’s new Urban Technology program were eager to get hands-on experience working with a real-world client.

Doe and the students came together this year to form a unique partnership that yielded big benefits for everyone.

During the winter semester, 18 Urban Tech juniors in the Service Design and Urban Needs studio course tackled the design challenge of developing technology-driven urban services aimed at attracting and acclimating — aka “onboarding” — young people to the state.

A photo of several people seated at a table talking
Taubman College juniors in the Urban Technology program participate in roundtable discussions with Taubman Dean Jonathan Massey and guest reviewers following presentations to the state’s population growth campaign, Let’s Grow Michigan. (Photo by Dori Sumter)

The students met periodically with Doe to update her on their research, analytics, ideation and prototypes for three different projects designed to help newcomers feel welcome and put down roots.

“As part of our state’s growth effort, we’re appealing to 18- to 34-year-olds, including recent graduates, young professionals and growing families to make sure they can see their futures here in Michigan,” said Doe, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from U-M.

Michigan faces declining school enrollments, eroding tax bases, and employers needing talent, all of which are byproducts of slow population growth. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed Doe last year as the nation’s first chief growth officer and tasked her with creating a statewide effort to tackle population stagnation.

Collaborating with Urban Tech students on the design of onboarding projects enabled Doe and her team to tap into new thinking about the application of digital technology to policy problems and urban planning challenges.

“The students brought a fresh, cross-functional perspective that we need to consider and represent in our solutions for appealing to young people who will grow our state,” she said. “Their insights into issues such as the need for a well-connected public transit system will help us hone in on the challenges we must address.”

Bryan Boyer, director of the Urban Technology program, said the college’s partnership with the state has created valuable synergy around important urban needs.

“This collaboration demonstrates we can use the academic setting to think about pressing issues here in our own backyard,” said Boyer, assistant professor of practice in architecture.

“And it shows we can join the conversation about how to collectively improve outcomes for Michiganders by bringing the design perspective to challenges of user experience within local cities and communities.”

On a practical level, the studio course provided third-year students with real-world tools and experience in all stages of developing a service delivery project for an actual client.

“We carefully structured every phase of the class, from the research to the practicum, to give students hands-on skills they will be able to use in future jobs when they start their careers,” said studio instructor Ron Bronson. “This has been a unique experiential opportunity for them.”

Junior Devin Vowels said gaining real-world career experience in a class format enabled her to create and problem-solve without workplace pressures. She also strengthened her intuition as a designer and built greater confidence.

“I have learned how much I enjoy concept building, strategic thinking and prototype design,” Vowels said. “I’ve also learned how to tell the stories of the people we’re designing for, as well as the story of our project and how it fits into people’s lives. Getting others to see and believe your vision is truly an art form that I’ve been cultivating because of this project.”

Vowels’ team project, WorldWide MI, is a digital platform/service that addresses the needs of newcomers who are trying to reconnect with their communities and find a sense of belonging. The onboarding project facilitates the sharing of culturally relevant experiences that can lead to genuine connections and meaningful engagement with other community members.

Two other student projects have taken a different approach to onboarding.

Fourth Spaces is a digital platform that connects independent shop owners and entrepreneurs through pop-up events designed to stimulate community engagement. MittenCorps is a talent-retention project that helps recent university and community college graduates find job opportunities around the state.

All three project teams recently made formal presentations at Newlab Detroit to Doe and her team, who will decide the next steps.

“This has been an incredible partnership,” Doe said. “From the beginning, our ideal scenario was to find some elements of the onboarding ideas presented by the students that we can take forward, scale up and pilot in our communities to help us pursue growth and attract people to our state.”


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