“Flint is like a canary in coal mine.”
So says Dan Kurin, the tech coordinator at Factory Two, an organization that serves as a hub for technologists, makers, and more in Flint, Michigan. While Flint’s water contamination crisis is well known across the country, the city has struggled with many of the same issues making news around the United States: the opioid crisis and gun violence among them.
To help the city find solutions to those pressing issues, both at home and across the country, Factory Two is holding a Reverse Pitch in Flint with the support of US Ignite’s Smart Gigabit Communities initiative, aimed at finding solutions to these issues.
Flint’s water crisis problem has been in the news for years. While bringing together the brightest minds in the city could have a positive effect on that issue, Kurin says that there’s already plenty of momentum working toward that.
“There’s still this public safety issue that’s not getting much attention at all.”
Thanks to the work going on on the ground, led by Factory Two, that won’t be the case for long.
The first phase of a two-part Hackathon/Reverse Pitch took place on April 27, bringing together professionals from public safety and public health, as well as representatives from the Flint Police Department. Together they brainstormed ideas that incorporate gigabit technology to tackle the opioid and gun issues the city is facing.
On June 2, developers will come together to work on developing applications that build on these ideas and create solutions to address the city’s challenges—with a chance to win $30,000 to fund their newly created initiative.
Flint Deputy Chief of Police Devon Benritter says the Flint Police Department (FPD) saw an opportunity to bring a major benefit to the community through a partnership with US Ignite and Factory Two, gaining access to means to improve the community and solve issues that the police previously didn’t have.
“This event is the first of it’s kind that the FPD has been exposed to,” Benritter says. “The engagement of additional minds that are more technology-oriented should foster ideas that are out of our norm of thinking.”
Kurin added that the Reverse Pitch is a way to create additional value for Flint. The winners will work with the FPD to develop and then implement their application, but Kurin hopes that bigger things will be in store.
“The goal is for the winners to roll it out to the city, eventually sell to the city, and develop a business around it.”
The relationship with FPD came about organically for Factory Two. A director in the organization had an existing relationship with the police department from their time working in the city government and had made a personal connection within the department. That kind of real relationship helped Factory Two to get the police department on board with supporting the Reverse Pitch, working with the winners on implementing their application. For a municipality short on resources, that’s no small decision.
“There’s some risk aversion—’Does it make sense to dedicate resources to this thing?’” says Kurin.
Fortunately, thanks in part to that pre-existing relationship, the FPD was willing to take a step forward with Factory Two and US Ignite. As Benritter says, the FPD knows the areas where it needs to make progress in terms of technology adoption, and they’re ready to lean on Factory Two and US Ignite to do so in order to help the community as much as possible.
“A newly developed strategy to truly combat these issues at our forefront of concern, will be not only a blessing to our agency, but the community as a whole,” he says.
Factory Two is carrying on work with US Ignite that started in Flint with Kettering University. Starting with a research engagement exploring aspects of gigabit technology, Flint became one of US Ignite’s National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored Smart Gigabit Communities. As a non-government, not-for-profit business, Factory Two is a perfect go-between to connect all the dots in Flint.
“We’re an organization you can build a community around,” says Kurin. “We’re not a siloed institution, so we can work with whoever is interested.”
Flint has a rich history of building things, Kurin adds, referencing Flint’s status as one of the homes of automobile manufacturing, standing alongside Detroit. As those factories eventually moved elsewhere, that spirit remained alive in Flint and are carried on by Factory Two and its parent organization, Red Ink Flint, an arts organization.
“Over time, some of that brain trust, that muscle memory has faded, but there’s an interest in people putting things together. We want to build that out,” Kurin says.
Both Factory Two and Red Ink Flint have focused on community building in their own spaces. Red Ink, for instance, operates a family-friendly music venue in town, while Factory Two’s Makerspace provides a place for technologists to work toward human-focused solutions alongside makers creating woodworking pieces, jewelry, and more.
As Factory Two and the FPD continue to work together, there’s a feeling of progress and an aim of identifying issues and adopting the solutions that come from June’s Reverse Pitch, Benritter says.
“This has all been made possible by US Ignite, and we are proud and hopeful of this relationship.”