What have you read about Detroit recently? Perhaps it’s that the United Nations criticized the local water policy, or an article in the New York Times that highlighted “glimmers of hope” (yet referenced only a few of Detroit’s entrepreneurs, to the chagrin of some readers). There is more to these stories: Detroit has a diverse, global community of young innovators hustling to help the city reinvent itself.

More than 60 of these innovators, from the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community, descended upon Detroit for the inaugural SHAPE North America conference. The gathering took the form of a collaborative exploration of Detroit’s challenges and opportunities, and culminated in a rapid-fire hackathon.

The local Detroit Hub of the Global Shapers community gave the gathering its theme, A City Revolution: Built to Last, and implored visiting Shapers to integrate Detroit’s tale of caution – why we should adapt to changing times – with the optimism, boldness and entrepreneurial spirit central to the city’s effort to reinvent itself.

The media might paint Detroit’s story as unique, but many cities share similar struggles. A sluggish economy, historic unemployment, disillusioned voters and civic unrest are presenting challenges worldwide. This was the point of the ShapeNA hackathon: to forge ideas that Shapers could pilot not just in Detroit but in their home cities as well. Read on to discover the top five proposals to emerge, starting at number five.

5: I’m So Turned Off. Like cities worldwide, Detroit faces enormous budget challenges. Yet some expenses are allowed to run almost entirely unchecked. From 1978-2005, appliances and electronics nearly doubled in their proportion of total energy consumption worldwide, with cities driving the rise. I’m So Turned Off is an open-source software project that would partner up IT departments across companies and cities to eliminate idle electricity consumption from electronics and vampire appliances.

4: If Your City Could Speak. This photographic “shootback” invites people to share what their city would say if it could speak. Using recyclable film cameras distributed according to city demographics (age, gender, culture, etc.), participants curate photos that highlight the city – its strengths, weaknesses, areas needing attention. With 24 photos per camera and one camera for each of the 100 participants, each city would collect 2,400 “data points”. The project would offer a crowd-sourced needs assessment for activists, innovators and disruptors, while raising public awareness through gallery displays.

3: Participatory philanthropy. Non-profits are a growing industry in the US; there are 1.5 million in total – almost one for every 200 citizens. Similar duplication of effort by the government prompted districts such as Halifax to launch participatory municipal budgeting, in which citizens vote for five projects they think the city should sponsor. (The requirement for each voter to submit five nominations is designed to raise awareness and prevent a single initiative from sweeping the polls.) A similar model based on a scalable open-source software platform prepared by Global Shapers can help charitable organizations better engage civil society and their constituencies while maximizing alignment between resources, issues and solutions.

2: I Give a Crap. Tapping into the circular-economy movement, this venture turns waste into wealth. I Give a Crap aims to solve the issue of flushing thousands of litres of drinkable water down the drain (in the US, average use is approximately 11,200 litres per capita, per year), while also turning waste into rich compost for local food production. I Give a Crap is not only resource-wise, it also self-funds through commercial applications of fertilizer and compost. The flexibility and numerous benefits means it is relevant everywhere, from places lacking water (think California or, given the looming water crisis, Detroit) to places lacking access to hygienic facilities (think slums and isolated regions in the developing world), and even places with abundant water and facilities that strive to reduce their ecological footprint.

1: LifeBook. This is the project that won the judges’ favour and the Detroit Global Shapers’ $1,000 seed fund. LifeBook addresses the widening gap between ageing citizens who are becoming increasingly isolated and today’s digitalized youth. By pairing high-school seniors with senior citizens, the project generates and sustains community relations, and through the process of writing, designing and creating booklets featuring elderly people’s stories, it hones marketable skills for young people. LifeBooks are gifted to the senior citizens and made available for purchase to families and citizens, generating income to sustain the initiative.

These five ideas and roughly 100 others emerged from a session lasting just three hours. Why is collaborative design, such as this hackathon, so effective? Part of the answer certainly lies in a Global Shaper axiom: none of us are as smart as all of us. But even more important is the process of collaboratively building, testing and refining ideas through iterative stages, which facilitate learning via actively doing and teaching, rather than passively listening, reading or watching.

Bringing together this 60-strong group of young change-makers in Detroit and hosting the first-ever Global Shapers hackathon was only the first stage of the conference. The idea is for the Shapers to return home and integrate what they’ve learned with the perspectives of their peers in their home Hubs. This will help them refine their ideas before piloting them later this year in cities from Detroit to Dallas, Sacramento to San Juan.

The Global Shapers Community, Detroit’s mission to reinvent itself, and the entire process of design exists somewhere between predictive and emergent strategies. The idea is that through collective intellect, good will and action, we can hack a better future. The solution will come from the bottom up.

Author: Terence Steinberg is Outgoing Curator of Minneapolis Hub of the Global Shapers and founding partner of a-space design. Find him on twitter at Steinberg_T

Image: People stand at the Windsor river walk with the Detroit skyline behind them along the Detroit river in Windsor, Ontario September 28, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook