How Many New Ideas Are Born Under Fire? In Michigan, The 1918 Spanish Flu Ushered In a Roaring '20s

Joseph Serwach

How Many New Ideas and Innovations Were Born During the Pandemic? Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. —  How many new ideas did you come up with — or try out — during the pandemic? How many great innovations are born under fire?

Michigan leads the nation in COVID-19 cases, but Dodge Park was packed Sunday. It’s named for two innovative Detroit brothers who started a machine shop in 1900 that supplied the early auto industry. Both died from the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1920, but their legacy continues.

In 1922, just two years after John and Horace Dodge died, the directors of the Dodge Brothers Co. gave Michigan 600 acres of recreation land, creating 11 “Dodge Parks,” including the popular one in Sterling Heights.

Detroit native Josh Linkner sees the 2020 pandemic similarly inspiring “an overdue wave of innovation” much like the one that sparked the “Roaring Twenties” innovation and economic boom a century ago, following the 1918–19 Spanish Flu pandemic.

“I think people thought they really should be more innovative at some point, but they had no immediate impetus: COVID-19 accelerated that,” Linkner told the Detroit Free Press.

Linkner’s new book, Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results, argues we all have great ideas that become innovations. He was a founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners with billionaire Dan Gilbert, but he started out playing jazz: a musician improvising new variations of music.

“Most people think of innovation as these giant swings for the fences, moonshots,” Linkner argues. But more often, he says, we need to “cultivate small daily habits of everyday creativity.”

Linkner calls for a “baby step version of creativity.” Instead of shooting for something seemingly unreachable, he focuses on achievable goals, “small creative acts” unlocking “massive rewards over time.” He adds that multiple small changes or ideas are less risky while growing skills.

With so many jobs being outsourced or automated today, he says, “the one thing that’s becoming more and more valuable is our ability to use creative problem solving and inventive thinking.”

From rapidly developed vaccines born out of Operation Warp Speed to accelerated telemedicine to plexiglass walls and a wave of mask fashions, the pandemic gave birth to a host of ideas.

But all of us had to innovate, coming up with millions of smaller new ways to work through the challenges of the past year.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, known for a host of new policies and the nation’s strictest lockdown measures, just widened her mask mandate to include toddlers. But she simultaneously acknowledges Michigan’s people learned much and now need to make more of these judgments themselves.

Whitmer made her fourth appearance in two years on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, asking her to respond to repeated Biden administration calls for returning to past lockdown measures.

“Instead of mandating that we’re closing things down, we are encouraging people to do what we know works,” Whitmer said. “That’s the most important thing that we can do. It’s not the policy problem. It’s a variant and compliance problem.”

She stressed Michigan still has some of the nation’s strictest restrictions in place while also saying, “I am working with a smaller amount of tools at my disposal” due to opposition from the Legislature and state Supreme Court.

“At the end of the day, this is going to come down to whether or not everyone does their part,” Whitmer added.

Great ideas change everything: Michigan’s history of innovation

A decade ago, I approached the Michigan Economic Development Corp. with a campaign theme that Michigan history keeps repeating: “Great ideas change everything.”

Our state’s history today and going back generations is full of innovators coming up with great new ideas under fire:

  • Larry Page, born in East Lansing (his dad was a Michigan State University professor), attended the University of Michigan and helped develop an idea for organizing the world’s information: Google.
  • Tony Fadell, a Lebanese-American kid from Grosse Pointe and another Michigan graduate, invented the iPod and was co-inventor of today’s iPhone.
  • Julie Aigner-Clark went to school with me in Grosse Pointe and got an idea for educating and entertaining her kids. It’s called Baby Einstein.
  • Thomas Edison, who grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, invented three industries: electric, recording, and motion pictures. Some of his companies: General Electric and Edison.
  • Henry Ford developed the assembly line and the Ford Model T, the first car for the masses.
  • Billy Durant’s ideas included General Motors and the first Frigidaire refrigerators, while GM President Alfred Sloan developed management ideas that were the basis for the 20th-century corporation.
  • Al Thieme of Bridgeport, Michigan, developed the Amigo scooter for a relative with MS leading to a whole industry allowing the immobile to get around.
  • Michiganders developed a host of drugs from Lipitor to AZT to Cisplatin. William Upjohn got the idea for today’s more digestible modern pills in the 19th century, while Michigan’s H.H. Dow discovered rich supplies of bromine, the main ingredient in medicines. His ideas led to a company called Dow Chemical.
  • Michigan developed great ideas for everything from music (Motown) to pizza (Detroit style pizza and two of the three biggest pizza chains in America) to cereal (W.K. Kellogg reinvented breakfast, national ad campaigns, and arguments about nutrition when he developed the national cereal industry in Battle Creek, Michigan).
  • Richard DeVos Sr., who came up with the idea for Amway, warned in 2008 that too many Michiganders were waiting for a giant company to “drop a plant from the sky.” He advised Michiganders to develop their own good ideas rather than waiting for someone else to save them.

Dodge Park 2021: The new generation is innovating, out and about — moving again

Our granddaughter has an April birthday which means innovation was at the core of her latest birthday parties. When she turned eight in 2020, her parents had one of the first “drive-by birthday parties.” masks and wipes were available (but none were taken) at a Sunday birthday party at Dodge Park. Photo by Joseph Serwach.

This April, her father wanted to splurge: an outdoor party at a picnic pavilion, a stretch limo taking her and her friends, and a big crowd spread out outside. Her mother had all the precautions in place: masks, wet wipes, but no one worried the way they did a year ago.

Some things were totally different and innovative from “typical birthday parties,” but other traditions went on just as they always have: kids running around playing, laughing, eating.

No one at the birthday party knew the Dodge Brothers who died in that last big pandemic 100 years ago. But all who were there were somehow impacted by the innovations that grew out of the Dodge machine shop:

The Dodge Brothers were the first investors in a 1903 startup called Ford Motor Co., and that success helped them build their own vehicles. Their Dodge Main plant in Detroit/Hamtramck thrived, joining yet another startup called Chrysler after their death.

All Things New,” a fairly new Big Daddy Weave song, teaches: “From the ashes, from the dust, I will rise up.” Its main point, no matter how dark life gets: “You make all things new.”

When a pandemic or some other big obstacle stops you, how often does the suffering force you to think of a new idea? An innovation or way to move forward? How many new ideas and routines have you developed so far? Dodge Brothers Screenside Farmers Car ad. Public domain image courtesy of Alden Jewell via Wikimedia Commons.

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