TREE uses a communication-as-design (CAD) approach to examine the role of entrepreneurial ecosystems in urban communities—focusing on the lived experiences, concerns, and voices of grassroots stakeholders. Derived from interdisciplinary research on design in architecture, information technologies, computing, engineering, and fine arts, CAD pays attention to how everyday actions accomplish broader meaning-making, and uncovers hidden structures, processes, and ideas (Aakhus & Laureij, 2012). While design is recognized to be “an activity of transforming something given into something preferred through intervention and invention” (Aakhus, 2007, p. 112), key to negotiating this tension are collective action, listening, and institutional mechanisms for continuous learning (Barbour et al., 2018).

Detroit Jazz Festival, 2017

Our team has been immersed in the Detroit ecosystem since August 2017, attending panels, workshops, and informal meetings with ecosystem organizations. Detroit is an ideal site for study, as evidenced by the emergence of a fairly robust entrepreneurial ecosystem, led by a consortium of philanthropies after the city’s recent emergence from bankruptcy (Michigan Venture Capital Association, 2017).

This project consists of three, interconnected phases.

In Phase 1, data collection includes field observations, audio-visual material from public events and workshops (e.g., pictures, audio-visual recordings), relevant texts (e.g., brochures, email notifications, white papers), and in-depth interviews with both local entrepreneurs and people affiliated with entrepreneurial support organizations. All interviews will be audio-recorded and transcribed, and the data anonymized to protect research participants from any personal or professional risk. If you would like to be interviewed for this project, please contact us at

In Phase 2, we will partner with Detroit entrepreneurial support organizations to host three “Design TREE” sessions. The sessions will focus on three burgeoning areas of local entrepreneurial activity (viz., lifestyle/creative, technology, and food businesses). The “Design TREE” sessions are a mixture of conventional focus groups and deliberation forums, with two main goals: 1) They are a forum for us to share and discuss Phase 1 preliminary findings; and 2) Session participants will suggest alternative designs for the entrepreneurial ecosystem in each area to accomplish urban sustainability. In addition, we will employ whiteboard animation artists to capture these “Design TREE” sessions, which will help entrepreneurial support organizations in their planning and implementation tasks. The sessions will be audio-recorded, and pseudonyms used to preserve participant confidentiality. If you would like to participate in the “Design TREE” sessions, please contact us at

Phase 3 involves creating a digital platform (this blog!) that translates this research for nonacademic publics, and encourages continuous feedback for ongoing reflection and fine-tuning of the research process (and outcomes). We will feature: 1) our team’s reflections as the project progresses (via blog posts); 2) images and video from fieldwork (of public spaces, texts, and events); 3) anonymized sketches and excerpts from Phase 1 interviews; 4) various work products from Phases 1 and 2 (e.g., reports, articles, slide decks); and 5) various announcements related to the project.