Rick DeVos has been a voice for art, entrepreneurs and cultural change in the city, but one voice he refuses to be is that of a false prophet.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Grand Rapids Business Journal, DeVos — born one year before the Journal’s inception — sat down to discuss how the next 30 years might impact West Michigan’s business trends.
But the man who gave Grand Rapids ArtPrize and Start Garden would not give predictions, bluntly stating he doesn’t spend much time thinking about who or what will be big in the next 30 years.
“I’m not big into predicting things. There are a million different scenarios that could play out over the next 30 years. The only thing you can predict is that things are unpredictable,” he said.
“It’s interesting to look at it, but to lock ourselves into a specific vision of a scenario that’s going to play out — like the sort of binary thinking of, ‘Oh, everything is going to happen in China, be made in China’ — I think is silly. There are no absolutes in anything in the future.”
DeVos warned of those who dogmatically claim to know the answers about the economy’s future. Answers to the macro questions — the biggest questions regarding business, currency, social and national issues — are impossible to predict, he said, and an attitude of being able to define the future could be dangerous to the present.
“I could rattle off a bunch of buzz words about advanced manufacturing and agriculture. I think all those things have value and will continue to grow in importance, but again, the part of our culture that has been drawn to the projection and the 30-year plan is actually detrimental,” he said.
“We get ourselves locked into specific visions of what the future holds when, in reality, none of us knows what it is. We need to stay more nimble and be able to react to things along the path.”
DeVos told Kendall College of Art and Design’s Portfolio magazine, for an article published this summer, that everyone can work together to build a better future. When asked what obligations community members have to each other and why, he responded: “I think of it more in terms of ‘opportunity’ than ‘obligation.’ We’re cooperative beings, and our desire for community comes from deep within us. So we have the opportunity to scratch that itch for connection and community by doing things to serve others, creating the places we want to live, and partnering with people to get cool things done. I think the simplicity of the ethic of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ does a good job of encapsulating the ‘obligations.’”
History, which is filled with the biographies of experienced problem solvers, is much more interesting to DeVos than conceptualized futures, and he feels the fact-grounded past is much more applicable to the present than a theoretical future. He won’t claim to know what will happen, but he is fascinated in what did happen, particularly in the growth of Michigan’s auto and manufacturing industry in the late 1800s.
“We were that much closer to being a frontier state at that time,” he said. “Eventually, that frontier moved west, and you could argue that’s why California enjoyed the run that it did and still does to a great extent.”
In the early 1900s, it was Michigan, not California, that enjoyed the reputation of being America’s rising Silicon Valley, a hotbed of innovation formed around entrepreneurs building automobiles, DeVos said. Over time, the success of the industry led to market-hunting and growth forecast. The sort of discipline necessary to operate such companies efficiently at scale, however, was somewhat antithetical to the experimental nature that needed to exist to birth them, he said. As a result, Michigan’s culture became much more about “the company” than it did about individuals.
It was in this single-minded culture that an attitude of trend predictions took root, exchanging the speculative experiments of entrepreneurs for right-angled, stubborn faith in a supposedly impervious future.
In short, the business culture locked itself into a binary vision, a mistake DeVos refuses to repeat, echoing the lesson of Saint James, who wrote, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:13-14, NIV)
Michigan’s business culture traded off the exponential gains of finding explosive growth in diversity and risk-taking for a meager but dependable 2-percent-a-year sort of incremental growth, he said, creating a growing system but one very susceptible to shock from the outside.
“If you’re always carving out a path to diversify to other areas, to do the speculative things, you’re building — at the very least — robustness to (absorb) those kinds of shocks,” he said.
Then came the devastating shocks of an economic recession. The auto industry, which had not diversified, had its guts ripped out and collapsed, along with the jobs, incomes and hopes of everyone who had put all their eggs in “the company’s” basket.
Now, from the ashes, the entrepreneurial cycle has sprung anew, and men like DeVos are sowing venture seed companies and sharing their fortunes with entrepreneurs who are not daydreaming of the future but studying the lessons of the past and challenges of the present.
He wants to help build a Grand Rapids where there’s a place for the speculative.
“Our vision’s really about a culture that has rediscovered its entrepreneurial muscles, that the ‘weirdos in the garages’ are able to get this support from people with financial means,” he said.
“You should be able to (design) businesses that scale — and that exist at scale, that intentionally have mechanisms to seed new things outside of themselves or let people move in and out more permeably … (creating) a lower-friction environment for new things.”
DeVos’ disinclination toward predicting the future extends to labeling individuals’ identities, particularly his. When asked what his role would be in the future of Grand Rapids, he rolled his eyes, blew out a deep sigh of vexation and muttered, “I’m super-comfortable with that question.”
His reaction may have been sarcastic, but his response was fairly straightforward: DeVos believes his sweet spot is as a catalyst, a drum-banger for entrepreneurs and anything that will keep the culture out of the clutches of monolithic, corporate-minded domination.
Naturally, therefore, his very “role” abhors such a defining question.
“Our culture’s desire for that question creates the myth of the leader or something, someone who has answers — and I’ll be the first one to say, ‘I don’t have answers,’” he said.
“The answers reside in individuals and pockets of individuals throughout the community. To the extent that they are able to do their own thing, live their own lives and build their own businesses, the better off this whole region’s going to be.”