Jacques: At Civilla, humans come first

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michael Brennan wants to poke the universe. The former CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan is working to shake up old ways of doing things and bureaucratic stagnation — anything that hampers rather than helps ordinary people.

This is the heart of human-centered design, a concept championed by Brennan’s new startup Civilla, co-founded with Adam and Lena Selzer and located in Midtown Detroit’s TechTown building.

“We put the individual in the middle,” Brennan says.

He has no problem thinking big. Through Civilla, described as a center for civil innovation, Brennan has the modest goal of impacting the lives of 1 billion people. After spending three decades with United Way in Grand Rapids and Detroit, Brennan wanted to put his extensive nonprofit experience to good use and spin it in a fresh way.

So he has traded a suit and tie for a plaid shirt and jeans. And in the hip, warehouse-style office space, the Civilla team spends its days brainstorming ways to improve lives. A tour of Civilla reveals the inner workings of the organization, which lays out solutions through storytelling.

Rather than boring Power Points, the team uses whiteboards, sticky notes and photographs to paint powerful images and make the case for change. Individuals are at the center of the work Civilla has done the past year and the work it aims to do.

That’s why Brennan and the handful of people who work with him have chosen initial projects that involve state and city government and could have a big impact. Civilla picks tasks that have “domino” potential—the ability to have wide influence.

Those projects include working with the state to improve access to and efficiency of public benefits. That alone has the potential to help millions of Michiganians.

Other work has been done in conjunction with Google to improve safety and operations at the Detroit Fire Department, including easier ways to locate defibrillators around the city.

Similarly, Civilla is helping the Detroit Department of Transportation brainstorm options to improve the experience of bus riders.

Another project with the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program is working on ways to help more city students access STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math).

Work thus far has been funded by donations. The Ford Fund, Kresge Foundation and Steelcase have all made investments in Civilla.

Civilla also has support of community leaders such as Ken Whipple, the former Ford executive and retired CEO of CMS Energy. Whipple serves as chairman of the Civilla board, and he enjoys hanging out in the group’s space. He acknowledges that community and business leaders must be willing to admit they need help for Civilla to do its job.

“How do you move a big step up?” Whipple says. “It takes guts for a customer.”

Brennan believes there is a great need for design work that speaks directly to the needs of Americans. The name Civilla is the combination of “civil” and “village,” two words which encompass the group’s mission.

“This is really what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Brennan says.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques