Lessons from Techonomy Detroit: Thought Leaders Must Push City Hall
On Wednesday, Detroit served as the host city for Techonomy, the annual national confab billed by its organizers as “a one-day convergence of today’s brightest minds, gathered to reignite U.S. competitiveness, job creation, and urban revitalization in a technologized age.”
Held at Wayne State University, Techonomy was crawling with “thought leaders,” including Jack Dorsey, creator and co-founder of Twitter; Steve Case, co-founder of AOL; Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop; Quicken Loans chair Dan Gilbert; executives from Ford, Salesforce, IBM, Autodesk, Facebook, and Cisco; representatives from the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; and many people from Detroit’s startup community.
Who was conspicuously absent? Detroit’s political leadership, including the mayor’s office and city council. In fairness, there wasn’t much of a state government presence either, with the exception of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, but perhaps a gathering of thought leaders isn’t the place to look for bureaucratic agents in the first place.
The problem is this: In any discussion of Detroit’s future, what the city government does or doesn’t do to make Detroit an attractive place to live and do business is of critical importance. To be fair, I don’t know whether city officials were invited—it’s possible they weren’t. But City Hall has acquired such a reputation for recalcitrance that we now have our thought leaders advising entrepreneurs who want to locate their startup here to simply plow ahead and bypass bureaucratic roadblocks, as Skidmore Studio CEO Tim Smith did at a panel discussion titled, “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?”
“For Skidmore, the city of Detroit has been a non-entity,” Smith told the packed crowd. Skidmore is a design firm that left the suburbs to become one of the tenants in the much-lauded Madison Building downtown. “I came here despite the city. The city didn’t do one thing to help and I won’t ask. We’ll just keep going around them.” This disastrous attraction strategy, or lack thereof, isn’t often acknowledged publicly, but most people doing business in Detroit are well aware of it.
Xconomist Josh Linkner, who runs Detroit Venture Partners (DVP) and is without a doubt one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders, told the panel that his experience was quite different—he received welcome calls from Mayor Dave Bing, city council president Charles Pugh, and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano. But one hopes an affiliation with billionaire Dan Gilbert, who is a partner at DVP, is not what’s required to have a warm relationship with the city of Detroit.
In fact, panelist Leslie Smith, CEO of Wayne State business incubator TechTown, pointed out that multimillion dollar investments in Detroit like the ones made by Gilbert and Linkner will only go so far—and are even at risk of disappearing— without a shared vision and strategy for growth between Detroit’s entrepreneurs and its political leadership. You can only ignore the fact that city government is making it hard for businesses to locate here for so long, she suggested. “You have to come out from behind the rah-rah speeches and have some real conversations about Detroit’s limiting factors,” she said
I called Smith for a follow-up chat after the Techonomy conference. She said since she took over at TechTown, she has learned a lot about getting and keeping startups in Detroit. “I know at the very core of cities that are successful in attracting new business is not only a healthy infrastructure, but honest conversation between business and government,” she added, saying that both of those things are in short supply in Detroit. The perception that our political system doesn’t work and the city doesn’t care, and the tension that exists between its black and white residents have created a barrier, she said, and the time has come to address this openly and publicly.
She said the absence of city officials at the Techonomy conference—which she pointed out didn’t go unnoticed according to Twitter comments coming from the conference–highlights “with clarity” that if we continue to try to plow our way to progress, as Tim Smith suggested in the panel discussion, we’ll eventually hit a wall.
What’s needed is leadership courage, and for Detroit’s thought leaders to demand better: a more cooperative city government, a stronger infrastructure where resources are deployed sensibly and systematically, an acknowledgement of the tension white flight created in Detroit and a sincere effort to overcome that tension, and revitalization strategy that purposefully target neighborhoods outside the Woodward corridor. “As business leaders, we can’t continue to gloss over Detroit’s challenges,” she said.
In Berlin, a creative community took root, attracted by an abundance of cheap real estate, and ultimately led a successful revitalization that wouldn’t have been possible without significant government cooperation and investment. As Berlin’s creative class grew, it was able to draw city officials to the table by emphasizing its value. “They had leverage for one reason: economic impact,” Smith explained.
Economic impact gives people the credibility to call Detroit’s political leaders to task or, at the very least, initiate a tough conversation. In Detroit, there aren’t many people who have the leverage to make their voices heard, Smith noted, but those are the folks—many of them at the Techonomy conference—who must now demand change instead of being content with simply “going around” the system. The future of Detroit depends on it.