Detroit: America’s Laboratory for Innovation

4/23/10Follow @wroush

What the heck is Xconomy doing opening a bureau in Detroit?

The same thing we’ve been doing all along: seeking out technology innovators in key cities and chronicling the work they’re doing to turn their ideas into businesses that will drive the economy forward, both regionally and nationally.

There’s no question that Detroit falls short on many of the ingredients that propel tech-company growth in Xconomy’s other home cities of Boston, San Diego, and Seattle—things like an existing network of experienced serial entrepreneurs, a deep-rooted ecosystem of venture and angel investors, a menagerie of big high-tech anchor companies, and multiple top-level universities and research institutions churning out highly trained graduates and new technology concepts.

But in Detroit, the need for innovation is far more urgent than in any of those other places. So it’s going to have to make do with, and build upon, the resources it does have. And there’s nothing about the character of Detroiters or the automotive industry’s current woes to convince me that the city can’t bounce back.

For one thing, there’s no choice. The stakes are too high. If a way can’t be found to restart entrepreneurship and risk-taking in the region’s manufacturing, services, and technology industries, the city’s population, tax base, and infrastructure will continue to erode.

But more importantly, Detroit is a city of big ideas and big accomplishments. It’s the home of world-changing inventions such as the refrigerated railroad car, the automatic traffic light (the first one was installed at the corner of Woodward and Michigan in downtown Detroit in 1920), the mechanical clamping mop, and, of course, the assembly line—which became the key not just to unprecedented middle-class prosperity, but to the Allies’ victory in World War II. And that’s not even counting Vernors ginger ale (which was always in abundant supply around my grandparents’ house in Charlotte, MI), guerilla marketing, techno and rap music, and the Last Word (a cocktail combining gin, maraschino liqueur, lime and green Chartreuse).

And let’s not forget that Detroit is also home to two of the country’s largest corporations. Ford is currently America’s eighth largest company, and GM is No. 15, according to Fortune magazine. None of Xconomy’s other home cities can claim even a single company in the top 30, as measured by revenues. (Seattle-born Boeing is No. 28 but is now headquartered in Chicago, and Microsoft is No. 36.)

With such a powerful history of innovation behind it—much of it showcased at Dearborn’s Henry Ford Museum, whose collection of technological artifacts is rivaled only by the Smithsonian’s—Detroit is a city that no one should write off. Time Inc. certainly isn’t: last fall, the media giant bought a house in Detroit and is spending a year … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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