The Building Blocks of Innovation: Part 2 of Our Q&A with David Egner of the New Economy Initiative

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component. We’re asking what are the opportunities to increase logistics employment, which is currently over 300,000 in the region, and how to take advantage of the border relationship with Canada to move Detroit in the direction of being the largest inland port in North America. Right now the inland port that handles the volume is Kansas City, because of the rail connections, which blows my mind, and for overseas shipping it’s Long Beach, CA. But anything that’s large and expensive, we can move better than anyone else. They will be developing a broad strategy for how to truly make this the smartest, largest inland port, and if we find there are elements of that strategy that we can help with, we will talk with the Chamber and with MSU about what resources that will take.

X: And the workforce development area?

DE: We are just getting started in that space. In this region last year, there was just shy of $1 billion in public dollars put into the workforce system. You have to ask the question, if you spent a billion dollars, how many jobs did you create and how many jobs were replaced or retained? The numbers are confusing and difficult to track, but one thing is clear—the system is broken. It doesn’t work. We are taking a cut at this from three perspectives. NEI’s money can’t change the system, but we do think we can help align it through some incentives and policy work. So we are working through the workforce boards and community colleges to talk about creating a hub where they can exchange information and become more nimble and more quickly adjust the system. We are playing a convening role here. We have also set aside some money to try to leverage existing federal dollars available in this space.

But the thing that has the great potential is that we have developed a sector strategy around five sectors in the region, where we are gathering employers to talk about their current entry-level needs and how to best meet those needs. The sectors are healthcare, advanced manufacturing, alternative energy, homeland security and defense, and transportation and logistics. If you think of the workforce as a pipeline from the entry level to the higher levels, it gets clogged up. You can get trained for one position, but there’s no talk about what’s next. So we are seeing entry-level people who are not prepared to move up, so the clog stops people from moving up and new people from moving in. I have some hope that the groups meeting in these five sectors will look at how to unclog those pipelines.

X: How much money does the New Economy Initiative have left to spend? Is there some possibility that the collaboration will be extended beyond its original five-year lifespan?

DE: We just opened that discussion with the governing council. If you look at how the current dollars are committed versus what is being spent, we will be virtually out of money by the end of 2012. If the initiative does indeed sunset, then our strategy in 2011 and 2012 will be supercharging those things that we know are already working and getting them to be self-sustaining. If there is a thought by the foundations that we need to refuel this thing, whether that means another $100 million or $50 million, then that will allow us in 2011 and 2012 to keep talking about new strategies.

X: Are there any big, unanswered questions about Detroit’s future that keep you up at night?

DE: Which one? The quick answer is yes, there are hundreds of unanswered questions. The uncertainty will eat you alive if you let it. We have to strike a balance between the comfortable certainty of going in a known direction, even if it is wrong—which is what Detroit has been doing for the last couple of decades—and the fear and uncertainty of limitless possibilities.

We are trying to strike that balance. And there is not a night that I don’t lay awake wondering about some of those things we are doing incorrectly, or something that we have not thought about. But the bottom line is that if we don’t do something, if we don’t make these efforts to be more entrepreneurial and more innovative, we will continue to stagnate as a city and a region. I could go into a full list of questions—there are tons and you could probably spit out a dozen yourself right now. But we can’t let that scare us away from making decisions and moving forward.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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