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 … Next Page »

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