Lessons from Techonomy Detroit: Thought Leaders Must Push City Hall

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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.



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