Last Thursday, Xconomy hosted an unconference-style gathering at TechTown Detroit, and we invited folks from the Motor City and Ann Arbor to join us for a discussion about how we might break down the barriers between the two cities to further the region as a whole. It was the second event we held this year dedicated to the topic; the first was a smaller dinner we held over the summer in Ann Arbor.
The purpose of an unconference is to get conversation and ideas flowing freely—this is accomplished by asking participants what they want to discuss at the beginning of the event, and then splitting into small groups to better facilitate communication. Rich Sheridan, founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, did a tremendous job as the unconference emcee, and Gerry Roston, CEO of Civionics and an executive-in-residence at TechTown, delivered the opening remarks. He framed the topic beautifully, based on his unique perspective as someone who lives in Ann Arbor and works in Detroit.
Roston pointed out that the distance between Detroit and Ann Arbor is nearly identical to the miles separating San Francisco and San Jose—so why are they the Bay Area and we’re … Detroit and Ann Arbor?
“We have to be ‘the something’ to compete with the Bay Area,” Roston explained. He called out the “bozos in Lansing”—Michigan’s legislators—for failing to capitalize on the strengths of the region’s entrepreneurs and investors so they might be a bigger, stronger force for growth. “Let’s rebrand to compete with the big boys because we have just as much to offer,” he added.
Though the unconference was anchored around the topic of breaking down silos in the innovation ecosystems of Ann Arbor and Detroit, there were many different facets explored: access to capital, equality of opportunity, diversity in tech, fostering collaborations, and more. Tom Henderson wrote a blog post about the unconference for Crain’s Detroit Business that wonderfully captured the day’s events; he proclaimed the unconference a “roaring success,” and it was clear that attendees had a lot on their minds and welcomed the chance to share their views.
To me, what was most impressive was that we managed to have a discussion that was equal parts honest and respectful—something that seems to be increasingly rare in this divisive era that we’re all currently living through. Call me a wild-eyed optimist, but I still believe we have the opportunity to tackle urban revitalization and gentrification in a more mindful way here in Southeast Michigan. Will it be easy? Definitely not. But if we can get enough influential people to agree that it benefits everyone to build bridges and open up access to opportunity, then we have the chance to create a blueprint for healthy post-industrial American cities that can be replicated across the nation. And that, in my opinion, will go a long way toward truly making America great.
Our intention is to continue the conversation in 2016, though how that specifically takes shape is something we’re still trying to figure out. We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on the subject; e-mail me at [email protected] to add your two cents.
A big thank you to Jeffrey A. Loos of Third Eye Media for the unconference photos. And huge thanks as well to TechTown for hosting and to our sponsors: New Economy Initiative and Varnum. Finally, special thanks to everyone who took part in our first unconference and made it a great success.