Can Technology Redefine Detroit?

Detroit Hosts National Tech Conference Featuring Dan Gilbert, Steve Case, Jack Dorsey.

Credit: Jon Deboer/mymodernmet

What words come to mind when you think of Detroit? Some time ago, we asked this question of our GrowDetroit readership. Some answers reflected total hopelessness, while others conveyed promise and opportunity.

We are inundated with tales of a Detroit turnaround in the National media as of late: debates around whether Detroit can be saved, whether it should be left to die, or even if it’s already on the verge of a comeback have all become common speaking topics. Regardless of your stance on this issue, one thing is clear: The city that 100 years ago epitomized innovation and progress has become the first Western “post industrial city“.

So what is to become of Detroit in the 21st century? On September 12th, an organization called Techonomy will seek to address how a community so deeply entrenched in manufacturing can evolve and grow in an era of rapid change and progress.

“We’re heavily focused on the issues that typical American cities are facing, especially those rooted in a manufacturing background,” says David Kirkpatrick, Techonomy’s Founder and New York Times bestselling author of The Facebook Effect. “The main topics of the event center around US competitiveness, jobs, economic growth and urban revival. And with this, Detroit is a perfect place because it symbolizes the failures of the American economy so starkly. Not that there isn’t hope though, we believe there’s great hope…”

And Kirkpatrick couldn’t have found a better representative for Detroit’s hope than Billionaire mortgage magnate turned tech investor Dan Gilbert, who recently signed on as a keynote speaker at the conference. At the event, Gilbert will share some of the ways that he and his team at Detroit Venture Partners are working to reshape and redefine Detroit. Kirkpatrick himself recognizes a number of undervalued assets the city of Detroit possesses. “The fact that Detroit has a world-class airport, low cost of living and affordable real estate…are all very undervalued assets. I think that’s what Gilbert has been trading on.”

Gilbert’s efforts have indeed been picking up steam as of late — relocating 4,000 Quicken Loans employees downtown and acquiring enough skyscrapers to become one of the largest landowners in Detroit. Through Detroit Venture Partners, startups like Detroit Labs have flourished and produce highly successful mobile applications for the likes of Chevrolet.

If Detroit is on the brink of a revival, it’s technology that is proving to be the leading driver of job creation and economic growth. This is the core of an overarching theme that weaves through Techonomy: Entrepreneurship must serve as the main catalyst of 21st century Detroit’s revival. One of the leading drivers of entrepreneurial activity in the region has been Startup Michigan — the regional implementation of the Startup America Partnership.

It’s appropriate, then, that Steve Case will open the Techonomy conference. Best known as co-founder and former CEO of America Online (AOL), Case has gone on mastermind and serve as the Founding Chairman of The Startup America Partnership — a White House initiative created to accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship across the country. His firm belief resides in that entrepreneurship is not only a core American value, but critical to the country’s long term success and will provide cities like Detroit to harken back to it’s roots as a hotbed of innovation.

“As the Silicon Valley of the early 20th Century, pioneers like Henry Ford put our city on the map by imagining a better tomorrow and then making it happen through entrepreneurial fire.  And with this passion, our city prospered.”

Today, Detroit has the potential to serve as the blueprint for middle America’s economic revival. Midwestern work ethic has a strange habit of breeding success, and nobody hustles harder than Detroit. After all, many of today’s most significant innovators have roots in Michigan.

As one of the foremost innovators of the 21st Century, Jack Dorsey will help close out Techonomy, focusing on how technology and entrepreneurship can transform cities. Dorsey’s passion for urban landscapes is well established as the impetus behind his creation of Twitter, showing us that a kid from from St. Louis, Missouri (or anywhere else) can forever change the way we see the world.

For those in Detroit, there has never been a better time to take action. Those on the outside are taking notice.

“For people that have the desire to learn, anyone who has access to the Internet can do so,” says Kirkpatrick. “They seem to appreciate it more in places like Indonesia and Uruguay. People in the US as a whole don’t seem to really understand that you can improve your lot through technology. Look at what Google is doing with connectivity in Kansas city. Imagine if this idea of making broadband free for an urban community was implemented in depressed areas of Detroit.”

The core theme that weaves through Techonomy is that the Detroit of the 21st Century will be defined by a new generation of innovators: world class talent who reject the east + west coasts to manifest their entrepreneurial dreams in the Motor City.

  • ebzovi

    Great write up Alex

  • Joe

    Saying Detroit is the “first Western postindustrial city” is a bit of a misnomer, but you hit on some of the great developments in the city. Well done.

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