Radical revitalization urged for Detroit

Posted on September 13, 2012

Several of the nation’s most prominent tech leaders converged in Detroit on Wednesday to talk about entrepreneurship, Detroit’s revitalization, the future of manufacturing and U.S. competitiveness.

Techonomy Detroit attracted about 500 people to Wayne State University with speakers such as Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and chairman of Twitter, and Steve Case, the co-founder of America Online and the CEO of Revolution. But it also featured some local business leaders including Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, and Josh Linkner, CEO and managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners.

“Don’t consider entrepreneurship to be a job but more of an attitude,” Dorsey said. “It can happen at any stage in the life of a company or a nation. There can be multiple founding moments and it doesn’t necessarily mean just starting a new company.”

The conference is a spinoff of an invitation-only gathering of tech leaders held every year near Tucson, Ariz.

Here are some of the highlights from the wide-ranging discussions:

Top executives from several technology companies talked about how the U.S. is entering a new era of manufacturing where people can make small volumes of things by themselves at much less cost than in the past.

A role for everyone

A group of Detroit business and civic leaders said everyone needs to play a role in revitalizing Detroit. But they also urged Detroit to capitalize on its own unique identity instead of trying to copy the comeback paths that other struggling cities took.

“Detroit will fail in our revitalization if we simply follow everybody else’s revitalization,” said Linkner. “We need to do things that are different and unique to us. That will not only create authenticity but attention on a national scale.”

He said the city needs to take radical steps, not just incremental ones. One idea he proposed: taking back 80 square miles of land to rebuild the city through a massive eminent domain.

Leslie Smith, CEO of TechTown, a Detroit business incubator, said Detroit needs everything, from more large employers and young people to infrastructure.

While she praised Detroit as being the “next big frontier,” she also called for an honest discussion about the things holding back the city. “There is divisiveness here,” Smith warned.

‘Make that car fly’

Tim Draper, founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a Silicon Valley venture capitalfirm, chastised Detroit for putting all its eggs in the auto industry basket. He showed the audience a list of all the innovative people who left Michigan such as Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer.

“If you are going to stay in automotive, you’ve got to make that car fly,” he warned.

He predicted that in another 15 years we will see as much change as we did over the last 150 years.

Draper did have some praise for Detroit. “I had no idea how beautiful it was this time of year. It’s spectacular,” he told the audience. “You don’t have a lot of traffic, a lot of pollution. It’s kind of nice.”

Technology first

Emphasizing a theme of the conference, Gilbert said he thinks of his company as a technology firm first rather than a mortgage company.

“When you’re in a business like ours, you’re really just acquiring information, curating information, and moving that information. For us, technology has become our company.”

Big firms disrupted

Case said joining a Fortune 500 firm right out of school and hoping to have a job for life is no longer the safe bet it once was. Technology and other forces are disrupting those big firms, and people are starting to understand that smaller, more entrepreneurial firms might be safer.

He also told the audience that crowd funding — aggregating lots of small investments from many people via the Internet — has democratized investment and access to capital.

It’s not so important in places like Silicon Valley where there are good venture capital firms, he said. But it’s really important in places like Detroit that lack an infrastructure of investment firms.

Origins of Twitter

Dorsey told the conference that he is obsessed with cities and has been since growing up in St. Louis. Fascinated by maps, he said he became a software programmer so he could work in the dispatch industry, which involves routing vehicles through complex urban environments.

Twitter grew out of that, he said. “Now at Twitter I can see what the entire world is doing, what the entire world cares about in real time.”

Katherine Yung & John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press