Hello, my name is Karen. And I’m a conference junkie.
Let me back up a moment. This is the second year that Techonomy has hosted a conference in Detroit. (Typically, it is a one-and-done kinda thing, so that’s a compliment.) The goal is to connect all of these high-tech workers in one room, get them talking about the latest apps, companies and gadgets as well as touch upon the hot issuesof the day. So education, job creation and land use/sustainability ranked among the biggest chats of the conference.
Detroit has fallen so far in terms of its finances and reputation that “open-mindedness is more prevalent” here than the rest of the wider world, joked host David Kirkpatrick, who also serves as the head Techonomist at Techonomy Media. To soften the blow, Kirkpatrick added that his organization is committed to the city, promising to host additional events here annually or perhaps more often.
There were dozens of speakers, and there is no way to synthesize everything I took away from the event. Granted, I’m not very techy. (But there were lots of people there from industries including banking, retail, design and the like, so I guess we all love conferences.) I came to document what was said (and ignored) about Detroit and Southeast Michigan – I’m into the branding/marketing of it all. But here are some highlights:
• Detroit has made the turn from a city that “might” come back to one that is in recovery and maybe beyond. At least that’s what the big talking heads say. Gov. Rick Synder said it. Quicken Loans head Dan Gilbert said it. Bruce Katz of The Brookings Institution said it. The revitalization started years ago; the business culture is on the upswing. Bankruptcy has and will continue to have its impact. But it cannot stop the momentum because Detroit has passed the tipping point of recovery.
• There is room for everyone at the party. Gilbert was self-depreciating as always, joking about how he didn’t understand British slang (an interesting character trait in someone who is clearly intelligent and successful. But I digress). But his most humble moment came when he noted that he alone didn’t “save” Detroit. “We weren’t alone” with our investments in Detroit, Gilbert told his packed session. He simply felt “fortunate to join in” with those already here. Say what you want about the guy, he gets the audience and the audience definitely gets him.
• Detroit and its brand has muscle – everywhere but here. Gilbert said he doesn’t need to “sell Detroit.” It sells itself. Quicken Loans had 1,100 interns this summer but there were 19,000 applications for those slots. Those college kids knew where they’d be working – and were they scared of that big, bad city everyone warned them about? Heck, no. They came willingly. But when you talk to people in Michigan, they tend to bad mouth Detroit just out of habit, said Gov. Snyder in a media press conference during the event. We don’t know how to talk about the city. Perception is about five to 10 years behind reality, Snyder told reporters.
• A strong Detroit is a strong Michigan. That was repeated throughout the sessions. Invest now because the upside is there. Get behind the momentum of Midtown and downtown, Katz told the audience. Redevelopment is coming, and the barriers to entry are low. We have everything in Detroit you need for success: access to capital, talent, low-cost basis in area like real estate, said Detroit Venture Partners chief Josh Linkner. In other words, join in the revival or you’ll miss your chance to say you were part of it. “If Detroit wins I believe the whole region wins,” Linkner said.
• Patching together the successful parts of Detroit will take time, but it will happen. The downtown and Riverfront are great examples, Linkner told one of the people asking questions during his session. The rebirth won’t happen all at once, and there will be areas of failure. And failure is OK, especially in a high-tech world. Detroit has these fantastic spots where life, culture and business work together. And no one is in denial that the neighborhoods need that same treatment. But there are efforts happening behind the scenes and in the public eye that will change how Detroit works, and they will be systemic.
• Apathy kills change. And Detroit needs change. Ideas matter, and Jerry Paffendorf described it well during his opening speech during a breakout session on Civic Startups. He began with an idea of selling real estate in inches, giving ownership to a little part of Detroit. But during that project he found out about all of the land and buildings that are in the wrong hands or in no hands at all. He had read something about the inexpensive land in Detroit, and he became both alarmed and intrigued. So he set out to use all that he had learned about computers, programming and Detroit to fix that. “Why Don’t We Own This?” is the result, and he says it is helping the city and others unravel the confusion around property management in Detroit. Amazing. Small changes bring big, long-term change.
• There were so many quotable people. The quick hits on Twitter were a great example of this. People had keen ears and eyes for what were the bon mots of Techonomy. Some examples: “You can wake up in the morning with a certain level of discontent and still be an optimist” came from Hector Ruiz, chairman of Advanced Nanotechnology Solutions. “This city is ripe for renewal,” Bruce Katz. “We know how to fight here in Detroit,” Josh Linkner.
The agenda was varied, and – as always – you take away what you want from such a conference experience. I know one thing for sure…I plan on skipping the business suit and rocking a t-shirt and blazer next time. Because that’s how Detroit Hustles Tech.