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Michigan’s business leaders, policymakers, and elected officials are betting their state will emerge as a dynamic place for technology. The hope of a connected Michigan, with smart cities and a vibrant Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem, was a theme at the Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual gathering of Michigan’s leaders.
Michigan has the industries and the economy to lay the groundwork: auto, advanced manufacturing, agribusiness, health systems, and research universities. The state is committed and starting to move forward. In May, the Michigan Department of Transportation announced a collaboration with General Motors Research and Development, for example, to try out smart signal technology—direct data communication between traffic signals and vehicles—to alert drivers of potential red light violations.
The Michigan economy is improving, buoyed by the auto industry rebound. Yet Michigan faces serious challenges. The state’s largest city, Detroit, filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and remains one of the nation’s poorest big cities, still navigating a precarious economic recovery.
In the last 10 years, Michigan has moved from a high prosperity state to a place where low-wage work is increasingly the norm. Technology has replaced jobs and entire industries, in a place where factory labor used to guarantee a middle-class existence and comfortable retirement. Michigan, like most places, is struggling through a transitioning economy.
What is clear is that for technology to be an economic driver, someone must advance the connected agenda. Government is in the best position to do that, believes Ingeborg Rocker, vice president of 3DEXPERIENCity and former associate professor of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Rocker believes government must create “a platform…[where] different players can come together.” Rocker is working on such a model in Singapore, known as Virtual Singapore. By the end of this year, Virtual Singapore should be up and functioning as a 3D-navigable city, one of the most monitored in the world. Public health data, weather systems, transit information, building specs, and city planning information will all be accessible.
“[This is about more] than the visualization of data but the actual planning,” says Rocker. “Designing, simulating the design, executing the design, optimizing the entire creation flow and then linking that to real time–so we are constantly evaluating the assumptions to help make the model better.”
Data analytics, data visualization, and other information like that, gleaned from mining social media conversations, will allow even laypeople to understand the interlocking nature of a city. Such systems are critical for today’s planning as well as for crisis preparedness.
Detroit is a good place to start, says Rocker, because public and business leaders from various sectors are committed to reconstructing the city. The timing is also right. City officials are searching for solutions and options. In Detroit’s so-called downtown, midtown and New Center areas, the city is managing success. Hundreds of new developments have been announced this year and about $100 million in investments are planned. Yet the challenges are vast. The city occupies around 132 square miles—likely the largest footprint of any major American city. Meanwhile, roughly one in three residents lives in poverty, the population continues to fall, and aging or completely obsolete infrastructure is taxing city resources.
“Because of the dissolute situation [in Detroit],” said Rocker “we don’t need to pay too much attention to what exists and can therefore go in with a new approach to comprehensive planning.”
“It is a different role for government,” says Mark de la Vergne, Detroit’s chief of mobility innovation. “If we were trying to plan in a bubble, we would be wrong.”
De la Vergne says that disparate government entities are committed. The city of Detroit, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Michigan Economic Development Corp, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and the Detroit Regional Chamber are all working to be responsive to innovations in the private sector.
He also points out how critical it is to understand the needs of residents and for citizens to understand the ways in which technology can improve their lives. In Detroit, one in five residents are beyond a 30-minute walk to transit but are dependent on low wage jobs that are outside of the city. That leaves many of Detroit’s residents poor and isolated.
“The biggest challenge every city is going to face is that for 99 percent of the population, [technology innovations], aren’t an issue you think about every day. When you think about mobility you just want to know if the bus will be on time. As we talk to our residents, we need to make sure [these solutions] have resonance and impact.”
De la Vergne believes this is why the tech-driven solutions that come out of Detroit will be important. He also emphasized the importance of pilots so that people can understand the infrastructure investments in terms of things that matter to them, like improved transit time and emergency response.
Unlike other cities such as Chicago, de la Vergne says, “Detroit is much further along” in creating a connected landscape. Mayor Mike Duggan created a Smart Infrastructure team that includes public works, the Detroit Department of Transportation, and the Department of Innovation and Technology. In April, a Knight Foundation grant awarded Detroit $200,000 to begin to catalog the city’s network of internet-connected assets and develop a plan to improve urban quality of life, mobility, transportation infrastructure and government services.  
De la Vergne says, in the near term, the city is working on the basics — getting people to jobs, schools and doctors appointments — and doesn’t have the capital to invest in expensive but “amazing” solutions such as Virtual Singapore. Yet he is aware of the efficiency a solution such as this could eventually afford local governments struggling with falling or stagnant revenues. He is hoping, soon, such technology becomes more affordable and widely available. When it is, Detroit is likely to be the American testbed.