When Techonomy’s Chief Program Officer Simone Ross first proposed in late 2011 that we consider doing an entire conference in Detroit, I was a little confused. Detroit? Isn’t Techonomy all about cutting edge, shiny, new, transformative technologies and the things being transformed? Why head to America’s most distressed big city? But Simone convinced me to head there with her before Christmas that year and I, like her, became captivated.
Techonomy is back in Detroit for our third annual Techonomy Detroit conference on Tuesday, September 16, because it turns out to be the perfect place for a “techonomic” discussion about a number of trends everybody needs to better understand: rapid tech-driven change, the morphing of the American economy, the challenges facing cities as jobs shift rapidly, and the way that galloping innovation is outrunning the ability of policy-makers in cities, states, and the federal government to regulate or even understand what’s going on. It’s hard enough for any of us to understand. That’s why we do these conferences. They help.
So we open this year’s conference at Wayne State University with a weighty session on one of the biggest unanswered questions. What is the future of the “American dream”? Can the United States remain a society where hard work can routinely elevate ordinary citizens into the middle class? How are automation and robotics changing that equation? As one of our conference speakers said on a recent prep call, “First we had agriculture and then manufacturing to absorb the great middle. What will we have next?” How should our country respond to growing inequality and employment uncertainty? The session includes Carol Goss, a veteran Detroit activist who was until recently president of the Skillman Foundation, along with Philip Zelikow, a historian and Washington policy guru who is a managing director of the Markle Foundation’s Initiative for America’s Economic Future in a Networked World. We also include Elizabeth Shuler, the thoughtful secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and a member of the Markle initiative.
When I first mentioned to Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square, that we were planning a Detroit conference in January 2012, I’d barely gotten it out when he said, “I’m in.” It was catalytic to have his commitment. We are among many who are inspired by his passion for remaking America’s cities and belief in tech’s role. The initial impetus for Twitter was Dorsey’s idea that individuals should have the same connectivity to a network of peers as taxis and police cars have. He’s been obsessed with cities since he was a small boy. This year Dorsey is back in Detroit with us. He’ll be interviewed by the new CIO of the city of Detroit, Beth Niblock, a longtime government urban technologist.
Detroit itself is in the midst of an extraordinary transformation, and Niblock and her boss, mayor Mike Duggan, have a raft of impressive ideas about jumpstarting redevelopment with tech as an integral tool. Each time our Techonomy team goes to the city we come away impressed with both its awakening and the scale of its challenges. (We also come away wondering if we should grab some super-cheap real estate before what feels like the inevitable resurgence kicks in big time.)
Susan Crawford, one of the nation’s most thoughtful advocates for fairness in tech policy and author of a new book, “The Responsive City,” about how data can improve governance and community life, will be interviewed by Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution, whose own book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” about the rebirth of American cities, is a must-read. (She co-wrote it with Bruce Katz, who participated in sessions at past Techonomy Detroits). Then Brian Forde, a top tech official in the Obama White House, will appear with Zach Sims of Codecademy, the hugely successful online programming education tool, to talk about the nature of the changing workforce and how urgently the American economy needs to upgrade its talent pool. It’s an amazing group of speakers.
We’ve got potent sessions on urban innovation, the sharing economy, the connection between startups and cities, the future of marketing, even one on the importance of urban farming. Did you know that some experts believe that by 2024 there will be more than ample food for everyone on the planet, thanks to the efficiency of so-called “vertical farms” that may use LED lights with wavelengths optimized for specific crops? It’s the sort of thing we want our audience to go home musing about. That, along with perhaps the ways their company’s management, marketing, and product development needs to shift to accommodate the changing digitized economy.
Techonomy Detroit is two weeks from Tuesday. If you’re in southeast Michigan it’s a no-brainer. And if you’re elsewhere, it’s worth a trip. You’ll be amazed at what you find in Detroit and at this event.