What Detroit teaches Silicon Valley

Photos by Daniel Harris.

“If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit … Prosperity seemed bound to go on forever—but it didn’t, and Detroit is now in trouble.”

Decline of Detroit,” Time magazine, October 27, 1961

Living in Silicon Valley, one wonders if and when a similar article may be written about our region. At present, we serve as the nation’s hub of wealth and innovation, the largest generator of patents per capita and a magnet for high-skilled labor and immigrants.

Yet, to believe that our region’s successful future is inevitable—that innovation and wealth are required to stay here—is, as the great German philosopher Hegel said, to “learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” Silicon Valley must embrace and learn from the painful and not-too-distant past of our Rust Belt cousins.

As leaders from cities around the globe continue to descend on the valley, seeking to turn their corners of the world into the next Silicon (fill in the blank), Knight Foundation is bringing leaders from San Jose to Detroit to learn and seek inspiration from the Motor City, a fellow Knight community.

In July, 13 leaders from across San Jose’s public, private and nonprofit sectors attended a study tour hosted by the Detroit Experience Factory.

The goals of the trip were to:

·      Explore how Detroit-based entrepreneurs, philanthropists, the private sector and city officials are working to revitalize and reimagine key public spaces;

·      Learn about the Detroit Planning and Development Department’s efforts to streamline and expedite development, including the recently launched Pink Zones;

·      Meet philanthropic and private-sector partners working together to support workforce development and small business growth, and  

·      Connect San Jose entrepreneurs and city officials to support ongoing development and policy reform in San Jose. 

Over two days, the San Jose group met with their counterparts at Build Institute, the planning department, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Eastern Market Corp., FoodLab Detroit, Human Scale Studio, Motor City Match, Ponyride and Rock Ventures.

The meetings explored diverse topics and best practices, including building a regional agriculture and food hub, creating spaces for artists and entrepreneurs, lowering the permitting and zoning barriers to allow for rapid and innovative development, and building a strong city brand and identity.

Now back in San Jose, we’re seeing the impact of Detroit in and outside of City Hall. These include new partnerships across trip attendees, new initiatives and policy research at City Hall, new approaches to urban agriculture and new funding opportunities through Knight.

Most importantly, this trip marks the beginning of an ongoing dialogue and exchange between Silicon Valley and Detroit that Knight and our partners will continue to foster in the coming years.

Daniel Harris is San Jose program director for Knight Foundation. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @dyuliharris.