Detroit is attracting startups and eyeing blockchain, but it's not your usual Silicon Valley-style tech hub. Diversity, community, decentralized networks and Afrofuturism rule here.
When people talk about Detroit, it's as if nothing existed there before Henry Ford rolled a Model T off the assembly line in 1908. Then (the story usually goes), it flourished during the post-war boom years, but it's been a tragedy ever since 2013, when the city filed for bankruptcy.
I was in the city recently as a guest of Ford, but wanted to explore the place for myself. My time was limited, just 48 hours, but I left Ford's Dearborn suburb and checked into the Detroit Foundation Hotel; the former Detroit Fire headquarters retains its industrial decor, but swaps fire trucks for a popular restaurant and in-house podcast studio. Then I hit the streets to stroll around, ride the "people mover" elevated train, sit in cafes, and talk to as many people as I could.
It turns out there's a much better origin story for Detroit. In 1701, when the French colonists arrived, followed closely by the British, the region was already a centuries-old settlement of several American Indian tribes, including Huron, Ottawa, and Fox, all active in the fur trade. Turf wars and exploitation followed, ending in a terrible massacre. Past maltreatment of indigenous people is being acknowledged today, but there are 12 tribes still in the Michigan now formally recognized by the federal government.
A century later, in 1850, after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Detroit became "codename: Midnight" and the "doorway to freedom," as Detroiters helped at least 30,000 (many say the numbers are nearer 100,000) enslaved Africans to escape into Canada via the Underground Railroad, a network of people using ciphers, codes, and safe houses.
There's still an indomitable spirit in the city today. "Nothing Stops Detroit," read neon signs hanging in refurbished spaces, while a monument to world heavyweight champion Joe Louis is a giant, defiant fist against the backdrop of a city looking to the future.
Blockchain via Afrofuturism
Afrofuturist and curator Ingrid LaFleur is investigating how blockchain technology can help underserved communities. Committed to improving Detroiters' digital literacy via her Afrotopia network, she holds events that have included a symposium with blockchain innovators Edward Carrington (Mytual Technologies), Kinnard Hockenhull (BitBox), and Nate Talbot.
"Our world is being radically restructured because of blockchain technology," she wrote in email from England, where she was about to speak at Oxford University. "Which can either be empowering or disempowering, depending on the level of knowledge and expertise people possess. Could decentralized finance through cryptocurrency further support the cooperative economic initiatives of Detroiters bringing us a step closer to economic liberation? I'm thoroughly excited by how the current blockchain experiments have opened the discussion on decentralization."
Bringing Tax Dollars Back to Detroit
But in order to rebuild a city fallen on hard times, you need cash—both investment, and tax dollars from those in gainful employment—and you won't have either unless there's a decent infrastructure.
This is where Beth Niblock, CIO for the City of Detroit, comes in. She took on the job in 2014, after serving as CIO of Louisville for more than a decade. She now runs Detroit's Department of Innovation and Technology with 130 people on her team and a budget of $43 million.
"I was part of a team of municipal CIOs that the Obama Administration brought to Detroit to help lay out a technology roadmap for the city," Niblock told me via email. "My heart was captured by the people and spirit of Detroit so when Mayor Duggan asked me to join his team I said yes."
After four years, she's pragmatic, but enthusiastic, about the road ahead. "In terms of opportunities," she wrote, "we need to make it easier for citizens to interact and do business with the government, fixing the digital inclusion and equity gap, while increasing the number of Detroiters who can participate in the digital economy.
"There is a low barrier of entry/low startup costs in Detroit. This, coupled with the automotive headquarters in the area and surrounding universities, makes Detroit an incredibly exciting place for tech-related businesses to be—especially in Downtown, Midtown, and Corktown, which have the strongest density for tech companies."
Silicon Valley Signifiers
There's plenty of evidence that Detroit is welcoming the tech industry to town and many point out that the Motor City is fast becoming the "City of Mobility" with automation, smart city and connected vehicles startups, including Wheeli (car pooling for collegiates), PolySync (autonomous safety platform) and Carma(vehicles by subscription).
WeWork now has two prominent locations in the city—coworking Bamboo Detroitand Grand Circus are local-owned alternatives. Microsoft took over 40,000 square feet in the former Compuware building at 1 Campus Martius; Google is leasing a 26,000-square-foot office; and Twitter has been there since 2016. Most of these tech imports have offices on or near Woodward Road, an historic north-south artery not far from the Motown Mansion, which stretches from Detroit River to its city limits at Eight Mile Road (yes, as in the Eminem movie).
I spoke with Paul Riser, managing director of TechTown, which spun out of Wayne State University in 2000 and provides free events open to the public. The company recently wrapped up a weekend-long FinTech Challenge and is a leader in Detroit Startup Week, which runs from June 18-22.
Riser pointed out that Detroit has seen a 50 percent rise in startups since 2015. "Detroit offers very few layers of separation," he said. "Something that is critical for entrepreneurs who need to connect and build fast with quick access to true decision makers. We have an economic development, investment, technical and manufacturing community that is steadily increasing—hence the 50 percent+ growth in startups in just the last 3 years, especially in key industry verticals: life sciences/healthcare, information technology, mobility, advanced materials and manufacturing and alternative energy."
Homegrown successes include compile-it-yourself furniture company Floyd (which carries the tagline "Designed in Detroit. Made in the USA"); authentic sneaker live marketplace StockX (which notes: "Proudly Made in Detroit") and Bloomscape, which brings in plant life to brighten dwellings. Design is a key factor in the resurgence of Detroit-based companies. It was recognized by Unesco as a Creative City of Design in 2015.
Martin Dober of Invest Detroit Ventures said mobility continues to be one of Detroit's most promising sectors, but pointed out: "The region is also seeing diverse investments from consumer products like Shinola as well as in FinTech companies such as Benzinga and Autobooks."
"There's a sense here that one company's success is everyone's success," added Maria LaLonde, senior program officer with the New Economy Initiative. "Detroit offers a great mix of big city amenities with a small town vibe, authenticity, and a thriving entrepreneurship community."
Nothing Stops Detroit
There are signs of recovery everywhere, but I can't lie. While walking around further east and west of Woodward Avenue, I came across sights that made me think of post-apocalyptic, sci-fi tales, with abandoned buildings and steam rising from underground grates into spookily empty streets. It's clear there's much rebuilding to be done.
"In cities like Detroit, you have to build community first, before pursuing technological solutions," said Matthew Lewis, Communications Officer at the New Economy Initiative.
And there's plenty of that going on in Detroit.
One of the organizations mentioned a lot is the Detroit Community Technology Project. Since 2014, DCTP has taken the lead on many local initiatives, including the Digital Stewards training, equipping neighborhood leaders, especially elders, to design and deploy community-owned wireless networks, bringing connectivity to underserved areas.
DCTP also focuses on digital justice, open data, demystifying the internet, media production, and telecommunications policy like net neutrality and consumer privacy through "DiscoTechs," open forums for citizens in collaboration with the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition.
"We are at the brink of a digital age," said DCTP Director Diane Nucera. "The more we know about how technology works, the more we have the ability to shape the future we need. We believe Detroiters are able to foster innovative solutions because the most effective strategies for us are the ones that work in situations of scarce resources and intersecting systems of oppression. Those solutions tend to be the most holistic and sustainable."
A smart fit-for-purpose enterprise that many also namechecked during my research is Avalon Village, a 21st century self-sustaining ecovillage in Highland Park. It's run by Shamayim Harris, known colloquially as "Mama Shu," who trained as a police chaplain and is determined to help Detroiters find a better future.
The collective now owns 34 previously blighted properties and is transforming them into much-needed local services, including the Homework House, where children can get a meal and tutoring, and a growing micro-business online/offline platform for local entrepreneurs. All this is made possible through local digital expertise—as well as US-wide crowdfunding assistance, after an impassioned Kickstarter campaign and Mama Shu's appearance on daytime talk show Ellen.
"Technology is playing a key role in our initiatives," Mama Shu explained. "Avalon Village is home to the first residential solar street light in our city—where residential streetlights were removed several years ago because the city could not afford to pay its electric bill. We are actively seeking grants to put in additional solar street lights to make our community safer in an energy efficient, affordable way.
"Our Homework House features a solar roof and geothermal heating and cooling system. Our goddess marketplace was built using recycled shipping containers. These green, sustainable technologies reduce our operating costs and protect our planet at the same time."
There are so many grassroots organizations in Detroit today, but another one worth mentioning is Downtown Boxing Gym, a free, after-school academic and athletic program for Detroit students ages 8-18. The program has a 100 percent high school graduation rate since 2007 and teaches computer coding and fiber optics training (in addition to other cool things like beekeeping and music).
My overwhelming impression of Detroit, having been there, is that it's a test case for what happens after one industrial cycle makes way for the next. The city isn't relying on Silicon Valley or Manhattan imports to build its startup culture but on homegrown initiatives.
The lessons applied here are easily transferable and much needed in the emerging world. The Digital Stewards training curriculum has already been deployed elsewhere in D.C. and Brooklyn, as well as in Sayada, Tunisia, and Dharamsala, India. Avalon will be a case study for thousands of other sustainable eco-villages in coming decades.
You can tell two stories about a massive socio-economic shift. Either bemoan the glittering past or pull up your bootstraps and work out how to rebuild your city.
Detroit is doing the latter. Mainly because it has no choice. And that's a much better story to tell.