TechTown at the Fringes

"The quickest way to form a rich culture is to adopt an existing, decentralized one."

One night, early last week, I attended an event at the Next Energy facility on Burroughs Street in the TechTown neighborhood just North of the Wayne State University campus. Relatively few people know that TechTown is, in its entirety, actually 43 square acres in size. TechOne, what most people refer to as TechTown, is the business incubator located at 440 Burroughs. This incubator itself is under new management and as I understand it, the stakeholders are optimistic about new programming set for the coming year.

This meeting I attended was in reference to the redevelopment of the neighborhood as a whole, and there were 60 or so stakeholders and other relevant, revitalizing-types in attendance. Following a brief slide deck presentation from an urban planning firm referencing work in Philadelphia and Cleveland, we broke into groups of eight to 10 folks and were led through a process of mapping the ideal TechTown from a land-use perspective.

The process was brief, enjoyable and informative. Among other things, I observed small-business people, real estate contractors and foundation program managers, working in groups, all discussing the virtues of things like surface parking vs. actual parks. Something struck me, and I mumbled the revelation to the person on my right:

"Why would we be asking people to come to TechTown?"

The next morning and since, I have been thinking about that question specifically. There is a great deal of attention being paid to the physical spaces in the 12 square blocks that is TechTown, particularly as it connects to the university via the land south of it. However, in order for TechTown to thrive, we must focus on creating an environment where the area can grow organically out of existing assets.

I believe the opportunity for TechTown is in embracing an existing shared culture, one that exists on the fringes, and giving it a home. Functionally, I think we can look downtown at the Madison Theatre Building for a formula likely to accelerate adoption. The value proposition is this:

The Madison is to Internet start ups as TechTown is to emerging tech.

Right down the road from TechTown on Woodward and only about a year old, the Madison is filled to the brim with innovative start ups and young professionals spilling over into other spaces like the Dime Building and 1220 Woodward. The Madison is also sparking specialty projects like Grand Circus, the Broderick Towers education and coworking environment modeled after General Assembly in NYC, and Department of Alternatives, a cooperative space exclusive to companies working on for-profit market alternatives to civic and social issues. Dandelion being a tenant, I see very specific ingredients in the mix at the Madison and I think they are applicable to TechTown redevelopment plans. I have broken it out in three parts:

In my opinion, TechTown should stake their flag in emerging technology, like cleantech, alternative energy, medical devices and life sciences. This is the place you come if you have potentially transformative technology on the brain, small or large, ready for market or at the tinkering stage. There exists in Michigan tens of thousands of mostly disparate folks engaged, at varying levels, in new and interesting technologies. TechTown can give them a home.

An advertising campaign offering a headquarters for new tech is great for awareness, but you need incentives to close the deal. This is where TechTown can take cues from the Madison, which installed offices for local venture capital firms right alongside its start ups and budding projects, giving both the VCs and the founders easy access to one another.

Also, fringe projects draw lots of attention -- a quick glance at Kickstarter's technology projects page will give you a sense of what I mean by fringe. Michigan is full of dormant engineers and hobbyists working on interesting projects. This thinking might seem contrary to someone wearing their economic development hat, but I firmly believe that the quickest way to form a rich culture is to adopt an existing, decentralized one. The community you seek is what will ultimately grow out of that culture.

You must actively communicate the Detroit brand of new tech. While you are building your own base of doers, you want to benchmark all that is awesome in these kinds of projects around the globe and start sharing it through social media. You can also slip it in as fodder in articles to be placed in regional publications. Associating your physical environment with the kind of thinking that results in the world's most interesting projects is a powerful recruitment tool. Obviously, once you start to attract the kinds of innovators you seek, these Michigan-based transformational entrepreneurs, you want to be promoting them early and often.

Something else the Madison does well that TechTown could duplicate is democratized event planning. Every other day and night, there are events at the Madison. Yes, it is an uber-attractive space, but most of these events are coordinated by the tenants -- those in proximity with like interests. Be it Waffle Wednesdays on the third floor or a female hacker teaching a class to other Detroit lady-coders-in-training, the Madison is a community, "one that is growing and it has nothing to do with the fancy chairs." It is the people and their shared culture that make it.

The TechTown neighborhood is a terrific Detroit asset. It can be so much more. Start now.