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What Turin, Italy, Has That Detroit Needs

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I have just returned with a group of Detroiters from a trip to Turin, Italy as guest of a Kresge Foundation-funded German Marshall Fund study on innovation. Much has been written about the similarities of Turin and Detroit. Both cities benefited from wildly successful automotive sectors for many years, and both cities suffered through the recent decline in manufacturing and the pain of a changing auto industry. However, while the Detroit region is seeing new economic gain from a leaner, meaner Detroit three, Turin's manufacturing workforce is likely to cap at under 25,000. To complicate matters, Turin is also suffering through the difficulties of the complicated European Union financial situation.

Nonetheless, we observed a very palpable belief in Turin that brighter economic days are ahead. This hope stems from a comprehensive vision for entrepreneurial activity that will drive business creation and growth. The most amazing thing about this comprehensive vision is that it was conceived, promoted, sold and supported in the mid-1990s. While 15 to 20 years is a short period of time on the calendar of economic transformation, how many plans, projects, programs and promises has the Detroit region promoted and abandoned in the same time period?

Turin's vision for economic growth has four key elements:

  • It is driven by the development of "place" and the creation of vibrant innovation districts
  • It is focused on higher education and advanced technology commercialization
  • It is fueled by entrepreneurial programs and support systems
  • It is supported by public, private and philanthropic resources.

The plan for Turn's economic transformation is very much alive. It evolves and changes as it must in a harsh and turbulent economic environment, yet like a growing child, it learns and grows under the protection and guidance of a village of parents and guardians that nurture it and support it. It was clear from the many visits our group made to organizations that are engaged in Turin's economic development agenda that, unlike many of our efforts in Detroit that are fragmented by the politics of regional economic development, where many organizations are driven by turf and ego, the Turin vision is embraced across political and organizational boundaries. Universities, business incubators and other organizations are far more cohesive and collaborative than similar institutions here in Detroit, as one example.

Yet in terms of assets on the ground, Detroit has many distinct advantages. Our intellectual property-to-commercialization practices are more advanced, and we enjoy far more private sector support, both in the form of institutional support and investment capital. However, where Turin comes out ahead is in cross-sector collaboration, a shared vision and a higher degree of coordination among private, public and philanthropic investments.

What would happen if we could do similarly in southeast Michigan? Our region is home to a powerful network of academic, research and economic development institutions that are already working to support the creation and growth of sustainable new businesses in our region. What would happen if these innovation assets -- our universities, healthcare systems, incubators, accelerators, entrepreneurial programs and investment funds -- were further united by a shared view of themselves as part of a truly functioning, vibrant regional innovation network with clear goals and an integrated, coordinated plan? How would the Detroit region's economic outlook change if our regional leadership committed a decade or more of investment to driving this shared vision toward agreed-upon outputs and the development of critical metrics?

The Detroit region has the assets and tools to be a leader in innovation. For the past several years, a culture of regional collaboration has been taking root, replacing several decades of fragmentation, competition or indifference. Many leading public, private and philanthropic organizations are engaged in collaborative ventures to support innovation would not have been attempted even five years ago. The city of Detroit is benefitting from a renewed sense of connection to the surrounding counties and an understanding that it can be once again an innovation hub. The New Economy Initiative and its 10 funders have been an integral part of this culture change. And we will continue to support and invest in organizations that align their self interest with a vision of regional innovation and growth. The strategy behind the next round of our investments -- the Detroit Regional Innovation Network, announced in March -- acknowledges and builds on this progress and on the great institutional momentum that already exists in Detroit and throughout the region.

But that does not go quite far enough. There is no reason why our progress to an innovation-based economy cannot be accelerated, but it will take a shared commitment to make a long-term, comprehensive vision for economic success a priority. It would require working together, like the city leaders of Turin -- and steeling ourselves against the temptation to jettison the plan when the going gets tough and a shiny new program or promise beckons. It would require an overt acknowledgment among leaders throughout southeast Michigan that this is our moment to get it right.

In the coming weeks we will share observations from our fellow travelers to Turin and others who are embracing their roles as participants in the Detroit Regional Innovation Network -- with all that that implies. Follow our progress and join us in the conversation at www.neweconomy.org.

Re-Imagining Detroit: The Detroit-Torino Partnership is a three-year initiative, supported by the Kresge Foundation and organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, designed to expose leaders from the city of Detroit to the lessons learned from Torino, Italy's economic rebirth and industrial renaissance over the past three decades.

Through annual study tours and a series of high level exchanges between civic leaders, this projects seeks to engender relationships among government agencies, foundations, civil society institutions, universities, and businesses. These relationships and the outgrowth of cooperation will enable each city to develop a set of policy recommendations and practices tailored to the economic and planning challenges they will face in the years to come.

Learn more at: http://www.gmfus.org/programs-projects/policy-programs/urban-and-regional-policy-program/detroit-torino-partnership.

A version of this post originally appeared on the New Economy Initiative.