In Search of Innovators: Bold Entrepreneurs, Better Education Critical to Keep U.S. Economy from Sinking, Says Walter Isaacson

By Tom Walsh

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Detroit was a major example of the decimation of industrial jobs in America and unless the country reverses a scary decline in its education system, the economy is destined to sink, says best-selling author and renowned journalist Walter Isaacson.

Isaacson, former chairman and CEO of CNN and former editor of Time magazine, and biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger, is not so much a prophet of doom and gloom as he is a crusader for innovation to succeed in a fast-changing world.

In an interview with the Detroiter, Isaacson, a keynote speaker at the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference, discussed the economic rise and fall of Detroit, the recent signs of revival, and the importance of education to the future success of the United States overall and Michigan in particular.

“We used to have the best education system in the world, so we had the best economy,” Isaacson said of America. “Now our education system ranks about 20th in the world.”

Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM), the state’s group of corporate CEOs and university presidents, has sounded that same alarm in recent years. At its 2015 CEO Summit, BLM reported that Michigan ranked 31st among the 50 states in educational attainment. As a result, despite an uptick in the state’s economy since the 2009 economic recession, Michigan ranks 36th in per capita income — $11,000 below the national average.

“The auto industry went into decline, and the cost of building cars in Detroit was higher than shifting those jobs elsewhere,” said Isaacson, reflecting on the industrial heartland’s ups and downs. “These trends gutted the city’s middle class. At the same time, the growth of the suburbs and of crime caused people to move out of the city. Detroit is now one of the cities reversing this trend. It has begun luring people back to town, and it is revitalizing and restoring its urban core.”

Isaacson cited a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem as a critical force in the city’s reversal.

“I think we all have been deeply impressed by the efforts, led by (Quicken Loans founder and chairman) Dan Gilbert and others, to restore the downtown area,” he said. “I think the key is attracting entrepreneurs and small business owners. In addition, the center of Detroit has refurbished many of its historic buildings, and it can build on being a cultural destination.

“Entrepreneurs have always taken risks and challenged conventional wisdom, said Isaacson, whose most recent best-seller, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” profiles tech giants who disrupted their industry. Profiles include Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited for inventing the internet.

“It is useful to be tolerant of diverse ideas and approaches,” Isaacson said. “That is what cities like Detroit have to offer.”

And what role should government play in economic renewal?

“The important thing that America needs — and Detroit in particular needs — is a major effort to rebuild infrastructure. That is the most important role that the public sector can play,” Isaacson said.

A key component is a bold overhaul of the nation’s approach to education.

“When we moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, we in America made high school free and universal,” Isaacson said. “Now we are moving into an age that is more dependent on information and entrepreneurship, so we need to do something equally bold. We need to create an educational system that is pre-K to 14. By that, I mean that every kid deserves quality pre-K education, so that he or she can get a decent opportunity to succeed. And education should be free and universal through at least two years of college, trade school, or career and technical education.”

“Education used to be an equalizer of opportunity. Now it perpetuates disparities of opportunities,” Isaacson added. “That must change as well.”

Tom Walsh is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press

Planet M: Orbiting Michigan’s Mobility Future

Michigan gets aggressive in mobility space 

By Tom Walsh 

In a world gone manic over myriad mobility options, can the Motor City and its home state still be the epicenter of technology and innovation in cars, trucks and other transit modes? It is a big question that is critical to Michigan’s economic future.

To address it, there is an all-out offensive taking shape to make the case that the Detroit region has the right stuff — assets, talent, policies, resolve — to maintain, and even enhance, its status as a global mobility hub.

“No place else in the U.S. has anywhere near the testing and research assets we have,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto at the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Michigan led the nation in connected vehicle projects in 2015 with 49. California came in second with 35. Along with MICHauto and Michigan’s top research universities and state agencies, Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM) launched the Michigan Mobility Initiative in 2015.

“There’s a lot more work in front of us,” said BLM president Doug Rothwell. “But I feel as good about this as I do about anything right now.”

In mid-2016, Initiative partners launched “Planet M,” a new branding campaign announced by Gov. Rick Snyder at the 2016 Mackinac Policy Conference to tout the state’s engineering talent. Its tagline: “Michigan. Where big ideas in mobility are born.”

Planet M aims to dispel not only Detroit’s old “rust belt” image, but also the perception of Michigan’s own young people and parents, from a 2014 survey by Intellitrends, that the auto industry does not offer good growth prospects.

“That’s changing,” said Tim Yerdon, auto supplier Visteon’s global director of marketing and communications, who also chairs the MICHauto talent committee. “Right now, auto tech is cool again. In 2008-09, it wasn’t. People were running away. Now they’re running back to it.”

As part of the Planet M effort, MICHauto is commissioning another perception study of young people. Another plus for the state’s image could be the recent overwhelming passage in the Michigan Legislature of bills that allow for testing of driverless vehicles on roadways.

“I’ve been contacted by three other states asking if I could send copies of our draft legislation,” said Kirk Steudle, head of the Michigan Department of Transportation. “We’re influencing the public policy debate across the country, giving an alternative to the California model, which is very overly regulated.”

However promising Michigan’s offensive on the mobility front may sound, new twists are likely looming over the horizon.

Just look back to eight years ago, amid a turbulent transition from one U.S. president to another. Michigan’s signature automotive industry was on the verge of collapse.

General Motors and Chrysler were on life support, sustained by federal cash infusions approved by outgoing President George W. Bush. Soon they would be pushed into Chapter 11 bankruptcies by President Obama. Things looked dire at the time.

What transpired instead was a surprisingly speedy revival. “Michigan-based auto companies went from zero to hero’ in record time,” noted Detroit Regional Chamber President Sandy Baruah, who served under President Bush during the crisis.

While the comeback numbers were impressive, threats to the traditional auto industry business model and especially to Detroit’s place of prominence as a global hub of automotive innovation would soon be apparent. New innovators were sprouting far away from Michigan, including:

Tesla Motors produced its first low volume roadster in 2008, then showed its first prototype of an all-electric Model S in 2009. It opened a huge “gigafactory” to make lithium-ion batteries in Nevada earlier this year.

Google launched a self-driving car project in 2009 in California, later partnered quietly with Livonia-based Roush Enterprises to build prototype cars a few years later, and recently announced a partnership with FCA to develop self-driving minivans.

Uber Technologies, founded in 2009 as a ride-sharing app called UberCab, teamed up last year with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on self-driving car research. And now San Francisco based Uber is planning a research center in metro Detroit to work with auto suppliers on autonomous car technologies.

No telling what turns may lie ahead.

In June, Detroit came up empty in the $40 million Smart City Challenge created by the Obama administration to link self-driving cars with sensors and other technologies in a city’s transportation network. Columbus, Ohio was the winner. Detroit wasn’t even among the seven finalists.

While Detroit may have valid reasons for being an “also-ran” in the Smart City Challenge, it goes to show that there are plenty of eager, aggressive cities that covet some of the leadership cachet that Detroit and Michigan have enjoyed as America’s automotive capital for so long.

Steudle put the mobility race this way: “While we’ve been moving quite aggressively in Michigan on these mobility issues, they’re moving quite aggressively in California, and in Florida and in Texas,” he said. “We really have to keep our foot on the gas.”

Tom Walsh is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press.