Va-room! Va-room! Detroit roars into the Civic Tech movement

| Shelley Stern Grach

Full disclosure. I absolutely love and am committed to Chicago, but I am who I am because I was raised in Detroit. I know, Detroit. It gets a bad rap, but I am here to tell you Detroit is definitely on the rise and some amazing things are happening there. Especially around Civic Tech, digital skills and economic development.

Come back with me to those idyllic years of growing up in the 50’s and the 60’s. Post World War II, Detroit was the manufacturing hub of the world. Woodward Avenue outclassed Michigan Avenue, with the flagship JL Hudson Store, the Fisher Building, the magnificent Detroit Institute of Arts. The Motor City! Motown!

So … things changed and like many large urban areas, Detroit has faced several challenges over the years. But it’s coming back, baby. And the Microsoft team wants to help accelerate that transformation.

As Matt Stempeck discussed on the Microsoft New York blog, Techonomy Detroit 2015 conference began with a very strong panel, including our own Dan’l Lewin, focused on what companies, citizens and cities can do to reinvent themselves in the digital era. This panel was followed by a fabulous TED style talk by Tiana Epps-Johnson with the Center for Technology and Civic Life. Lucky Chicago! Tiana is now based in Chicago and the Midwest can benefit greatly from her insight and energy.

This was followed by a candid 1:1 with Mayor Mike Duggan. He spoke with specificity and passion about how data and digital skills are essential to the reinvention of Detroit. He discussed examples of urban blight that can be improved and remedied by regular citizens if they have the training and tools to communicate with City Hall. And he made a point of always offering all types of technology access to the City, because not everyone is online or skilled. This was my first time hearing the Mayor speak directly and I felt encouraged, even inspired, by his straightforward approach, his businesslike attitude to getting things done and the sense of urgency he generates.

I’m also encouraged by the team the Mayor has selected to support his focus on the new Detroit. As mentioned by Matt, CIO Beth Niblock is bringing a strong resume and a commitment to Civic Tech in her role. Her colleague Garlin Gilchrist II is focusing on creating an inclusive information ecosystem, also paying attention to the humans and their skills. Garlin also spoke passionately about people, tech, data leading to economic development. Another plus for Garlin-he has the coolest Twitter handle ever—@DetroitCivTech!

There was discussion with several very impressive nonprofit leaders, such as Lauren Hood of Deep Dive Detroit and David Egner of Hudson-Webber Foundation & New Economy Initiative. It was clear that these organizations are deeply engrained in the fabric of rebuilding Detroit, are both provocative and challenging in their approach and expectations, yet genuinely engaged and committed to the community. One of the afternoon panels included Microsoft’s Annmarie Levins, as well as counterparts from IBM and Google to discuss how corporations can support economic development and civic tech. While somewhat similar in their technical approach to the Cloud and open Government,  it was enlightening to see the variation in methodology, based on corporate resources and culture.

Annmarie Levins at Techonomy Detroit

My overall impression is that Detroit, its Mayor and his team, and the community leaders are all on board, energized and have a plan to tackle the digital and economic inequities of Detroit. One key approach is opening the City’s data to its people, while concurrently helping the citizens of Detroit get the skills they need to learn how to access and massage the data, and communicate recommendations back to the City. I’m encouraged and excited to see this transformative stage unfolding in my home town. Microsoft Technology and Civic Engagement will be including Detroit in our plans for civic engagement. We think there are great opportunities here to leverage some of our resources to help accelerate these programs in Detroit.

As the Supremes said in their 1964 hit record: “Come see about me”. We will, Detroit, we will. Just like the Four Tops responded: “Just look over your shoulder, I’ll be there, to give you all the love you need, Reach out (reach out for me.) I’ll be there.”

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Shelley Stern Grach

They say that great work stems from a combination of passion and commitment, something that Shelley certainly possesses when it comes to her life and career. She currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Business Development Center, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Thrive Chicago, Year Up and LISC Chicago. At Microsoft Chicago, she’s the Director of Civic Engagement, working at the intersection of computing and community, promoting STEM programs and using Microsoft technology to spur growth in the community. So no matter if it's work, play, or giving back, Shelley always makes sure her drive and professionalism help her complete her life's goals.