July 29, 2019


Tech, Detroit, and The Presidential Debates

Linda Moore

When Democratic presidential candidates gather for the second debate series in Detroit,  they will do so against the backdrop of a city that embodies our nation’s storied past as a pioneer in 20th century American ingenuity — as well as the necessity of constant reinvention and improvement in order to build an even brighter future.

The Motor City is the birthplace of the assembly line,  which revolutionized manufacturing, produced cars that boosted mobility,  and created jobs that helped millions of workers and their families live the American Dream.  Just a decade ago,  that was no longer the case.  Many believed that Detroit’s past glory was gone for good as the city and state suffered high unemployment and a brain drain of talent.

Today,  however,  Detroit is experiencing an economic revival — and technology is a key reason for it.

The tech sector in greater Detroit contributed $25 billion to the city’s economy in 2018.  Median wages for tech jobs in Detroit are 86 percent higher than median national wages.  In addition to General Motors,  Google,  Microsoft,  and Waymo are among the many established tech companies with a Detroit presence.  However,  the auto industry’s resurgence coupled with expansions into Detroit by established companies tells only part of the story.

Detroit has a growing track record as the home to America’s next wave of innovative companies.  Two years ago,  Detroit’s strong startup growth resulted in the city earning a spot in TechNet’s “Next In Tech” rankings.  Earlier this year,  Accenture recognized Detroit as the next major U.S. tech hub.

As the presidential candidates step on the debate stage over the next two nights,  they should make clear how their agendas will ensure that Detroit and other rising tech hubs across the country can power America’s global innovation leadership for decades to come.  Chief among these key policy areas are:  advancing emerging technologies,  boosting startups,  and revitalizing our international alliances to advance our economic and national security interests.

Emerging technologies like self-driving cars hold the keys to the future

Even as tech and a vibrant startup ecosystem have driven Detroit’s comeback,  the city has stayed true to its economic heritage as a leader in the automotive space,  developing “smarter” cars that boost safety,  cybersecurity,  and the driving experience through the adoption of artificial intelligence,  GPS,  smart speakers,  safety sensors,  environmentally sustainable batteries,  and other new technologies.  And of course,  developing and testing self-driving vehicles that take human error out of the driving equation and hold the promise of saving countless lives and boosting mobility for senior citizens and individuals with disabilities.

Unfortunately,  last year,  bipartisan self-driving legislation fell short in Congress.  We are in a global race to develop and implement emerging technologies like self-driving technology,  artificial intelligence,  quantum computing,  and many others.  During these debates,  we hope to hear how candidates will ensure U.S. leadership by encouraging greater research and development (R&D) by the private sector,  prioritizing government-led R&D initiatives,  and promoting balanced regulatory efforts that allow life-enhancing innovations to flourish.

Spotlight on startups

The dynamism we are seeing in Detroit's economy is due in no small part to its thriving startup ecosystem.  These firms have the ability to grow to employ thousands of Americans and make major contributions to the economy.  For example,  in 2015,  the 414,000 startup firms here in the U.S. created 2.5 million jobs.  

Detroit is a key part of our country’s startup story and it is even home to several unicorns — startups that are valued at $1 billion or more.  Continued job growth in Detroit and other regions requires measures that allow startups to flourish,  which include facilitating access to capital, access to talent through policies that expand computer science education and high-skilled immigration,  and pro-innovation policies that ensure regulations are not prohibitive barriers to starting a new business.

Big doesn't automatically mean bad

Equally important to Detroit’s recent success has been the many iconic American tech companies that have chosen the city for their expansion plans.  The growth and expansion of these companies should be a source of pride because it has led to jobs and opportunities across the entire country.  This has not only benefited Detroit economically — these companies’ size means they have more resources and expertise to advance innovative solutions to complex problems that Americans face every day.  As the candidates continue to formulate their ideas to promote healthy economic competition,  we want to ensure we do not stray from the core mission of antitrust law to protect consumers from harm.

Revitalizing international alliances and approving USMCA

One of the most important jobs of every President is to nurture our international alliances and stay focused on advancing common goals.  During the next presidential term,  it will be critical that the administration work with our partners in Europe and Asia to hold China accountable for its unfair trade practices and engage constructively with Chinese officials to ensure any reforms they commit to are meaningful, lasting, and enforceable – we have already seen how the trade war has weighed heavily on Michigan.

Most immediate,  however,  is approval of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

Trade with Canada and Mexico is an important part of Michigan’s economy.  Over 338,000 jobs are supported by trade with the two countries, and the state exported nearly $40 billion to both countries in 2017,  including computer and electronic products.

Much has changed in our economy since the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified 24 years ago.  The internet revolutionized the way the world interacts and does business.  Today, e-commerce is an essential part of business for companies across all sectors.  The modernizations included in USMCA account for the importance of digital trade and will be critical to Detroit’s businesses as they reach new markets and customers beyond their original community.

These issues and many others will be discussed over the next 16 months as we consider the best path forward for the United States.

Whether on the debate stage this week or in the months ahead in this campaign, we also hope to hear from candidates an appreciation for the many positive benefits that U.S. innovations have provided the American people and the world.  We understand that with this leadership role comes a responsibility to ensure our nation’s values are reflected in our work and that we can ultimately be proud of what we have developed and shared with the world.  Every day,  tech is at work trying to solve some new or long-vexing problem by applying technology to it.

In sum,  there was a time not long ago when the future of Detroit's and Michigan's economy looked bleak.  It is a testament to their resilience and ingenuity that they came roaring back. That is a good thing for all Americans.  The U.S. simply cannot be a global innovation leader without a cutting-edge Detroit.  And,  there are lessons from the Motor City’s experience that can be applied to ensure the United States’ global technological and economic leadership.  During the debates,  we hope to hear how candidates will enable a pro-innovation agenda in communities across the country — including Detroit.

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