Detroit – Turin Partnership: Innovation Cluster Study Tour

The German Marshall Fund’s Urban and Regional Policy Program recently led the third, high-level study tour of Detroit practitioners to Turin, Italy as part of the Detroit-Torino Partnership project.  The Detroit-Torino Partnership is a three-year project supported by the Kresge Foundation that seeks to establish enduring relationships between individuals, government agencies, foundations, civil society institutions, universities, and businesses in the two cities.  The most recent study tour focused on what lessons Turin might offer to leaders from Detroit working to develop a region-wide innovation economy in southeast Michigan, with an epicenter, or Innovation District to be established in Midtown Detroit.  The substantive focus on innovation and cluster development was an outgrowth of conversations begun during last year’s collaboration.

The latest Detroit delegation represented a cross-section of civic, business, and government leaders who are actively engaged in and critical to the development of the innovation economy in southeast Michigan.  They represented academia, the automotive industry, a high-tech business incubator, the energy industry, a federal agency (DOE), the health care industry, philanthropy, and private sector venture capital firms.  Each participant brought considerable expertise to the study tour, which contributed to robust exchanges during site visits and meetings.  Equally important, the differing backgrounds of each participant helped educate the other members of the delegation about the various challenges they each confront and opened new dialogues about how they might overcome some of those challenges by working together. 

Without question, Turin’s and the Piedmont Region’s success in creating and sustaining diversified innovation activity as part of a larger economic development strategy provided valuable insights and lessons for the delegation.  One of the delegation’s major takeaways was the fact that Turin’s economic development strategy was conceived and implemented nearly 20 years ago and that it still commands buy-in from all of the city’s critical public, private, and philanthropic actors.  Moreover, leaders in Turin continue to adjust the strategy as the competitive landscape evolves.  Members of the Detroit delegation believe that Detroit’s efforts to build an innovation economy will require a similar level of buy-in and long-term commitment in order to be successful. 

Most striking for the delegation, however, was the fact that, in many ways, the ingredients for Detroit’s success already exist.  In fact, Detroit is far ahead of Turin when it comes to commercializing intellectual property, technology transfer initiatives, and the use of investment capital to support these activities.  Equally significant, southeast Michigan possesses a tremendous network of academic, research, and economic development institutions that support the development of sustainable new businesses.  The challenge, therefore, for Detroit and southeast Michigan will be to better coordinate and align the activities already occurring in order to bring a vision of an innovation economy to fruition.  By doing so they eventually may be able to surpass Turin’s remarkable success. 

For more perspectives on this study tour, please see a recent post in the Huffington Post blog by David Egner, President of the Hudson-Webber Foundation and leader of Southeast Michigan’s New Economy Initiative. Other members of the Detroit delegation will be posting their impressions of the study tour on NEI’s blog.

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