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Meeting of the Minds – Smart City Lessons from Detroit to San Diego

  |   Smart Cities San Diego

Meeting of the Minds is an annual conference of urban sustainability and technology advocates and workers working toward smart, sustainable and equitable urban development and redevelopment strategies. This year’s meeting is Oct. 1-2 and is being held in Detroit, Michigan. The sessions are available via webcast at cityminded.org/webcast, or on Twitter at @meetingoftheminds, hashtag #motm2014.




Why Detroit, a city best known for urban decay and bankruptcy? Because out of the collapse comes opportunity for renewal. Based only upon a speech at tonight’s opening session it is clear there are important lessons for San Diego.


The keynote speaker was Matthew Cullen, President of Rock Ventures, a company owned by Dan Gilbert. Rock Ventures is a business based, bottom line seeking private company. But it is also a company that has made huge investments in central Detroit based upon a civic commitment, without asking for certainty of outcomes, yet with the belief that done right its investments will yield a profit for the company and a revitalized and vibrant Detroit. In other words, if the city is put first, and we do it right, everyone and the city will prosper.


Rock Ventures has invested over $1,000,000,000 in downtown Detroit, including the acquisition of over 9,000,000 square feet of offices. The resulting revitalization has created thousands of new jobs, including the type of tech jobs we talk about creating in downtown San Diego. The Detroit business community in 2013 and 2014 hired 1,400 paid college interns (out of 20,000 applications), bringing youth and ideas to its downtown. Energy creating energy.


Could Rock Ventures sell its positions for a profit today? Not even close. But that is the point. By taking Detroit on its back, Rock Ventures and Dan Gilbert have made a bet on the future without an expectation of immediate or easy return.


But there is much more. Detroit’s waterfront was an inaccessible eyesore. $150,000,000 was spent on its revitalization, the vast bulk of which was philanthropic dollars. Think of San Diego’s North Embarcadero project. To my knowledge zero dollars came from our community businesses and supporters, which waited years for a watered down vision to be financed by government. Currently Detroit has a fixed rail line under construction that will link the part of the 8 sq. mile downtown, estimated to cost about the same as the waterfront. And yes, almost all of that money is private donations.


Make no mistake, Detroit has huge issues and problems. Downton is a fraction of the city, much of which remains a wasteland facing an unpredictable future. But the people and visionaries that are revitalizing downtown Detroit are at work city-wide, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood.


What are the chances of private individuals coming forward in San Diego to undertake such an effort? Can we think of any recent examples? We have many accomplished people with great wealth, and I would suggest in the aggregate more wealth than available to Detroit. So what is the difference? Is life so good no one feels the imperative to reach for something greater? If we could answer this question, I submit we could progress to inclusive and visionary engagement.


If we think of the great cities, they have either an aggressive, visionary risk-taking elected official, or an iconic business person willing to carry their city on their back for the start of the journey. With San Diego’s inherent amazing assets and advantages, the leadership from such a person or persons would propel San Diego to being one of the world’s truly great 21st Century cities for all its citizens.




Most “smart (fill in the blank)”  conferences are essentially trade shows where dozens of vendors display their latest products and services. This conference is different. No vendor booths and a very eclectic mix of government, NGOs, companies, and service providers. The mix contributes to an interesting and less predictable conversation.


Two things are clear from today’s discussion. The first is that San Diego is not unique in struggling to find the right method and model to develop and promote forward focused urban living and sustainability. We are behind some places, and ahead of others, but most importantly the question of how to urbanize for the future is something every place is trying to answer. The question rephrased is “How does a city determine its future needs, and then mobilize the entire community to fulfill those needs.”


This leads to the second point. Today we heard from three cities – Detroit, and the Mayors of Pittsburgh, Pa. and Eindhoven, Netherlands. Each of these cities has or is experiencing a major renascence, lead by a robust collaboration of business and the philanthropic community combining with the public sector. What they also have in common is that each crashed in the recent past. In fact each was faced with the question of whether the city could ever be reinvigorated. Without a doubt, it was the collapse that catalyzed the “hold nothing back, all work together without barriers” effort that lead to the turnarounds.


Ironically, San Diego being the vibrant and successful place it is, does not, and hopefully never will, face such a cataclysmic situation. So what I wonder, and it is a question I asked many times today with no clear answer, whether a successful place can ever realize such a level of shared commitment to a greater civic outcome? It is possible, and somewhat ironic, that San Diego’s many pluses may be the barrier to the creation of a shared urban vision, not to mention the private lead funding to make it happen.


The question is more than theoretical. If diverse interests must make some level of compromise to achieve a higher aggregate good, and if our success as a city and region act as a barrier to motivation to compromise, what can substitute as the motivator? Needless to say this is a good problem to have. Yet at the same time it is a question worth answering so San Diego doesn’t find itself in 20 years facing the types of crisis faced by Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Eindhoven during the past 20 years.




Where is San Diego?


For some time Cleantech San Diego has been saying that over the next few years the top 20 to 25 world recognized “smart cities” will emerge, while others will fade. This doesn’t mean the “top 25” are really doing the most substantive work, but rather they are combining substantive work with effective outreach and branding. My experience in past years has been for San Diego to be referenced as such a leader.


Over the past two days of presentation, more than two dozen cities were referenced as examples of getting smarter, more inclusive and sustainable. San Francisco was mentioned every time, with frequent references to Seattle, New York,  Boston, and Barcelona. More interestingly were references to places like Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas as examples of cities looking forward with sustainable agendas. Sadly, San Diego was not mentioned one time. Why the difference?


Substantively, I think we are doing almost as well as any of the cities mentioned. From everything I heard, no place has project deployments of the type being coordinated by Cleantech San Diego. But San Diego seems to be slowly falling off the awareness screen, a trend we must and can reverse.


Every city spoke of a Mayor led initiative or program as the catalyst for community action. The Mayors, seven of whom attended this conference, are the central organizing figure. In San Diego we have enjoyed strong support from our mayors, including Mayor Faulconer, but we have had no San Diego Mayor created initiatives to implement and brag about. All our local work has responded to state or federal programs. So the first thing we need to do is work with the Mayor on a San Diego created program. A logical place to work from will be the Climate Action Plan.


Every city’s efforts have started with something in their downtown. With Kris Michell’s leadership at the Downtown San Diego Partnership there is reason to be optimistic that we can create a vibrant program for our downtown. I can say most places wish they could start with a Maker’s Quarter or Idea District as a place to create the future.


Lastly, we need to travel. There were 10 plus people from the Bay Area, half-dozen from Boston, and multiple form many places including London and Sidney. San Diego business, NGO, and political leaders need to travel to see and be seen. Done correctly it is time and money well spent, not only for the branding benefits, but also as a way to bring ideas and best practices home to San Diego.


There is no substantive reason San Diego can’t again become a frequently referenced beacon of civic sustainability and smart practice leadership. We just need to not only continue our collective work on the ground, but also to be more proactive in initiating our own goals and programs, and broadcasting all that is being tried accomplished.

–Jim Waring, Executive Chairman, Cleantech San Diego

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