Can Detroit follow in Shoreditch’s footsteps and become a startup hub?

By Jack Preece

Detroit is a city in the middle of a renaissance, In the 50’s the city was famous for its industrial dominance, cultural variety and automobile innovation — It was a city that was thriving. 30 years on and Detroit was at the peak of its suffering — major automobile manufacturers had left the city, there was ongoing racial tension, political corruption, a nickname of “stab city” and economic turmoil that left the once thriving city broken into pieces. The problems didn’t end there though. In 2009 the city filed for bankruptcy and had a huge economic crisis on their hands with the population declining and unemployment rates rising. The city was described in 2013 by American economist James Moreland as a “former powerhouse in a barren stretch of land, devastated by looters and full of run-down, vacant houses”. The city is the fourth largest in the States and only has a population of 680,000, which sounds a lot until you compare it to a city such as Manchester which has 2.55million and is a quarter of the size. But it’s not about quantity is it? It’s about quality.

Today the city has a completely different identity, spirit and community that is distinctive of all previous eras of Detroit. There’s a youthful proud spring in the step of the people who remain or have moved there and are willing to change it for the better. Detroit is attracting a new diverse workforce from all over USA, most of these are young creatives who want to take advantage of the low rental prices and change the city’s reputation for good. You can still buy a romantic cast-off industrial building for cheap and many young businesses are doing so.

Detroit’s story-line is not dissimilar to that of Shoreditch. Both at one stage have been unpopular places to live and have since been turned into something youthful and unique through a community effort to rebuild. Shoreditch, in the East end of London was once known as being “Desolate and Rough”. The area was completely baron after World War Two with buildings and warehouses empty, few people living there and even fewer visiting. Before long, word of these large open spaces and affordable prices got around and attracted a large number of up-and-coming artists and entrepreneurs such as Alexander McQueen and Damien Hirst to the area. The area was turned into an artistic authentic and vibrant part of London . A couple of years down the line and Shoreditch is being flocked too by a large variety of people and businesses from all over London to live, work and play — the warehouses and offices have been turned into fun, creative workspaces that attract new talent.

Two weeks ago Detroit held events dedicated to helping startups and early stage entrepreneurs. It was the largest startup week in American history. Startup week was a five day celebration of the community and was setup by the ChaseBasecamp and GrowDetroit to build momentum and opportunity around entrepreneurship, led by entrepreneurs and hosted in the entrepreneurial spaces. During the week there were many guest speakers and fireside chats with: the Mayor of Detroit, CEO of JPMorgan and the Chief Executive of Ford. The speeches focused on giving advice and tips on growing a business ranging from investment tips to more specific tech talks. Launch22 host monthly Fireside chats free to attend to help build and engage the startup community, click here to check out the next one with Founder of Curve, Shachar Bialick .

There is clearly a buzz and a growing community within Detroit, just as there was in Shoreditch after WW2. Shoreditch is not only famous for its startups, street art and great vibrancy though —over the past few years it has also become the home to Tech City, otherwise known as Silicon Roundabout. This area has grown to become the 3rd largest Technology startup cluster (following San Francisco and New York). Detroits transformation from a muscle economy into a brain economy is ongoing, there is a part of the story that is still relatively untold, but quietly gaining momentum as Detroit sets its sights on the world of financial technology. Quicken Loans Founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert led a discussion at Detroit Startup week accompanied with four experts in the fintech industry, discussing why Detroit is an attractive place to launch a company and what needs to continue to happen in order for the environment to become even more attractive.

Perhaps Detroit will follow in Shoreditch’s footsteps, keeping an innovative and creative startup culture — the new found interest in technology and entrepreneurship could return the city to its past powerhouse days and this startup week is the first forward step after walking backwards for years.