Mike Wendland: Groups are hungry for a piece of tech pie

It's a high-tech group glut.

There's the IT Zone in Ann Arbor, Smart Detroit downtown, Automation Alley in Oakland County and Digital Detroit throughout the region. Add a dozen SmartZones across the state, the ITE@M, Dot-Com Detroit,, GLIMA (the Great Lakes Interactive Media Association) and Fourth Friday ...


No wonder the theme for a technology forum I moderated Friday at the Detroit Regional Chamber leadership conference on Mackinac Island was "Technology: Collaborate or Complicate."So many high-tech booster groups are competing for shares of the technology pie that they remind me of street gangs fighting over turf. The chamber announced Friday it will try to help turn the many organizations into a unified force, joining with various tech-focused groups across the southeast Michigan region -- especially Digital Detroit, a nonprofit technology organization financed by the for-profit Sloan Ventures venture capital and development company. Larry Marantette, a chamber official, also said the organization will launch a technology action group to "focus and advocate a collaborative technology agenda to help power the economy in Southeastern Michigan." It sounds like they've just formed two more groups. "This is just duplicating what we already have with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation," said Ken Rogers, executive director of Oakland County's Automation Alley tech cluster. "We need unity, not more groups. It's confusing enough." But Marantette got solid applause as he announced the new efforts toward collaboration, something a lot of the area tech groups have sought.

Sue Lackey, president of the IT Zone tech group in Ann Arbor, said the region has a deep technology base but lacks the "social infrastructure" to send that message to the world. While she was encouraged that tech leaders were at least talking about speaking with a unified voice, she's realistic about the job that needs to be done. Lackey said none of the organizations individually can compete with areas like Silicon Valley. "Jointly, we can sell our individual brands under an agreed-upon banner that defines the richness of our technology base," she said. "But that banner can't be something identified by the IT Zone or the Chamber or any single organization." Jeff Mason, vice president of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., outlined the efforts of his group to unite business and governmental agencies in attracting new technology businesses across the state. The efforts sounded a lot like the new initiative announced by the Chamber and Digital Detroit. "Well, maybe," Mason said. He added that the technology community needs more coordination, "though I'd question the need for us to add more organizations that duplicate work already under way."

At the Mackinac conference, the chamber announced several tech-related priorities. It will:

  • Oppose efforts by local units of government to ban cell phone use while driving.
  • Work with the MEDC to develop a comprehensive broadband strategy for the state and region.
  • Advocate a wireless Internet network for the region.
  • Support legislation that would uniformly regulate cell tower locations.

Good points all. But still, after all the talk about the need to speak with one voice and somehow bring all those technology advocacy groups together, the chamber's well-intended offer to assume that role seems pretty ambitious and a bit self-serving. It seems to me the best way to bring real unity to the high-tech community is to call a summit of all those groups and let them form their own coalition under their own banner.

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