SPARK annual meeting highlights: Tackling Michigan's fear of the future and a new summer tech event

At Ann Arbor SPARK's annual meeting Tuesday, keynote speaker David Egner told the crowd at Eastern Michigan University's Student Center that he could sum up all the things that hold Michigan back in one word: fear.


Egner, president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, made an unlikely comparison between southeast Michigan's response to the decline of the auto industry and New Orleans' response to Hurricane Katrina. Egner said Michigan had "the same natural disaster" as New Orleans, but our response to that disaster has been far slower and less confident.


"I still hear the phrase once in a while: 'We're only one good Chevy away from the best rebound in the history of southeast Michigan,'" Egner said. "Although the (automakers) have done a very good job of diversifying, especially around this issue of mobility, we still are holding on to that past because we're fearful of what lies ahead."


Egner said that fear leads to multiple liabilities for our region and the state, including our talent deficit, high barriers to college education, crumbling infrastructure, and low self-image. He said those liabilities hold us back from our potential to be a national or international leader in mobility, freshwater research, inclusivity, and other areas.


Egner outlined three solutions to that problem: carefully crafting a vision of our future, creating opportunity for reasonable discourse, and working to connect our present to our future. He emphasized the idea that the baby-boomer-era tradition of "climbing the ladder" to career success is antiquated, suggesting rock climbing as a more apt modern metaphor.


"(Rock climbers) never go straight up," Egner said. "They have to find the opportunity for the next big toehold, moving up, and a lot of times they have to move backwards or move sideways to move up."


Egner's themes of envisioning and embracing the future echoed several announcements SPARK made at the annual meeting about its short- and longer-term organizational plans. SPARK president and CEO Paul Krutko celebrated the conclusion of the economic development organization's 2012 five-year plan, and announced its new 2018 strategic plan.


The plan includes some interesting new goals. Among them are helping more companies to scale as Duo Security has, encouraging company location and growth east of US-23 in Washtenaw County, and working with the city of Ann Arbor to improve the attractiveness of the State Street-Eisenhower Parkway corridor.


Krutko also announced a new SPARK event called A2Tech360, which will run June 13-15. A2Tech360 serves as an expansion of SPARK's successful Tech Trek and Tech Talk programs, which respectively offer a self-guided walking tour of Ann Arbor tech businesses and TED-style talks by local tech leaders. Tech Trek and Tech Talk were held on the same day last year, but this year they'll be just two components of the multi-day A2Tech360 event.


A2Tech360 activities on Wednesday, June 13, will be focused on connecting local companies to investors. Programming on Thursday, June 14, will include the new Meeting of the Minds summit for local mobility leaders and SPARK's annual FastTrack awards for high-growth businesses. Tech Trek and Tech Talk will take place on Friday, June 15. Washington Street between Division Street and Fifth Avenue downtown will be closed June 15 for two new events: Live at Tech Trek, a musical event featuring two live bands and a DJ; and Mobility Row, where 20 mobility companies will show off new technology to the public.


Krutko also announced that SPARK plans to continue scaling up A2Tech360 to eventually become a weeklong event. The event is one of SPARK's key goals under the talent attraction focus area of its new strategic plan.


Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications.


Photos courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.

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