VOICES: How SXSW taught me what I already knew about Detroit

Over three weeks in March, more than 70,000 people converge on Austin, Texas, to listen to some of the biggest names in the tech, film, and music industries share their visions for the future. (They do some partying, too.) What began three decades ago as a modest regional music festival, South by Southwest (SXSW) has mutated into a conglomeration of conferences on virtually everything people care about. 

For the past two years, the New Economy Initiative (NEI) has been a sponsor of Michigan House, an official SXSW venue that showcases the work of Michiganders who are shaping better futures for their communities. This year, NEI sponsored four leaders of innovative projects in Detroit and Highland Park—Jackson Koeppel of Soulardarity, Diana Nucera of the Detroit Community Technology Project, Ezekiel Harris of MACC Development, and Shu Harris of Avalon Village—to attend SXSW and partake in a panel discussion titled "Big City Problems, Neighborhood Solutions." (Check out a video of the panel discussion here.)

The time away was a good opportunity to reflect on what's happening in our own backyard. And I left even more impressed with the ways Detroiters are innovating to solve problems in their communities.

Here are a few realizations I've had over the last couple years. 

Silicon Valley won't save us, but community-led initiatives just might

At its best, SXSW is an open exchange of ideas—a gathering where one can learn about the latest thinking in various industries and rub elbows with smart people from around the world. At its worst, it's a parade of Silicon Valley hubris and technocratic, top-down innovations in which regular people have had little-to-no say. 

But in cities like Detroit, the best way to address challenges and create opportunity is by building community first before pursuing technological solutions. That's exactly how Jackson Koeppel and Diana Nucera pursue their work.

Koeppel leads a membership organization, Soulardarity, that has spent considerable time and effort engaging residents and business owners in identifying opportunities to install solar-powered infrastructure like streetlights in Highland Park. Nucera has trained dozens of digital stewards in neighborhoods across Detroit to build and maintain community-owned wireless networks.

After our panel discussion concluded, people circled around the panelists to express how more programming about these kinds of projects is needed at summits like SXSW.

Detroit is full of exceptional people
Shu Harris of Avalon Village at SXSW
Listening to Detroiters speak on a national stage reaffirmed how many special and talented people we have here. 

Koeppel, Nucera, Harris, and Shu's expertise in community organizing and tech innovation was on full display during our panel discussion. And the audience—more than half of which was not from Michigan—was impressed.

There were other brilliant Detroiters sharing their expertise at sessions outside of Michigan House, including Garlin Gilchrist, the founding executive director of the for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan; Aaron Foley, the city of Detroit's chief storyteller; Cezanne Charles, director of creative industries at Creative Many; and Devita Davidson, executive director of FoodLab Detroit.

In addition to these well credentialed folks, there are many others working to improve their Detroit neighborhoods who don't get the attention they deserve. Let's work hard to lift them up. A good place to start would be nominating them to be featured in this very publication. To learn how, click here.

There's lots to learn at home

Most Detroiters don't have the good fortune of being able to attend high-profile and high-priced conventions like SXSW or the Mackinac Policy Conference, where badges cost upwards of $1,000 (not to mention the expenses of travel and lodging). Lucky for us, however, we don't have to go far to hear from experts and discuss big ideas. 

Attend a talk by a local or visiting expert at the Urban Consulate; check out one of the events in the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan's upcoming Future of Information series that's bringing futurists like Amy Webb and Danah Boyd to Detroit to speak about how media and technology are impacting democracy; or register for the Allied Media Conference in June to learn from community activists and organizers from around the country. 

There's no shortage of opportunities to learn locally. Plus, you can stream most of SXSW's events online for free.

Don't be stingy; share what you know

People from around the country are genuinely interested in how Detroiters are building community and devising new ways of doing things. If you happen to be a Detroiter engaged in a transformative project, please share your work! Pitch a panel for next year's SXSW Cities Summit, suggest a workshop at the Allied Media Conference, or apply to be a part of Next City's Vanguard Conference. You never know where it could lead you.

Matthew Lewis is a senior communications officer at the New Economy Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.

All photos by Jesse David Green. 
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Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.