I have just returned from a trip to Turin, Italy as a guest of the Kresge Foundation and the German Marshall Fund to study innovation in another city that’s suffered from the changing auto industry.  A little background on Turin, Italy if you are not familiar: It’s the home town of Fiat (yes, the company that purchased and now controls Chrysler) and was home to the 2006 Winter Olympics.   Many people have compared the city and its past to our own Detroit, and a group of us had the opportunity to go and understand how innovation is taking hold in Turin and Italy broader, and understand the possible parallels to the Detroit region.

A couple of things that really stood out to me on this trip:

Regionalism – Turin (900,000 residents) and the Piedmonte region (2.2M residents) that it dominates laid out a strategic vision for the area in the mid 1990’s and has by and large stuck with the same vision on how to change the region from an automotive-centric region to a diversified region.   Whether the actual steps that they have been implementing are the right or wrong steps were not the most important learning.   It was the cohesion that all parties at the local (city), regional (counties), and national level (country) had around the drafting and implementation of the plan.   They were focused as a group on improving the economic climate of the region through diversification.

Innovation and Entrepreneurialism – Italy is learning what it means to foster a group of entrepreneurs in a system that is largely (and I add emphasis) driven by the European Union and the National Government.    They lack the entrepreneurial mindset, venture capital, and the risk-taking profile, but they are trying and they are succeeding in some areas.  They have a plan to innovate through targeted industries and by spurring innovation out of the higher education sector (tech transfer).   We are blessed in the United States with our mature system that encourages innovation and continues to develop entrepreneurs.   One way of defining innovation would be that it creates value that people are willing to pay for.  By this measure, Italy is no world beater.

Place Matters – They are spending a lot of time and energy developing creative hubs and pillars of innovation through designated zones in the broader Turin area.   This is a similar philosophy that we are deploying here locally in Detroit and in the metro region through our network of incubators, and in both cases, its working.   It’s clear that no matter where you are located, Economic Development professionals are really tuned into the fact that “Place Matters”.

Social Cohesion – This was an interesting point of development that we heard about consistently from the people that we met with in Turin.   They focus on economic development, but in a way that respects the local communities and results in stronger local communities.   This wasn’t just lip service, this term “Social Cohesion” was a point that was made over and over again and really had me thinking about the way we do development and build social cohesion into our plans locally.

The Detroit Metro area is a great place to make things and start innovative businesses.  We have a reasonable infrastructure, sophisticated supply chains and lots of talented people.  We have many different groups all trying to help in their own unique way (business, philanthropy, local, state and federal government, regional ED, Universities, Healthcare) to make the region stronger.    What was very clear to me in Italy was that they had a unified plan and they were sticking to it.   It feels like we have all of the players starting to align on how to make things work in the Detroit region, the question is how soon we can unite around a strategic plan– and whether we have the intestinal fortitude to stick with it over an extended period of time.