Metro Detroit has always been a leader — and just as it led the world into mass production and the industrial age, it led the world into post-industrial decline.

And now, it has a chance to led the world out of those problems. That’s what David O. Egner, president and CEO of the Hudson Weber Foundation, told attendees at the TiECon Midwest entrepreneurial conference Friday.

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And Egner said that other metro areas will face Detroit’s fate too — the largest recent increase in unemployment, he said, is in Silicon Valley — unless they take the three steps Detroit must now take: Invest in place. Focus on assets. Create new entrepreneurs.

Metro Detroit has far more in assets than it usually considers, Engner said. While everyone knows we have a huge — and all too idle — manufacturing base, “we forget we have the world’s best supply chain group in the world, right here. We move the most goods that are large or heavy or expensive or in bulk, and we do it better than anybody else in the world.” Other oft forgotten resources are 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and a huge creative class.

Egner was critical of many of Michigan’s economic development efforts, saying they focused on “hunting” rather than “farming,” which he said is more effective. And he said those efforts frequently were split into artificial boundaries of cities and counties without thinking of regions, which is how economies actually operate. And he was critical of university research and tech transfer efforts that he said until recently have not focused on the area’s strengths.

One of the region’s major problems is a lack of young (meaning under 35), college educated people. Egler pointed out that only 15,000 such people live in Detroit. If Detroit had the same proportion of them as Chicago, there would be anohter 135,000 of them in the city. If it had the same proportion as Minneapolis-St. Paul, there would be another 85,000. Without more of those folks in the city, Egler said, “human services can’t work, arts and culture will crash, and we will not be a region that can attract anything.”

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How do do that? Egler outlined a bunch of initiatives.

* He said the foundation and the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan support the work of former House Speaker Steve Tobocman to organize an effort to make the region more welcoming to immigrants.
* Officials are working on an effort to increase the Detroit purchasing of the Detroit Medical Center — which now spends only 5 percent of its annual $1.6 billion procurement budget in Detroit.
* For the first time, nine community colleges and six work force training boards are working together to spend millions in workforce training dollars so people can actually find work after completing training.
* The initiative is backing Bizdom U, the entrepreneur training program at Wayne State University founded by Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert.
* The initiative is backing Launch Pad, an entrepreneurial training effort at Wayne State and Walsh College.
* The initiative is working to connect university laboratories to entrepreneurs, since those labs are frequently far cheaper places to do product evaluation and prototyping.
* The initiative is working for better access to capital, including a $5 million First Step Fund doled out through agencies like Ann Arbor Spark, Wayne State’s TechTown and Oakland Univeristy’s business incubator.

Oh, and Egler also referred to the entire region as Detroit because that’s how the world knows us. “Everyone in the world knows exactly where Detroit is, because of the auto industry, Motown and everything else,” he said. “And everyone in the world knows exactly where Oakland County is too. It’s in California.”

TiECon Detroit wraps up Friday night.

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