It didn't take long for noted author and economist Peter Zeihan to deliver the first wake-up call of the 2018 TrustBelt Corporates & Consultants Forum in Detroit: "America has been backing away from the global order since 1989," he said.
With that, the fourth annual TrustBelt event was off and running on Nov. 7 in Motor City while the rest of America couldn't make up its mind who it wanted to run the country.
There was little uncertainty inside the Crowne Plaza Riverfront in downtown Detroit, however. A parade of distinguished speakers and panelists reinforced the notion that how we build our companies and our cities is changing as rapidly as the modes of transportation we use.
In the coming weeks, we'll explore each of TrustBelt's timely topics in depth, but for now, I'll start with sharing my early observations of the 10 things I learned at TrustBelt:
- Say Good-Bye to What You Know About Cars: Henrik Fisker, arguably America's most iconic car designer, said that "beyond 2025, there won't be anymore car companies launched in this country. There will only be mobility companies." As electric and autonomous vehicles gradually take over America's roadways, there will be less of a need for traditional automakers to consolidate all aspects of mobility under one umbrella. "In fact," he added, "traditional carmakers may not survive beyond 2025."
- Hey, App, I Need a Ride: As if Fisker's point needed any reinforcement, it came from an unlikely source – May Russell, chief information officer of Ford Commercial Solutions. "Our competition today is Apple and Google and Waymo," she said, noting the increasing blurring of lines between traditional OEMs and tech-driven mobility apps.
- Smell the Brew? That's Your Site Selector at Work: Kim Moore of Newmark Knight Frank Grubb made every millennial in the room smile when she said, "We have a system that ranks cities on the number of coffee shops and brew pubs they have." Right on cue, Keith Bennet of Scotland-based BrewDog promptly informed everyone that his crowdfunded firm will soon launch BrewDog Air – a direct flight from London to Columbus, Ohio, where BrewDog has established its American beachhead – and yes, the trendy suds of the irreverent craft brewer will be pouring at 30,000 feet.
- Mr. Robot, Meet Ms. Cobot: Think your job is going to be replaced by a mechanical robot? Think again. "Collaborative labor" is the new term of choice, as the workplaces of the future usher in the era of the "cobots" – people and machines working seamlessly together to perform tasks in new high-tech factories. "Automation is not the job killer that everyone is predicting it to be," said Tom Kelly of Detroit's Automation Alley.
- The Ivory Tower Needs More Than a Fresh Coat of Paint: "The formal education sector is not set up to provide the technical training that is needed in the modern workplace," said Jose Gaztambide of Interapt. "Students are graduating learning programming languages that are outdated. It is impossible for schools to keep up with technology, because it takes them two years to develop and deliver a new curriculum." The lesson? Academic communities must change before they become obsolete.
- The Next Silicon Valley Will Be Borderless: Hassan Syed of Bir Ventures USA Ltd. said that locations should not focus on trying to become "the next Silicon Valley." Instead, he said, "accept that we live in a connected world. It does not matter where anyone lives." Clusters will wane in importance as connectivity grows. And money will always find its way to the good ideas, wherever they sprout.
- Big Business is Yesterday's News: Syed raised more than a few eyebrows when he challenged his audience of corporate executives, site selectors and economic developers to focus less on retention of large companies and pay more attention to supporting startups. "Everyone is looking for a silver bullet and there is none," he said. Unless you're building an ecosystem that welcomes and rewards new ideas, your company or your community is doomed to fail in the new age of global hyper-competition.
- The Recession is Not Over for All: The Great Recession technically may have ended nearly nine years ago, but don't try telling that to residents of Flint, Detroit and Saginaw, Michigan, said Congressman Dan Kildee, whose 5th Congressional District includes Flint and Saginaw. "Some 28 cities in the U.S. are still showing signs of being in recession, and seven of them are in Michigan," Kildee said. "We have an opportunity now to do something bipartisan to help them."
- The Real Lesson of Amazon HQ2? Clam Up: The world's largest "Everything Store" may have been the talk of the past year, but site consultants at TrustBelt said the real takeaway from the much-ballyhooed HQ2 site search is that companies learned how not to conduct a location hunt. "That was such a public process, but now I see a lot of pulling back from companies," said Ann Petersen of Cushman & Wakefield. "They are saying they do not want any public rumblings. They are being very selective about who they want to meet with. The need for confidentiality is even greater now."
- Move Over, Data. The Humans Want In: The more that big data intrudes on the site selection process, the more value people's interactions will have in the process, said Derrick Mashore of CBRE. "Never underestimate the power of human relations," he said. "Trust the data, but don't trust the data more than you trust your intuition."