It’s often tempting to bash Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. He has taken cheap shots at Detroit for decades, and is our state’s number one unapologetic proponent of urban sprawl.
Yet he is a complicated man, and has had some good ideas. Automation Alley was one of the best. Even ten years ago, Patterson understood that we needed a different economic model. He told me then that he wanted to change the entire image of the region to that of a high-tech capital that could rival Silicon Valley or the research laboratories of Boston. That sounded fantastic – but Automation Alley has grown faster than most believed possible. Six hundred and fifty companies have joined, and the alley has spread to cover eight counties in Southeast Michigan, stretching from the Toledo border up to Flint and over to Ann Arbor.
Primarily, it functions as a combination incubator, nursery, and marketing tool. Automation Alley holds networking seminars and makes small grants to some new business ventures it believes have a chance to succeed. Through its Technology Center, it aims to help turn ideas into high-tech products that can be marketed.
Many other states have similar operations. The real question in my mind, however, is what outfits like Automation Alley should do when and if one of the ventures they nurtured really takes off.
Think about this. A century ago, Michigan was still essentially a small farm state. If our leaders had wanted to develop into a major industrial powerhouse, they might well have adopted a policy of encouraging the fledgling automotive industry.
Indeed, all sorts of little car manufacturing companies were fighting to grab a piece of the market and stay in business. It was an extremely volatile field. In fact, the first two Ford Motor Companies went bankrupt before the third one started making money.
When and if the Ford Motor of high tech starts really mushrooming, what should Automation Alley do?
Obviously, there comes a point when any kind of quasi-government subsidy becomes inappropriate. But how do we know when that point has been reached? And what should the role of the state be in encouraging new business ventures?
What if Automation Alley started nurturing a business that shows enormous potential ... but it then quickly becomes apparent that in order to realize that potential, state law would need to be changed.
Sound far-fetched? Not at all. In Toronto, they are working on techniques that may someday be able to reverse the effects of macular degeneration. Imagine the vast potential that could offer.
Yet that work could not now be done in Michigan because it is dependent on embryonic stem cell technology. That presents a ethical problem, But there may be other infant industries which, if properly nurtured, could pose a threat to existing firms.
Should Automation Alley be in the business of threatening pre-existing business? Sooner or later, we may need to figure out how to deal with our newest industries after they leave the cradle.