Mobility Moments Podcast: Detroit mobility meets SXSW


 
A special edition of Mobility Moments. Claire Charlton digs in with Jessica Robinson of Ford Smart Mobility, Phil Santer at Ann Arbor SPARK, and Justin Robinson with Detroit Regional Chamber to learn about SXSW 2018, through the lens of mobility.
  Driven - Mobility Moments Podcast: Detroit Mobility Meets SXSW

Claire Charlton:
South by Southwest. Yeah, it's a music festival, but it's also a gathering of creative minds from everywhere. A few Detroit region mobility leaders attended South By this year to share what's driving mobility, and they came home with some big thoughts:

Important takeaways for the city of Detroit is we look at kind of how we promote ourselves globally and get out our message about our transformation and our leadership and mobility. I think it's important that we really think beyond just a traditional conference and think about how we instill the spirit and innovation and culture of who we are in those types of activities. And so we'll be looking for ways to do that in the future.

Claire:
That was Justin Robinson, vice president of business attraction for the Detroit Regional Chamber. Justin joins Phil Santer, senior vice president and chief of staff at Ann Arbor SPARK, and Jessica Robinson, director of city solutions for Ford Smart Mobility as my guests in a special edition of Mobility Moments Podcast, South By Southwest Style.

This episode is sponsored by MICHauto and Destination Detroit. I'm your host, Claire Charlton.
 
     

Justin Robinson, Phil Santer, and Jessica Robinson, hello, and welcome to Mobility Moments Podcast.

Phil Santer:
Thank you.

Jessica Robinson:
It's great to be here.

Claire:
Now, you all attended South By Southwest (SXSW) this year, and while you were there you talked about mobility and the Detroit region. This podcast is your opportunity to bring to our driven community some of the sights and sounds of South By Southwest, through the lens of Mobility. And I'm so excited to be able to talk with all of you and learn more about your experiences.
So, Justin, we're going to dive in with you first. You're with the Detroit Regional Chamber, and Justin, you represent Detroit as a region densely populated with automotive related expertise and assets. And one that is really well positioned to lead in next generation mobility. So, can you share with us your goals for attending SXSW this year?

Justin Robinson:
Yeah, absolutely. So I lead a team at the Detroit Regional Chamber called Destination Detroit. And our objective is essentially to attract companies with the best technology into our ecosystem to help drive it forward into the future, as well as create investment and jobs for our economy. And so a heavy part of our focus is on automotive and mobility. SXSW is one of those shows that's been on our radar for some time. And so we're always monitoring when these conferences are going to start to transform more to a conversation around kind of the future of automotive and mobility. So we had a particular interest in heading down with our partners to really participate in the discussion, see what the topics and who the individuals were discussing mobility and our ability as an ecosystem in a community to participate in that conversation. And maybe over the longer term help lead that conversation and share what our industry, what our companies, what our universities, what our communities are doing to lead in mobility across the globe.

Claire:
And so what were some of the interesting mobility-related conversations that you can recall having at South By?

Justin:
What was interesting, I mean first it's a very disparate show. You know it's not in one central kind of conference center, it's spread out across the city of Austin. And there's many different partners from around the world and different industries hosting different conversations. So what we enjoyed was the diversity of topics being discussed. So it wasn't all, obviously, directly related to mobility, there was a lot of tangential conversations around big data, artificial intelligence, just the creative economy that were really useful to get a read on and see how those might help our ecosystem drive forward this future of next generation mobility. And so we had a great time listening to a lot of different speakers, talking to a lot of different countries, and a lot of different thought leaders in a much more broad ecosystem than simply automotive and mobility.

Claire:
Okay, so Justin, you know I personally believe that SXSW or, I always did believe, that it's sort of a very creative environment. I've always known it as a music festival, to be honest. And mobility is really considered to be a technology-based sector. So how did creativity and technology converge for you at SXSW?

Justin:
Yeah, I think that's a great question. First, I just think the physical environment that's in Austin itself is one that's very creative. The city has been undergoing quite the transformation over the last decade plus, and has really become a physical hub for creative types across all sectors. And so it was really interesting being in the city of Detroit, traveling down and seeing what another community has done, and really done to leverage the creative community to lead the economy forward. And so that was really eye opening for us.

You know I judged a lot of it by our Lyft and Uber conversations and the drivers. Almost everybody we talked to was not from Austin, right? And so they have been able to create a community where a lot of, again, the brightest and best and most creative individuals from the United States and across the world want to come and really participate in the business community that's there. And so we took away a lot of lessons for our city and our region, and we also got a great chance to understand how this show, how this conference, can help position Michigan as a leader in mobility going forward into the future.

Claire:
So, what specific concepts have you perhaps brought back with you that may have impacted the way that you think about the mobility space in the Detroit region?

Justin:
What was interesting to us is we've been attending CES (Consumer Electronics Show) for a number of years in Las Vegas and a number of other conferences in spaces where thought leadership is occurring in this space globally. But what we saw as an opportunity in SXSW, one of the largest kind of creative and technology conferences, was to help lead the conversation around mobility in the future. And so we're interested in what we can do to partner with the likes of Ford and Ann Arbor SPARK and a lot of other partners that came down to participate in the discussion, and join with potentially the Michigan House next year to really cultivate a day of mobility. And partnering with some of the international pavilions that we have relationships with, such as Germany and the Netherlands. And really help drive more the conversation to one around automotive tech and that future of mobility. And inviting in though a broader group of stakeholders beyond the traditional automotive ecosystem to be a part of that.
And so that's one of the things for next year we'll really be looking at is how do we bring a broader group, expand the conversation, not only at the Michigan House, but at the conference as a whole. And really talk about what our ecosystem here in Michigan is doing to drive the future of mobility. But also seek out the partners that we need to help us do that.

Jessica Robinson of Ford Smart Mobility, Garry Bulluck of the City of Detroit, and Alisyn Malek of May Mobility at The Michigan House, SXSW 2018.

Claire:
Cool. So, Jessica, now you are with Ford Smart Mobility, and at SXSW you were the moderator for a panel discussion called, "Making the Future of Mobility." And from what I understand, one of the big questions in the billing for this session was how can we be sure we're creating the right kind of change? And so I guess I'm wondering what is the right kind of change that mobility will bring about in Detroit and in Southeast Michigan specifically? Can you share with us a little bit where that panel discussion went?

Jessica Robinson:
So with the panel that we convened at South by and the Michigan House, with participants from various perspectives; a startup in autonomous vehicles, someone with the City of Detroit working on mobility innovations, and a representative from one of the largest Tier1 suppliers to the automotive industry. It was really fascinating to hear how new mobility is affecting all of our lives and our daily businesses. But the conversation really ... we went a number of directions, but the thing that really seemed to resonate with the panel, but also the folks that were there, was this idea of inclusion certainly and making sure that mobility services are available and accessible to all income levels and all walks of life. But also that mobility solutions in the future really require working together both from the private sector and the public sector to make sure the solutions we're bringing to life really work for everyone. And it was really heartening to hear such a broad panel come away with kind of a unified voice that that was something that was really important to us all.

Claire:
Across your experience with SXSW this year, how did you share what you and the team at Ford Smart Mobility, how did you share what you picture when you dream about the future and how we'll get around in the urban and suburban environments that we call home?

Jessica:
Well I think the panel was a platform for others to share as well. We had really good interaction with some of the folks that were attending the session, with all kinds of questions about the timing of new mobility services and others. But again, I think the takeaway, loud and clear, included that services are coming quickly, they need to be deployed in a thoughtful way, taking into account the role of cities in the public sector. But also, I think equally important and particularly relevant for this group, is the role of talent in building the state as a place known for leading in mobility. And certainly within auto, it's something we're known for, having great engineers. But Alisyn (Malek), in particular, from May Mobility focusing autonomous vehicles will tell you making sure we've got lots of great programmers is really important for her as well.
So it was a really, really robust conversation. And again, it was not so much for us about Ford painting one vision of our future, but really facilitating the conversation as folks from Michigan about what we're working on and what we want to achieve.

Ann Arbor's May Mobility at SXSW 2018.
Claire:
And that particular panel was part of the "Social Impact Track" at SXSW. And-- this is not a small question--but what were some of the social implications surrounding mobility that you discussed? Especially for the Detroit region?

Jessica:
I think one that certainly goes without saying, in the context of our region, is that cities have allocated so much physical space in service of the automobile. In many ways, autos are one of the first and the ultimate disruptors with technology, to the point where cities today are designed around them and less about people. And we had a really good discussion, in particular with Gary (Bulluck) from the City of Detroit, about public transit as well. And I think where the panel went and the work that we do here at Ford ultimately is leading us, is it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. It's going to take multiple options and different partners working together to have a mobility ecosystem that really can be used by, and benefit, the entire community.

Claire:
It sounds like a really interesting discussion, I wish I could have been there. Now Phil, you're with Ann Arbor SPARK. And you, since coming back from SXSW, or maybe while you were still there, you wrote that you got a sense that people are starting to "get" autonomous vehicle technology. And they also understand its limitations. So, tell us more about how you came to that conclusion.

Phil Santer:
This is the conversation that we've been following for a long time in terms of mobility technologies, and in particular autonomous technology. So it's obviously been an area of interest for us and then I think probably part of the general public overall. And I've likened it to the fact that autonomous technology has been on the Hype Curve for a while. Gartner actually has this thing that they have out there called the Hype Curve. There's always the ... I think it's like the inflated expectations, and then there's like the valley of disillusionment in that kind of work.
But, for a long time I think autonomous technology has been new, it's been really exciting, and there have been really lofty expectations for it. But over time as you attend some of these conversations about autonomous technology you've seen the discussions start to mature and to understand here's where this is an opportunity to be able to utilize this technology. And then here is where there may be some limitations to trying to utilize this technology here in 2018.
And I really like the conversations that happen ... Jessica had mentioned that Alisyn Malek from May Mobility was on their panel. And Alisyn has a great perspective, which is that you have to be able to utilize the technology for purposes of actually moving people around. Because having an autonomous vehicle may or may not be its own thing in and of itself, but if you're actually using that technology to deliver an end which people need, which is moving people around, then it actually makes more sense. So that conversation and that understanding, and I guess I would call it maturity, was a part of each of the conversations that I think we all had related to mobility.

Claire:
And it seemed like a big theme for SXSW was storytelling. So what stories to you tell about mobility technology in the Detroit region?

Phil:
Story telling? Interesting. Yeah, I think certainly if you lean on sort of the SXSW component, and you had mentioned this being a really creative discussion, and there was certain creative elements I think for all the different elements that were happening throughout SXSW. For us it's a story of, and really some of the messaging that we took down there was what are some of the story of organizations that have been successful in our backyard? What are some of the ways that people have learned and overcome challenges that they've had as part of their own stories.

So, for example, we did a panel on Monday was around scaling your mobility startups in metro Detroit. And one of the panels that we had there was from Duo Security, which is sort of our unicorn. It's a startup in Ann Arbor that has over a billion dollars in terms of valuation. They're not in the mobility startup space, but they've scaled really quickly over a short period of time. And one of the questions that we had was, how have you done that and what are the challenges that you had to overcome? And it was great to be able to hear from their perspective, and they were very frank about it. What are some of the things that they had to overcome in order to achieve that growth? So it was great to be able to share that, I think, very honest message, with the South by community.

Claire:
And so both Jessica and Justin mentioned the Michigan House. And that was one of the venues at SXSW this year, and I think previous years. What do you know about Michigan House?

Phil:
So it was our first time participating under the Michigan House banner. And really it's essentially a group of people that came together and said, we need to be able to share the Michigan message down at South by. And it's pretty common down there to see a lot of different places that have these houses that are set up. So Justin mentioned a couple that were from Europe and from elsewhere. So there was the Australia house, there was the ... basically any geography you could think ... there was the EU house, was represented. And the Michigan House is a place for creative companies in Michigan, geographically oriented companies; so you had companies from Grand Rapids, from Metro Detroit, from the Ann Arbor region all coming together to support what's going on in our own backyard. And having some really good conversations. So they hosted a series of panels all with sort of a Michigan theme, and I thought they were some of the best that were down at South by from which I participated in.
The Michigan House.
Claire:
Cool. Sounds like a great place.

Phil:
It was good.

Jessica:
And I had connected with the organizers. It was my second year at South by checking out the Michigan House. I connected with them shortly after last year's South by as they were thinking about returning and building out content and we got to brainstorming what might it look like to have a panel like the one we brought together for making the future of mobility. So I had been working with them pretty closely all along the way to make sure that that was represented as part of the discussion. And for me, it was really important that I think for Ford's overall participation at South by to be part of that Michigan story. I'm also personally an advisory board member for PlanetM, which is the state's initiative around mobility talent, attraction, and development. And, obviously, Ford is a pretty big part of that story. And so to link some of the forward-looking things that Ford is doing with the Michigan story in the context of communities was a no brainer for us.

Claire:
Awesome.

Phil:
And if I could just add to that, it is a cool place in terms of the actual, physical place. And they do a great job of transforming literally a church gymnasium into a nice place for people to be able to come and relax and have a conversation about things that are going on. So they did a really nice job of transforming the space into something that was really compelling.

Claire:
So, I will ask the final question then, and so just jump in and offer your best answers. So apart from the mobility related event, what's one personal takeaway from SXSW? Something fun, something surprising, or something mind blowing?

Phil:
That's a good question.

Justin:
Yeah, what I really personally enjoyed about South by was the way they brought together this really kind of business-traditional conference with the culture of the city and really the creative side of this future economy. And so, what they did great was really utilize the broader landscape of the city. The venues weren't just in a conference center, they were spread across bars and restaurants and pavilions across the city where the conversations occurred. They really went out of their way to feature music in the culture and the history of the city within the context of the conference. And again, they engaged a really broad cross section of people with different mindsets; from artists to technologists to industry professionals in this conversation. And I think it's an important takeaway for the city of Detroit, is we look at how we kind of promote ourselves globally and get out our message about our transformation in our leadership and mobility. I think it's important that we really think beyond just a traditional conference and think about how we instill the spirit and innovation and culture of who we are in those types of activities. And so we'll be looking for ways to do that in the future.

Claire:
I look forward to that too. Phil, what about you?

Phil:
Yeah, I think I'll echo Justin's comments about being able to do things creatively and to do things uniquely across a city and have it in a very disparate area; it's not like it's in one central spot, it's kind of all over the city. And it was really interesting to see how they did that.

One thing that was surprising, I guess overall, and this is what it is, but we were not down there for the music part of the conference but there was live music in many of the venues. And they were all consistently very good. So that was actually surprising to me when you would walk in and have, for me fairly low expectations about a live band, I'd be very surprised in terms of what they had overall. So the music was good.

But I think more to the point, I really appreciated the conversation that was going on, and there was a thread of this probably throughout the entirety of South by that I was a part of…of trying to find value, trying to find talent in sort of unexpected places. So, for example, there was a section of the conference about identifying ways that you could find tech employees from rural parts of America and tapping into other parts where you wouldn't necessarily think that you would have some technology value in those places. And to me it was really similar to some of the conversations that's been going on from Steve Case who has this thing going called Rise of the Rest. Which is, it's not just about what's happening on the coasts, it's also about what's happening inside of the United States, and with other places that have maybe been traditionally overlooked about trying to find technology talent. So I thought that was really interesting.

Claire:

Rise of the Rest, that's aptly named.

Phil:
It is.

Claire:
Jessica, what about you?

Jessica:
Yeah, I would add actually sentiments from both. This was my second year at South by working in the mobility space, and it was the first year though that we actually had a local on the ground. So our team, we recently grew our team to include folks based around North America to really dig in in communities and build relationships. And so we had an Austin local on the ground with me and I got to learn a whole bunch of Austin secret bars, and restaurants, and special places. So even right in the heart of it there were places that we could duck away and literally have the locals' treat. And she showed me some of the new development projects in town including the amazing public library. So it was awesome to see the conference through her eyes, through her connections, at this kind of cross section of what a city, her home town, means. But, also with this flavor of what we were trying to do with mobility.

And I would say I was also lucky this year in the sense that I planned my schedule a little better and had a chance to actually attend some of the other sessions. And one of the ones that it still sticks with me is a conversation around the role of personal interaction with technology and how we relate to our smartphones. And the researcher shared that on average we touch or handle our smartphones 2,000 times a day. And I sat in the back of that room and said, "No way, that's not me." But I have since downloaded and installed an app that is helping me become aware of how many times I open and unlock my phone and which apps I'm using every day. So, for me, there's also this call to reminder of technology in service of people and not necessarily letting any one solution drive our daily life.

Claire:
It's so nice when you can learn something that you can apply to your own way that you live your life, personally and professionally. Really cool. Thank you so much, Phil, Justin, Jessica. Thank you. It's been really fun talking with you about SXSW.

Justin:
Good to be here, thanks Claire.

Phil:
Thank you.

Jessica:
Thank you.

Claire:
For Detroit Driven, this was Mobility Moments Podcast, sponsored by MICHauto and Destination Detroit. Learn more about how Detroit is the region leading the world in mobility at detroitdriven.us. Subscribe to our newsletter. Mobility Moments is hosted by Claire Charlton and produced and edited by Nina Ignaczak with Issue Media Group…for Driven.

Photos by Jesse David Green Photography

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