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Name that road

When it comes to technology, what’s in a name?

A great deal, say two local community organizations — Automation Alley and Digital Detroit — which both want to help local technology-related businesses by promoting a catchy name for our geographic region. After all, California has Silicon Valley. New York City has Silicon Alley. Even Boston’s new-media neighborhood has a cute name — Route 128. Michigan’s tech sector should at least get a cul-de-sac, right?

Maybe. But the two groups have come up with different monikers, as well as their own divergent definitions of where this new region should be located.

Recently, Digital Detroit held a contest to name all of southeast Michigan.

“We were trying to do something very good for the entire area,” says Jeff Sloan, Digital Detroit’s chairman.

So what was the winning entry? I know, because I was one of the judges. Welcome to “The Digital Drive” (not my vote, by the way).

“It’s a double entendre,” says Sloan, “Meaning both the automotive industry and driving the digital economy.”

On the other hand, Automation Alley wants to call the area, well, Automation Alley. According to the organization’s new Web site (www.automationalley.com), the name refers to “a technology cluster thriving in Oakland County.”

Technically, that means Automation Alley — the region — doesn’t include the city of Detroit, or even Wayne County.

Says Beth Utton, Automation Alley’s marketing director, “There are a large population of high-tech companies in Oakland County, and we do have to start somewhere.”

And why not? Automation Alley was founded by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, in part to help attract high-tech workers to the county. “We needed to give this area a name that people could remember,” says Utton.

Despite the Oakland County connection, Automation Alley has several Detroit-based members — including General Motors. But the perception remains that Automation Alley doesn’t mean Detroit. And for some, that’s a big problem.

“We have an uphill battle in the Detroit area,” says Digital Detroit’s Sloan, “Because Detroit has a negative connotation to people beyond our borders.”

Hence, Digital Detroit’s idea to name the entire region. “When you think of the area as a region,” he says, “it gets away from the negative stigma and gives a fresh branding to the city.”

Automation Alley disagrees. “The contest really set up Digital Detroit as a competitive organization,” says Utton. Shortly after the contest was announced, Automation Alley executive director Ken Rogers rejected Digital Detroit’s own application for Alley membership, saying the groups were competing for the same members.

But can one organization really name a region? Seventy years ago, California’s Silicon Valley was just farms and fruit trees, and locals called it “The Valley of the Heart’s Delight.”

Shortly after World War II, valley-based Stanford University leased part of the school’s land to private interests. Technology companies began to sprout in the area. As computers developed, microprocessors and other computer chips began to be made of silicon.

However, the region went unnamed until journalist Don Hoefler used the term “silicon valley” in a series of 1971 news articles. He and his colleagues had overheard the name used by people visiting from the East Coast. Hoefler passed away in 1986, but he’d lived long enough to see the seed he planted take root.

But Hoefler wasn’t a PR expert. He was simply reporting on a word that was already emerging in the local lexicon. If a similar term is going to emerge here, organizations such as Digital Detroit and Automation Alley must realize that marketing can only accomplish so much. Language has a life of its own.

Unfortunately, the conflict between Automation Alley and Digital Detroit illustrates more than just a clash between the old and new guards. While Automation Alley is trying to forge a new identity for the existing auto industry, Digital Detroit is looking to create a new tech scene that, at this point, only barely exists.

For example, Digital Detroit’s Web site and marketing materials are picture-perfect examples of West Coast-style cyberchic. The organization holds “digital mixers” and other social events, often at trendy urban locations such as Detroit’s C-Pop Gallery. They bring in hip, out-of-state sponsors, such as MTV and Spin.

“We want to promote youth and the cultural community,” says Sloan. “That’s what makes for a vibrant, happening place.”

By contrast, Automation Alley is content with business as usual. Despite their technological focus, the organization’s membership is filled with the usual automotive companies. In a way, the name “Automation Alley” is like a new coat of paint on the same old automobile. “It’s a marketing tool,” says Utton.

But perhaps it’s too early to name a scene still in process. It would better serve both organizations to work together to foster the very community they wish to represent. If that’s going to flourish here, I suspect both old and new ideas will be needed.

I’m glad both Automation Alley and Digital Detroit are following such a noble pursuit. But be it an alley, a drive, avenue or boulevard, you have to pour the pavement before you can hit the road.

Adam Druckman writes about the Web and high-tech worlds for the MT. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com

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