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Opinion: How the Upper Peninsula is Helping Drive Digital Future

August 14, 2023

Crain’s Detroit Business
Aug. 11, 2023
Dennis Livesay and Glenn Stevens Jr.

A decade ago, many of us in tech prophesied that every company would become a computing company.

Now, that prophecy has absolutely come true. In fact, digital transformation across industries happened even faster than we imagined, and today every company is critically dependent on technology to drive efficiencies and enhance business capabilities.

A perfect example of this is the transformation of our automobile manufacturers into tech companies, with modern cars functioning as both software-enabled platforms and channels for software subscription sales.

Similar transformations are happening throughout the economy, most obviously in prestige industries like mobility, health care and finance, but also in the skilled trades, retail and service industries.

What we are witnessing is no less than the greatest transformation of the economy and work since the Industrial Revolution, and it is no less challenging.

The World Economic Forum predicted in its “Future of Jobs Report 2020” that 85 million jobs will be displaced by 2025 through automation and technological advances. That said, 97 million new roles will be created as humans, machines and software work together.

Many initiatives in Michigan already address this, but the urgency isn’t high or broad enough yet. The digital future is now. We must move beyond trying to salvage the analog jobs of the past and instead work to create and support the digital jobs of the future.

Digital transformation begins and ends with people, not tech, and we must reorient our institutions to better prepare us for the new reality. “We” means all Michiganders, but especially decision-makers in government, higher education and industry. For us to successfully make this transition, all three sectors must fundamentally and synchronously evolve.

Change is hard, and it can be particularly paralyzing for large, complex organizations facing a change of such magnitude. One institution that avoided inertia by embracing change early is Michigan Technological University.

Since Michigan Tech was founded in 1885, the university, located in Houghton in the Upper Peninsula, has steadfastly committed to promoting and fostering success for the industries of the state. In fact, that charge is central to the university’s founding charter.

Efforts to create world-class programs in mining, forestry and engineering were driven by the state’s talent needs in the late 19th century. Facing another fundamental shift in the nature of work, Michigan Tech fully embraced the digital present, leading to our reorganizing in 2019 to create Michigan’s first and only academic college focused on computing.

Reorganization was not easy, but it was necessary to ensure that Tech can continue to meet the state’s evolving talent needs. Despite its relative youth, our College of Computing is growing quickly, with double-digit enrollment growth in each of the past three years.

Computer science is now the University’s second-largest program, and other computing degrees offered include software engineering, cybersecurity, IT, informatics, mechatronics and data science. Moreover, computing is central to every discipline — from forestry to engineering — and the College of Computing is partnering with other academic units across campus to help address the digital transformation happening within their areas.

Michigan Tech isn’t alone. Several public institutions of higher learning in the U.P. have introduced new programs and efforts to support the digital present. For example, both Northern Michigan University and Michigan Tech have recently created high-quality cybersecurity programs that are recognized as Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense by the National Security Agency.

Further, Lake Superior State University, Gogebic College, and Michigan Tech have created robotics and mechatronics programs that integrate elements of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computing.

Michigan must also create new ventures, products and ways of working in order to make sure that we remain at the leading edge of the 97 million new digital jobs. The U.P.’s strengthened educational pipeline is supporting these efforts, contributing to a pair of astronautics success stories.

Orbion Space Technology in Houghton is designing and manufacturing propulsion systems for small satellites that save operators millions of dollars through their fuel-efficient design.

Just down the road in Marquette, Kall Morris Inc. is focused on solutions to the growing problems of orbital debris.

Additionally, the U.P. has several software startups. Steelhead Technologies in Calumet is a fast-growing company building a cloudbased software solution to streamline business processes and production specifically in manufacturing facilities. And 906 Technologies in Marquette builds on the cybersecurity expertise in the region, providing IT services and consulting.

Similar success stories can be found across the U.P. and throughout Michigan. However, growing Michigan’s high-tech digital economy requires an even greater focus and effort. For Michigan to thrive, all of us must embrace the digital present. The state’s economy — present and future — critically depends on it.

Dennis Livesay is Dave House dean of computing, Michigan Technological University in Houghton. Glenn Stevens Jr. is executive director of MichAuto and vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives at the Detroit Regional Chamber.