How a Small Wisconsin Community is Making Big Strides: Three Takeaways From the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Smart City Summit

“We are going big. And we are being bold.”

“We are ready to partner in ways we have never done before.”

“This era will be about alignment and collaboration.”

“This is an opportunity for us to lead and we are ready.”

These are statements from a cross section of elected, academic and community leaders who gathered at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside for the UW Wisconsin Idea Smart Future Summit hosted by Chancellor Debbie Ford. I was fortunate to attend the event and provide keynote remarks.

The story of this Wisconsin community has much in common with many U.S. towns that are in an interesting time of transition. What sets this group apart is their willingness to embrace the unknowns of the digital future, overcome the fear of change and prepare for the unexpected. Here are three ways they are setting the bar for small cities on their way to becoming smart cities.

1 – Know No City Limits

Education leaders speak on creating a smart community

UW Parkside is nestled between Racine and Kenosha counties, two areas on the shores of Lake Michigan that have historically competed for economic development accolades. Like many cities of similar size and geography, there are roots in manufacturing. And although global competition has encouraged many of those industrial employers to leave, several corporate anchors such as S.C. Johnson & Son and Snap-on remain.

The era of the connected city brings an interesting twist to the conundrum of “which town gets what.” Racine Mayor Cory Mason, who attended the Summit, is committed to communicating that his city is future ready. They have mapped their digital infrastructure, identified their local assets and convened community leaders and residents.

I watched as Mayor Mason rolled out large-scale maps of the city’s fiber infrastructure and spoke of his hopes for the future.

“We want to be the first 5G-ready city of our size,” he said. “We want to leverage technology to improve the lives of city residents, reduce inequality and enhance economic diversity.”

It is natural for city leaders to push the boundaries within their city limits. And Mayor Mason is wise to have a sense of urgency. There is definitely a race between cities when it comes to 5G deployment.  The competition between cities like Racine and Kenosha can be healthy, spurring each other to compare and improve, which provides the added bonus for the entire region. The alternative is to play the “mine” game where enhancing separate assets is prioritized over meeting the needs of their residents.

There is an opportunity for cities to come together, overcome the awkward divisions and look at the reality of how people live, work, and travel. By integrating systems, inviting public-private partnerships, and embracing a local and regional approach, cities can save scant resources, increase access to services and even collect and share data in order to enhance operational efficiencies. This will be the work of truly smart cities.

2 – Welcome New Entrants

New to the community is Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that chose Wisconsin as the site of its investment from a host of other states. Milwaukee will serve as corporate headquarters with a new manufacturing campus located in Racine.

Foxconn’s presence is massive. If promised job creation is the metric, it is the largest corporate attraction project in U.S. history. The campus is slated to be “one of the largest manufacturing campuses in the world.” And while it is important to measure and track those known quantities, the impact goes far beyond the expected $10 billion investment and 13,000 new jobs. It is a chance for these Midwest cities to get smart from the start.

This is not lost on the region’s leadership. Amongst attendees at the Summit there was a rush of enthusiasm for all that may develop. Foxconn’s Director of U.S. Strategic Initiatives, Dr. Alan Yeung presented an overview of the company and its commitment including the Foxconn Smart Cities/Smart Futures competition, a $1 million opportunity for college and university students across Wisconsin.

Innovation, specifically 8K+5G, is at the heart of how Foxconn wants to get ahead. They are firmly committed to advancing this ecosystem across the U.S. combining the connection speed and low latency benefits of 5G with 8K UltraHD video. The result will be game-changing for entertainment and the creation of fully-immersive experiences that can be expanded to education, telehealth, and more.

3 – Prepare the Future Workforce

“Re-skilling is an investment in the future and we are uniquely positioned to serve this region,” University of Wisconsin-Parkside chancellor Debbie Ford takes this statement very seriously.

She has a vision of the role that the University will play in the area’s human transformation and is putting those ideas into action.

University staff is coming together across departments to engage the student body as well as the larger community in participating in the region’s transformation. This semester will see the launch of one of the first smart cities educational series which includes in-classroom curriculum as well as brown bag lunch discussions that are open to the public. The motto “Be at Parkside” demonstrates the willingness to be of, by, and for the community.

This is a switch from the relationship that most U.S. cities have with their local institutions of higher learning. Most campuses in college towns operate like cities of their own, with their own systems and many with their own zip codes. It has been historically very difficult to translate academic research with outcomes that directly benefit their local community. The University of Wisconsin-Parkside is changing that dynamic one step at a time. Discussions in the days following the Summit hinted at activities and events not unlike those coming out of Silicon Valley tech companies.

In addition, Chancellor Ford is welcoming others to contribute to the creation of the future workforce. The Summit hosted leaders from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Carthage College, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and Gateway Technical College.

This region has decided to forgo the boom town brawl and instead form a diverse system of educational institutions to meet the area’s needs. This is a sure-fire model to excite the business community that knows it will be able to source a willing and able workforce. This enhances economic competition which, over time, stands to benefit every single business, large or small.

Innovation Attracts Innovation

(L-R) Lisa Roy, Johnson Controls; Dr. Alan Yeung, Foxconn; Chancellor Debbie Ford, UW-Parkside; Chelsea Collier, Smart Cities Connect

This story of renewal and revitalization is consistent throughout the Midwest in cities like Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis. It is also encouraging to see that this percolating energy isn’t limited to just the larger metropolitan areas and that smaller municipalities are seeing booms as well.

In his esteemed book, “The New Geography of Jobs”, economist Enrico Moretti describes how modern cities are morphing into innovation hubs. Those that are prepared for the future will continue to attract top talent, top employers and new innovators. Of course it is more complicated than that, but the book is a compelling challenge to U.S. city leaders to get it right or be at risk of creating the new Digital Rustbelt (a term I frequently borrow from Kansas City CIO Bob Bennett).

The regions connected to the UW Wisconsin Idea Smart Future Summit acknowledge that they are a community in digital transformation. My hope is that the elected and community leaders across academia, industry and government will ride the enthusiasm demonstrated over those few days, overcome well-worn divisions and continue to come together and discuss how to prepare for and embrace the future. It all starts with cautious optimism and by asking insightful and discerning questions about the impact of new technology.

This ‘Future Focus’ is what will separate smarter cities (of any size) from the rest. Revisit the statements at the beginning of this article and ask yourself, as a city leader, if this is true for your community as well. If not, you may want to take some notes from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.