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Can Madison be a global city?

Published On: Dec 20 2013 04:42:21 PM CST

Photo illustration by Tim Burton.

By Neil Heinen

The Clarion Call for every city in America that seeks to grow and thrive in the twenty-first century is “live globally or die.” Even a casual perusal of the health, or lack thereof, of U.S. cities over the last forty years suggests that claim is well short of hyperbole. Cities that have welcomed the opportunities of the global marketplace, embraced diversity and the talent it attracts, and invested in foreign connectivity and relationships see a bright future. Those that have stubbornly clung to an industrial past, even one that was once a shining glory, are at best withering and at worst disappearing completely.

Even as recently as five years ago the notion of living globally came with daunting hurdles: language, customs, actually meeting people and building relationships. The simple fact is today’s technology has made globalism almost inescapable. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman introduced the idea of the “flat” world. Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye sees networks of connections. For many of us the best example is simply the Internet.

Very little in life is not somehow related to someplace else and that someplace can be anywhere in the world. We’ve gotten used to the notion of Chinese manufacturers, Indian call centers and doctors many time zones away interpreting our X-ray results at any hour day or night. One has to choose not to live globally, rather than the other way around.

That does not, however, mean an approach to globalism need not be well thought out, appropriate in its scope and well executed. You can’t just proclaim yourself a global city. It’s important to have a global strategy, modest as it may be. Sister City relationships, such as Madison’s ties to Freiburg, Germany, or Mantova, Italy, can bring a modicum of globalism to a city. So can universities with foreign students. But truly global cities have more. Much more. Which raises the question we ask here: How global is Madison? Are we, even relative to our size, a player in the global game?


“An industrial city makes things. A global city does things.”

So says Chicago Council on Global Affairs fellow Richard Longworth in his book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. “We are what we do—people and cities both,” says Longworth. “A global city makes its living in a brand new way, and the result, in many respects, is a new city.”

It’s not what you make, it’s what you do. Right in Madison’s wheelhouse, says Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon. “I think we are one of the cities that can say that with credibility. And in order to make the argument for what we do, we have to be able to show that we do it.”

At his very first news conference as president of GMCC in late 2012, Brandon said Madison has the potential to be a global hub of innovation. The first step is having a product that people want. “They want knowledge, service, high-quality products, and they want it in very specific categories, things they don’t know how to do themselves, or can’t make themselves, or don’t have the infrastructure to make. And I think we’re uniquely positioned to be in one of those prime spots.”

Brandon says one way of looking at what people around the world want, indeed, what they need, is the three words he’s heard used to describe the biotechnology sector: heal, feed and fuel. “In order to be internationally relevant … this is what the world needs. And I think Madison has those three components.” 


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