Is Madison Ready for the Global Competition to Fund Our Quality of Life?
submitted by Marsha Lindsay

As a place to start and grow a business and family, Madison is a good place to be. The city’s many kudos are well deserved. But the community’s self-concept as exceptionally intelligent and creative is starting to raise significant questions in the minds of many:

  • Is it making us averse to change out of fear we’ll lose the great quality of life we already have?
  • Is it blinding us to how other communities are innovating faster, and more boldly than we are?
  • Is it making us overconfident that we know what’s best for each other, prompting us to get tangled up on petty stuff, when we should be devoting everything we’ve got to bigger needs and opportunities?

I worry about this because the data is clear: Madison’s changing demographics, stressed school system, aging infrastructure, air and water quality are all canaries in the coal mine of some real challenges threatening our quality of life. The stark reality is that addressing these challenges will take a lot of money. Soon. And let’s face it, whether in the form of consumer spending, philanthropy or tax revenue, the dollars funding fresh solutions and Madison’s very quality of life are fueled by jobs.

We’ll all lose a great deal if Madison is not competitive at retaining, attracting and enabling job creators. And if we think we’re immune to the global competition between cities to optimize conditions for job creators, we’re kidding ourselves. The world-wide recession has made the stakes very clear: Madison is in a globally competitive race to fund our very quality of life.

This is a race we didn’t choose to enter. But given the stakes we have no choice but to do what it takes to win. That requires:

  • A vision of the future the whole community embraces,
  • A clear strategy on how to get us there,
  • A deep understanding of what’s critical to the creation of good, high-paying jobs;
  • A means to provide it — that’s significantly better than what’s offered by competing cities;
  • And finally exceptional collaboration to make it happen.

Three Trends that Define Madison’s Challenge

Recently, over 1,000 business and community leaders prepared for the race via the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner. They had their brains stretched by Dr. Colin Harrison, director of IBM’s Corporate Strategy team which created a knowledge base of best practices referred to as “Smarter Cities.” Its insights are being used around the world, from Germany to South Korea to Dubuque Iowa, to boost the global competitiveness of local economies. Harrison explained that to be an even smarter city, Madison has to understand and leverage three world-wide trends:

The first trend is that other cities around the world are competing for the same jobs, entrepreneurs, capital and new discoveries as Madison.

They’re doing it with new technologies and predictive modeling in order to uncover insights that fine tune municipal services, health care, transportation, education.

Some are doing this just to get to parity with cities like Madison or other cities already favored by job creators. But the smartest cities are using technology and modeling to go beyond parity to differentiation, creating relevant, one-of-a-kind offerings.

The business term for this “relevant-differentiated” offering is brand strategy. The most successful cities are branding themselves with innovative and substantive offerings that have compelling benefits to job creators. Next, the cities are working to become famous for those qualities among business decision makers and knowledge workers.

As much as we in Madison would like to believe we’re the center of the Universe, recent research shows Madison is not famous, not even close. In fact, we’re not on the radar screens of 86% of business decision makers around the US.

So no matter how great things are here now, or how much more amazing they could get if we truly differentiated ourselves from other cities to meet the needs of job creators, Madison will be unable to compete in the new world order if job creators or venture capitalists or knowledge workers don’t even know we exist!

A second trend is an increase migration from rural to urban areas, something Madison has experienced over the past decade.

While this enriches our diversity and creativity, it creates stresses on land use, energy, and water consumption. It brings more cars, puts new pressures on the K-12 schools, and demands on colleges to retrain workers, and more. Like the smartest of cities elsewhere, Madison will need to get our collective heads around some bigger ways to deal with this productively, and cost efficiently. Again, technology and predictive modeling have huge potential here.

The third trend is what many call the data revolution. We’re all a part of it — because all of us produce huge amounts of real-time and anonymous data 24/7 about our preferences and behaviors.

It’s coming from the geo-locators on our mobile phones, our Internet searches, our real world and online shopping habits, our traffic patterns, energy and pharmaceutical usage, the information we willingly share when we blog and tweet and “friend” others on Facebook.

The good news is that, properly and ethically tapped, mined and predictively modeled, this data can be used to make our lives easier. It can save time and money for the city, schools and health care institutions, help us to use water, energy, medicine more intelligently, help traffic to flow better, help differentiate Madison in ways important to job creators and those they employ, and all in all, help make living here even better than it is already.

As Dr. Harrison said, “While social behavior on the Internet gets a lot of headlines, it is surely social behavior in the real world that matters more.” The ability to capture data about what is happening in a city and integrate it can provide innovative and transformational approaches to solving urban issues and make cities like Madison not only smarter in their efficiency but also brand us as a globally competitive location for investment, job creation, and quality of life.

These three big trends are made all the more powerful because they’re converging and being smartly leveraged by cities to improve their operational efficiency, quality of life, and ability to create and compete for jobs. Madison would be wise to leverage them too in order to underwrite the standard of living we want for ourselves, our kids, our neighbors.

Our To-Do List

Are we wise enough to embrace our to-do list and act on it quickly? Or will a false sense of confidence blind us? A prolonged debate divert us? Fear of change stall us?

How we answer these questions is important because, frankly, there’s far more than Madison’s economy at stake.

Madison exists in a state with a sizeable budget deficit, and some of the sectors which have long driven our state economy are not growing. That’s why more and more people believe the savior of Wisconsin’s economy is in fact the Madison economy: We already generate world-class discoveries, inventions, and entrepreneurs. And the more globally competitive we can be at this, then the more good fortune will multiply and benefit the whole state.

This means the vision for Madison we all need to embrace is clear: Be among the top 5 cities in the world for job creation. The strategy to get us there? Create, by global standards, the one-of-a-kind and highly relevant culture needed to birth, attract, and retain job creators.

Critical to this is a world-class quality of life for everyone who lives here. But given that it’s funded by the consumer spending, philanthropy, and tax revenue that come from jobs, the first step is to focus on what it will take to create jobs here over the likes of Zurich and Shanghai, Boston and Boulder.

To compete against the best of the best, Madison, it’s time to think bigger, act more boldly and collaborate like never before. We’re in a race to fund our very quality of life. And we’re already a bit behind.

Marsha Lindsay is the CEO of Lindsay Stone & Briggs.

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