Think Global, Act Global

How can Madison, a midsize city in the heartland, embrace a global mindset? The real question is: How can we not?


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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.” 


Zach Brandon sees the Madison area as a place ripe for international business.

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.”

Brandon points to great health care in the greater Madison region, a growing health care information technology sector and, of course, Epic, on the heal side of things. Agriculture, green energy and organic growing and the attendant bioscience that spills over into the intersection of food manufacturing is the feed. 

Brandon admits it might seem like fuel would be a bit more of a challenge given “not just Madison, but Wisconsin in general doesn’t have a drop of oil, natural gas or coal.” But that just creates opportunities in alternative energy sources. “When you think of Forest Products Labs [the  national reserach laboratory of the United States Forest Service], or you think about Virent turning sugar into petroleum, the ethanol refineries already here and the transition to biomass, I think there’s the potential there for fuel,” says Brandon.

And then there’s water, a growing subject of research and technology in Wisconsin, Milwaukee in particular, and, as Brandon points out, “a big part of feeding people. So I do think there’s infrastructure there in order to start thinking about what the world needs. Wisconsin, in particular, is good at making high-value products and then exporting them to the world.”

And it’s remarkable how many companies, many of them GMCC members, are doing just that. Brandon can rattle off a litany of firms doing global business, from the obvious biggies, CUNA, Promega, Electronic Theatre Controls, Fiskars and ABS Global, to an even more surprising number of smaller firms like RenewAire, an energy recovery ventilator manufacturer that Brandon says just joined with a Spanish company in a strategic partnership that they’re leveraging to expand into markets in Central and South America.

Brandon is quick to credit the oft-criticized Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for its work on promoting Wisconsin around the world. International, he says, is where WEDC “does really well,” recently expanding the number of international offices from five to more than thirty. Lora Klenke is vice president of international business development for WEDC. “There is a strong demand overseas for industrial and electrical machinery, medical and scientific instruments, agricultural products and transportation equipment, but we’re [also] seeing Wisconsin companies that are successfully exporting a wide range of products and services,” she says. “We’re eager to assist any company—regardless of the size or product—that wants to start exporting or expand its exporting efforts.”

But, says Brandon, we still need to adjust our collective mindset to a global setting. “You have to view yourself as global,” says Brandon. “You have to view yourself as a city that is receptive and open to international. I think of midsize Midwestern cities, but I would argue midsize cities across the country, if there’s anywhere capable of being able to execute it should be us.”

He then offers a great example of the potential payoff. Epic needed something translated to Portuguese, so they sent out an all-staff email. “And within, like, five minutes, they had a dozen people write back, ‘I can fully translate it,’” says Brandon. “So the international recruitment is growing. They have a stat about how many countries are represented at Epic and it’s mind-boggling. They’re also recruiting a lot of undergrad and grad students here.”

Students. Ah yes, the university. If there is a recurring theme to any conversation about global Madison, it is the University of Wisconsin. It came up no fewer than a half dozen times during the interview with Brandon. It is an integral part of foreign business relationships on state and regional levels. It has its own global footprint and an ever-growing number of international alumni. Ultimately its influence on how we will actually function in the world is impossible to overstate. It’s the influence of a global institution to be sure. But it’s also the contributions of global people.


Maj Fischer was born in Fontana, Wisconsin, on the west end of Lake Geneva. But her mother was an immigrant from Finland and her father’s parents were Danish. She’s traveled extensively, studying, serving and seeking.


Maj Fischer says UW’s much-broadened focus on international studies is as much an academic feather in its cap as it is an economic asset. The challenege is bringing it all together under one umbrella.

“I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland from 1992–94,” Fisher says.” So that’s sort of the service, if you will. I had also done an international internship during my master’s program in Brussels and I’ve been a rotary exchange student in Finland and then again returned in my college career to Sweden. In the field, that’s what we call a heritage seeker in terms of going back and exploring your roots.”

She’s currently the director of the International Internship Program in the Division of International Studies at the UW–Madison. “I first started working at the university in international academic programs back in ’96 … left and then came back. In that time we’ve gone from an office of international studies to a division of international studies.”

That’s a significant change in how the university views things, although Fischer says now “almost everybody on campus is trying to do something international.” She says evidence that it’s doing “a pretty good job” is the growing number of students in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields in addition to the liberal arts students who have more traditionally had an international focus.

“I think science students and pre-health students are understanding the value of connecting internationally, going abroad themselves or working with a team of international students here so that they have a better perspective on different ways of doing things, abilities to work on cross-cultural teams, some things like that.”

That certainly is an example of taking advantage of one’s strengths. But we can always learn from others. Fischer points to the numbers of businesses that rely on foreign language speakers that have located to the state of Utah. The Mormon Church provides a steady supply of young people who, during their two years spent as missionaries, learned a language. “They come back and have these language skills and businesses find it attractive,” says Fischer. “So in terms of the city [of Madison], perhaps using the university as a resource in the sense that we teach over eighty languages on campus and we have a very strong language tradition here … maybe that’s something the businesses and the chamber and the mayor could use as a way of saying, ‘Look, we have this talent, we have these languages, we have these students who have studied abroad in greater numbers than most schools across the country.’”

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