By Tom Still

MADISON – In his book on the plight of the Midwest in the global economy, Richard Longworth of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs laments that Wisconsin and its neighbors worry too much about what’s happening just across the border when the real competition is half a world away.

“When it comes to thinking about economic growth, each state is bound by state lines that were drawn by the Northwest Ordinance more than 200 years ago,” said Longworth, who spoke recently at a Wisconsin Innovation Network meeting in Madison. “But the economy ignores states and state lines.”

Longworth, an Iowa native and former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent, thinks the Midwest can and must do much better. His book, “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism,” concludes that much of the Midwest remains in denial when it comes to building a 21st century economy. Individual states are either too small or too incompetent (his words) to compete with America’s coastal states, the European Union or the economic titans of Asia.

It’s a pessimistic view, to be sure, and countered by a few other scholars who believe the Upper Midwest has most of the basic ingredients needed to compete in the modern “knowledge economy.” But there’s no denying Longworth is correct when he argues the Midwest needs more meaningful policy and economic collaboration. He has called for the creation of a Global Midwest Forum to help make that happen.

A foundation for such a regional “think tank” may already be in place. Here are some building blocks for driving New Economy cooperation:

-    The I-Q Corridor. Only 400 or so miles separate Chicago from the Twin Cities of Minnesota, with Wisconsin sandwiched in between along the I-90 and I-94 highways. Along that path can be found some of the world’s leading research universities, federal laboratories, major tech companies, an educated workforce and ample financial capital. As branded by the Wisconsin Technology Council, the “I” stands for interstate, innovation, intellectual property and investment, and the “Q” for quality of life, education, workforce and more. It’s a tool that could help people outside the Midwest, in the United States or abroad, recognize the wealth of resources in the Upper Midwest. There are similar corridor efforts in other parts of the Midwest.
-    The Midwest Research University Network includes the UW-Madison, Northwestern University, the University of Minnesota, Argonne National Laboratory, the Mayo Clinic, the University of Chicago and the Medical College of Wisconsin among its 20 members. It is an alliance of university business development professionals dedicated to facilitating growth of technology spinout companies through start–up formation.
-    The Mid-America Healthcare Investors Network is an association of more than 48 venture capital firms from 14 states, with more than $2 billion under management.   MHIN focuses on life science investment opportunities in the Midwest. Those sectors include companies involved in biotechnology, medical devices, bioinformatics, healthcare information technology, and healthcare services.
-    The I-Q Corridor Investors’ Symposiums, coordinated through the Wisconsin Angel Network, the Illinois Business & Investor Forum, Minnesota GetGo and others, have brought together investors in face-to-face or virtual settings to discuss best practices, co-investing and more. For example, a forum held May 20 will link five presentation venues in two states, stretching from Peoria, Ill., to River Falls, Wis.

Unfortunately, there are many more examples of Midwest states living out football field rivalries when it comes to economic development – often because it means a perceived tax base win or loss. Wisconsin is probably no exception to the rule, if you ask economic development professionals in Illinois, Minnesota or Iowa. At the end of the day, however, tax breaks and land incentives to lure a company across state lines are not nearly as productive as programs designed to create more and better entrepreneurs, or to help existing companies compete globally.

It’s easier said than done, but Midwest state governments and major institutions such as public land-grant universities should explore ways to cooperate where cooperation makes sense. Our competitors in China, India or the EU don’t really care about state lines drawn in 1787. They care about today’s economic realities. So should we.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.