By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – Even before the Foxconn Technology Group begins moving dirt for the construction of its mammoth Racine County plant, the company is sinking deeper roots into Wisconsin’s economic development soil.
The company announced 28 sub-contractors and suppliers for the town of Mount Pleasant project May 7, and all but one of those companies is based in Wisconsin. The only non-Wisconsin firm is a trucking company in Rockford, Ill., just across the border.
Those contractors and suppliers will tackle about $100 million worth of work in the opening phase of the Foxconn project and draw their workers, directly and indirectly, from 60 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties – in cities such as Black River Falls in the west, Marathon in central Wisconsin, Neenah and Seymour in the Fox Valley, and across southeast Wisconsin.
Those companies will work with general contractors M+W and Gilbane as the Racine County project, projected to be the size of 11 Lambeau Fields, embarks on what is likely to be a four-year buildout.
A second announcement came Thursday when Foxconn’s director of U.S. Strategic Initiatives, Alan Yeung, stood alongside representatives of Wisconsin’s public universities, private colleges, technical colleges and other partners to announce a $1-million initiative that promises to pay benefits long after the construction work is done.
Yeung, a UW-Madison chemical engineering graduate who coordinates Foxconn’s efforts in Wisconsin, said the company will work with higher education and others on a “Smart Cities, Smart Future” initiative – basically an “ideas competition” to engage students and faculty statewide.
The goal is to tease out ways to harness technology and other disciplines to enhance quality of life and workplaces; inspire attractive streetscapes, transportation systems and living spaces; and promote sustainable economic growth. Details aren’t yet fleshed out, but Yeung told a Kenosha crowd the initiative is all about ideas, communities and talent retention.
“We’re doing this because we want to seek the best new ideas for developing smart, connected cities and systems across Wisconsin,” Yeung said. “We want to help build communities across Wisconsin. If you live in La Crosse, Eau Claire or Green Bay, your concept or ideas of a ‘smart’ city or a ‘smart’ community may not be the same as those if you live in Milwaukee, Madison, Racine or Kenosha. We want to learn from those ideas.”
He noted it’s not a competition for “technical geeks alone,” but for the liberal arts students, staff and faculty who still make up the bulk of most colleges and universities. “Writers, digital creative artists and musicians are welcome, too,” he said.
Anticipated categories include Smart Building, Smart Citizens, Smart Energy, Smart Governance, Smart Healthcare, Smart Infrastructure, Smart Mobility and Smart Technology. Along with its partners, Foxconn is still designing the contest and essentially changing tires on a moving car.
It turns out that car may be a flying car.
“We are now talking about connected and autonomous vehicles and highways … self-flying drones,” Yeung said. “Soon, I can guarantee you, we will not only be talking, but riding, in flying cars.”
The emerging picture is of a company that won’t be content to make televisions and other current-tech electronics in Racine. As the 27th largest company in the world, it will use its Wisconsin foothold to invest more in research and development of cloud computing, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics and automation.
While some Wisconsin companies occasionally choose to criticize state universities for not doing enough to produce the workers they need or question their educational priorities, Foxconn – a newcomer to Wisconsin that was initially drawn by its people, their collective work ethic and its education system – has elected to partner with higher education and others around some lofty goals.
The car may be not flying yet, but tapping into the collective ingenuity of 350,000 students, staff and faculty will help get that and more ideas off the ground.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, one of the partners in “Smart Cities, Smart Future.” He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.