Smart Cities-Smart Futures: Building a Roadmap to a Future Where There Are No Roads

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At UIIN’s annual conference in Helsinki, CEO Arno Meerman highlighted the role of the future-oriented university as both “talent engine” and entrepreneurial “launch pad.” These traits are central to a University of Wisconsin System program currently under way with Foxconn, a major global company seeking to introduce itself to the North American market.

Crowdsourcing the Best And Brightest Ideas

This unique collaboration with Foxconn encompasses a three-year, $1.0 million ($US) higher education initiative for crowdsourcing the best and brightest ideas, energizing talent, and engaging campuses and communities. The program represents bold, out-of-the-box thinking by a leading private sector employer and is fully funded by Foxconn. Competitive awards go directly to faculty, staff, and students for innovative and creative ideas on how to live, work, and enjoy leisure. The partnership encompasses all of the public and private higher educational institutions in Wisconsin, state government agencies, and the business community in an expansive, Triple Helix collaboration.  

Introduced in 2018, the Smart Cities-Smart Futures competition offered a chance for innovators and creative thinkers at Wisconsin’s universities, colleges, and technical schools to help shape and change the future. The competition was open to anyone affiliated with the University of Wisconsin System, the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the Wisconsin Technical College System. These entities represent a talent pool of more than 500,000 students, faculty, and staff. “Whether you’re a liberal-arts major or a math major, undergraduate researcher or faculty advisor, we envision a wide-open field for fresh ideas and unconventional thinking,” said Dr. Alan Yeung of Foxconn’s Technology Group.

Energizing Higher Education’s Impressive Talent Pipeline

Foxconn stressed to participants that ownership and management of intellectual property rights will be treated in accordance with institutional practice. In the event Foxconn elects to invest in concepts submitted for consideration, any existing intellectual property rights and considerations will be addressed. Participants were prompted to assemble diverse teams which could include educational partners and industry experts, as well as community-based organizations.

There Is No Limit to Imagination And Creativity

A Foxconn Smart Futures website specifies competition themes, categories and timelines. The web/back office support was developed in conjunction with the Wisconsin Technology Council, a key support partner that for several years has managed the Governor’s Statewide Business Plan Competition. To enter, participants were encouraged to submit ideas and solutions without application fees or other costs. There was no upper limit to the number of unique ideas or plans contestants might submit. Examples of actual submission categories included Energy & Environment, Cybersecurity, and Artificial Intelligence. In total, more than 300 innovative ideas were surfaced during the first year.

Digi.City Founder Chelsea Collier keynoted a Wisconsin Idea “Smart Futures” introductory summit at UW-Parkside which helped articulate Foxconn’s Next Practice key concepts and its approach to generating creativity and building inclusivity. These include:

  1. Knowing No City Limits – The concept of the connected city that has no boundaries and aligns well with the Wisconsin Idea, a 100-year-old philosophy embraced by the UW System, which signifies that education should influence people’s lives well beyond the boundaries of the classroom.
  2. Preparing and Engaging the Future Workforce – Foxconn and Wisconsin’s higher education partners are working to transform traditional relationships of isolation and separation into webs of interconnectedness in all areas. This includes joint development of curriculum and connected systems that support future production and job requirements.
  3. Allowing Innovation to Attract Innovation – Foxconn recognizes that successful cities of the future will have self-renewing tendencies that help to attract and retain top talent while becoming even more effective as future innovation hubs.

Observers noted that the Foxconn Smart Futures effort is generating Smart Campus thinking. At UW-Parkside, for example, a philosophy professor organized a campus-wide Smart Cities-Smart Futures curriculum open to students of all disciplines. This class incorporated weekly brown bag discussions open to the public which were designed to educate the broader community and draw viewpoints from diverse audiences. The faculty have also agreed to offer Introduction to Smart Cities courses in the General Education curriculum while also creating a concentration in Smart Cities in the “Masters in Professional Studies” program.

At the end of the first year, contestants across more than 30 campuses received recognition and cash stipends from $500 to $5000 ($US) for projects submitted. As UW System leaders pointed out, the organization and its higher education partners have made significant progress in support of the university’s important mission of entrepreneurial outreach. In turn, the momentum generated will help to create a foundation for future collaborative efforts. The intent is to further connect higher education with industry and to attract and retain talent in a state that depends on this brainpower to generate economic vibrancy and innovation.

This article is a joint contribution by the following authors:

Dr. Deborah Ford, Chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Parkside
David Brukardt, UW System Office of Corporate Relations and Economic Engagement
Shawn J. McComb, Director, Business Development and Commercial Management, Foxconn