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4Front Update: John Foley's progress report on a project to show off the Twin Cities to the world

In our October 13, 2010 issue, Chris Steller talked with John Foley, founder and CEO of the branding and marketing agency Level, about 4Front, his initiative to give the Twin Cities a more prominent place on the world map of innovation by creating a combination showcase and prize. As Foley explained it, the idea is to stage yearly celebrations of local innovation in four areas--food, health, design, and the arts--that are established strengths here, and to invite promising but not-yet-famous innovators in these areas from around the world to compete for a yearly prize. Foley assembled a star-studded board of directors and they went to work promoting the idea in the local business, government, and nonprofit communities.

The Line checked in with Foley last week to see how the project is going.

The Line: John, where is 4Front now?

John Foley: We're in the throes of fundraising, talking to the major funders. Our first public event is going to be in the fall—October 27. It will be a kind of trailer—one evening showing what's next in food, health, design, and the arts. It's not going to be an awards show—more of a mini-launch. It will show supporters and donors something of what the fully developed event will be like. Our board will develop criteria for what's next in these fields and then invite local firms and individuals to participate.

To date we've also done somewhere between twenty and thirty presentations to various groups about 4Front, from the private sector to the public sector and everything in between, and we've gotten uniformly terrific response to the concept.

Innovation Slippage

The Line: Who are some of the people you've presented to?

John Foley: 3M, General Mills, the State Fair Board, the City Manager's office in Minneapolis, a number of other community and business groups. A nice mix of public sector, private sector, and nonprofits. What we're seeing across the stakeholder groups is this uniform desire to do something. We know that we need to do something.

The Line: Sounds like there's some urgency there.

John Foley: What's really resonating with the people we've talked to is the concern that we are falling behind in innovation—and we don't want to be irrelevant twenty years from now. What's also resonating is the idea that we need to be serious about global competition—that as a region we are competing with Hong Kong and Paris and other global cities. After all, if you're a creative, a scholar, an artist, or an entrepreneur, you can live anywhere in the world.

2ThinkNow is an organization out of Melbourne, Australia, and they rank cities in terms of their innovativeness, by a number of different measures. According to them, in 2009 Minneapolis/Saint Paul was 32nd in innovation out of 256 cities globally; we fell to 45th in 2010. The reason is that certain cities woke up and said, we have to be much more aggressive about making sure that we're attracting the world-class inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, and scholars to live in our region.

A New Partnership Model?

The Line: On that head, I believe that you're talking about shifting your focus from just awarding prizes for innovation to a sort of artist-in-residence or visionary-in-residence model.

John Foley: That's right. One of the things we've talked about is, if somebody wins a 4Front prize, instead of just giving them cash, we would also provide an opportunity for the winner to work with a major organization here—so the winners would have resources to help them develop their ideas. They would come and live and work here for a while. We talked a lot about that and our whole board felt that was the right direction to go. We're looking to set up partnerships here that would be game-changing, career-changing, for the winners of our prizes.

The Payoffs

The Line: So how will the competition, the prize, and the residency help the Twin Cities?

John Foley: There are two ways to answer that. Of course we want creative people to come and live here. But more than that, just like a sports team, we need to be scouting. We need to find out who's the next Earl Bakken, Medtronic's founder. Who's the next William McKnight of 3M? We need to identify those people and make sure that they're getting the support and nurturing they need to live and work here. Our prize winners could be local—my preference would be for somebody who's already here as opposed to trying to persuade somebody to move from Paris to Minneapolis. But we need to open it up globally because we need to see who's there and what's going on. The Itasca Project is looking at companies moving here; we're looking for individuals, individuals of high potential whom we'd like to attract.

Then the second part—and it's really important--is showcasing our market to the rest of the world in the areas of food, health, design, and the arts. So there's an opportunity for people around the world to know what we're doing.

I'm getting ahead of myself here, because until we get funding I don't know where it will go—but it could be like a world's fair every year; maybe it ends up as part of the marketing of the Radisson hotels around the world, or 3M uses it around the world as part of sales presentations focusing on innovation. There are all sorts of outreach things that we can do that both help our local companies and, at the same time, shine a light back on this region. Our celebration of what's next in food, health, design, and the arts becomes a kind of South By Southwest of innovation.

The Line: Thanks, John.


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