By Phil Guido
Conventional wisdom tells us that cities and regions that face a shortage of a resource will likely be the most innovative out of necessity in conserving it. Apparently the leaders of Milwaukee don’t prescribe to this reactive thinking.
Milwaukee, which is situated on one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, Lake Michigan, decided a few years ago to use its abundance of water to invest in becoming an innovation hub for it.
After only a few years, Milwaukee’s investments are paying off. Nearly 200 water-related businesses have joined together through a brand new industry, academic and government collaborative called the Global Water Center whose function is to be a source for leading edge water technology and solutions.
The Center is also the heart of new business district called the Global Water Technology Business Park. Located on the banks of the Menomonee River, it attracts businesses and organizations that are focused on the international water industry and water management.
These advances come on the heels of Milwaukee’s 2009 induction into the United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme, which recognizes cities around the globe for having a “concentrated expertise” in a specific area. Milwaukee was recognized for its freshwater technology.
The key to putting together robust, successful programs and efforts like this is collaboration. In Milwaukee’s case, for more than three weeks in June 2011, a team of five IBMers worked with the City to deliver recommendations around the theme of “Smarter Cities Feed Themselves.”
The City is now home to acknowledged leaders in Aquaponics, which is a system of agriculture integrating the simultaneous cultivation of plants and aquatic animals, such as fish, in a symbiotic environment. In this environment, the same freshwater is shared, naturally filtered, and reused by both plants and fish. It represents the critical connection between fresh water and food production, and for Milwaukee, an opportunity to revitalize the City and take advantage of its core strengths.
The IBM team provided a series of recommendations on how the City can further expand water innovation through a grant provided via the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge program. The recommendations included establishing an Aquaponics Innovation Center and building upon technology transfer and skills development by area universities.
IBM is engaged in a similar project in New York State to make Lake George the Smartest Lake in the world. Lake George, about 50 miles north of Albany in upstate New York, is known internationally for its crystal-clear waters with a depth of up to 200 feet. Rich in natural and cultural history, it is 32 miles long and up to 2.5 miles wide, formed nearly 10,000 years ago by melting glaciers.
With our partners from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the FUND for Lake George, we are using data and advanced sensors to protect the lake from invasive species and other environmental threats like road salt. This is a true public/private collaboration tapping into the skills of a local university, local economic and environmental experts and private sector resources to protect a vital economic cornerstone for the region. Lake George tourism alone accounts for approximately $1 billion in economic activity for the surrounding region. The long-term health of the Lake is critical to the region and New York State’s tourism industry.
The key lesson from both of these examples is that it takes strong connections between local government, academia and industry to build skills to turn environmental assets into economic advantages.
Just this morning, I joined a team of IBMers to participate in a mentoring event with students from local universities at Milwaukee’s WorldWaterCenter. Students from MarquetteUniversity and the School of Freshwater Sciences at University of Milwaukee told us about their aspirations and ideas and we shared some strategies for implementing them.
Building Smarter Cities using natural resources is a new way of thinking for many cities around the world. New models of collaboration are emerging and it’s critical that mentorship and skills transfer takes place to make them successful.
In Milwaukee, we are seeing these all come together building a successful blueprint for other cities.