The Cities That Work Series: Reimagining legacy assets in the Milwaukee-Chicago-Gary axis
- By Brian Schupper, Director of Policy, Greater Milwaukee Committee
- July 19, 2012
For most of their histories, Milwaukee, Chicago and Gary have had – at best – a sibling rivalry mentality. In an economy where American manufacturing dominated, there was enough to go around. Yes, we competed fiercely with one another but we could afford to think small. Or, more accurately, we could afford to not think big.
Today, the competition is not Milwaukee, Chicago and Gary. Its Mumbai, Shanghai and Gdansk. Each of our local communities recognizes this new reality. What are we going to do about it to ensure a thriving economy and quality of life?
We can no longer afford to think of Milwaukee vs. Mumbai, etc. Its Chicago AND Milwaukee AND Gary, with all of our collective resources, vs. Shanghai, Mumbai and Gdansk. Political realities being what they are, we can’t expect a kumbaya environment across state borders. But, without leveraging our collective assets in new ways, we will be severely outgunned. It’s not just thinking big; we have to think different.
Traditional systems that undergird our economy, such as higher education and transportation, must be at the heart of any regional cooperation. To that we can add information technology systems capable of carrying high-speed data networks. But this is just the minimum needed to stay relevant; critical as it is, the efficient creation and speedy movement of ideas is only a building block.
One area ripe to make a fundamental impact is “functional clusters.” Unlike traditional economic clusters that focus on well-defined industries, functional clusters by their nature transcend boundaries and definitions.
In an era with little tolerance for traditional boundaries and thinking, functional clusters operate best when borders are amorphous and economic opportunity is flexible. What matters is not fitting into a pre-defined industry but that you add value to, and benefit from, those who self-select into the cluster.
Milwaukee’s water cluster is a great example of this. Over 150 water-related companies, many with their roots in Milwaukee’s brewing and tanning industries, realigned alongside nearly 100 researchers located amongst the region’s universities. Though many of these companies operate in different industries, the realignment of legacy assets has offered unique opportunities to all. This has led to an influx of new assets, including the creation of the country’s first graduate level School of Freshwater Sciences.
Similarly, one of Milwaukee’s newest clusters, MiKE (Innovation in Milwaukee), is realigning existing regional assets at the intersection of design, technology and engineering to foster economic activity that is competitive on a global scale while growing the region’s talent pool.
Legacy companies such as Briggs & Stratton and Kohl’s are connecting with fresh talent to develop innovative ideas, products and systems more efficiently and effectively than ever before. At the same time, by meeting young entrepreneurs within their areas of strength – independence and flexibility – MiKE and the legacy companies are fostering the next generation of businesses and business leaders.
How does this translate to the Milwaukee-Chicago-Gary region’s growth? The good news is, it already is.
As part of MiKE’s first Innovation Week last month, Kohl’s sponsored the “Kohl’s Idea Challenge” – an opportunity for startup companies, software designers and developers, and entrepreneurs to address a real business challenge through a hackathon. Fourteen teams of two or three people assembled at two sites: one in Chicago, hosted by the Illinois Technology Association, and the other in Milwaukee.
Competing simultaneously, one of the Chicago teams took third place and won $2,500. More importantly, all of the Chicago teams gained exposure to the opportunities that exist in Milwaukee while convening groups, such as MiKE and Kohl’s, demonstrated how the success of one community can positively impact the success of another.
In addition, while Milwaukee’s water cluster has established itself as a world leader, Chicago’s growth has been impressive, particularly in the area of aquaponics, a sustainable food production system that combines aquaculture (raising fish and other aquatic animals in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. Conversations are taking place between cluster leaders to accelerate the growth of aquaponics in both communities – working together to exchange best practices while fomenting a healthy competition.
The next step is for leaders from across these three areas – and those that connect them – to capitalize on these burgeoning water and innovation clusters and identify other functional clusters where the region’s component parts can augment one another.
The recently announced University of Wisconsin agreement with the Milwaukee Water Council to institute water-related STEM research could serve as a model for this. While Milwaukee may be the center of Wisconsin’s water technology economy, the new program will accelerate the growth of specific components of the larger cluster at five separate campuses. From Milwaukee’s perspective, these diverse areas of strength will only serve to complement Milwaukee-based activities.
This model can and should be extended to Chicago and Gary. Within the context of a very broad functional cluster, complementary areas of expertise can be developed that take advantage of unique local assets. Similarly, MiKE and the Kohl’s Idea Challenge are great examples of how talent, ideas and innovation know no borders. Additional potential functional clusters that can extend across the larger region include big data, energy and the “creative economy.”
Given the world class universities, manufacturing and talent base that extends from Gary to Chicago to Milwaukee, the role of leaders will be to identify, align and resource our collective unique assets. By building on the strengths that made each of these communities great, and continue to be a source of pride and economic activity, the larger region can serve as an example to manufacturing communities throughout the U.S. and worldwide as to how to reposition and grow itself in the face of a new generation of global economic challenges and opportunities.
Brian Schupper is the Director of Policy at the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a private sector civic organization whose mission is to contribute to the cultural and economic base of the Milwaukee Metropolitan area. The organization was formed in the late 1940s and is comprised of leaders in business, the professions, labor, education and philanthropy, nonprofit community development.
On Wednesday, July 25, MPC hosted our 2012 Annual Luncheon: The Cities That Work, featuring an insightful dialogue between the mayors of Gary and Milwaukee, about opportunities to strengthen the tri-state region. Leading up to the event, we featured a series of posts from guest authors and members of our staff on issues that unite the tri-state region. Read the whole series at www.metroplanning.org/citiesthatworkseries.