As we have previously discussed, the decision to prioritize a single primary cluster in a regional economic development plan is challenging. For Milwaukee, this was especially difficult in development of its global trade and investment plan because it has three legitimate clusters: energy, power and controls; food and beverage; and water technologies. The team developing the plan was reluctant to pick a favorite.
After months of anguished debate (which one participant equated to choosing a favorite child), a key meeting with cluster leaders made the decision clear. Among these three clusters, they realized water technologies represented a truly differentiating specialization on a global scale, an increasingly relevant attribute worldwide, and the best opportunity to establish a global identity and open new doors for the entire region. It was also the cluster that was best organized to pursue international business development.
Water technologies in Milwaukee clearly encompasses the critical factors necessary for a robust cluster. Crucially, it has leadership from the region’s large base of 200 existing firms in the industry, which range from start-ups to multinationals, and all strongly identify with the cluster. The president of Badger Meter, Richard Meeusen, is a particularly visible and vocal champion. In fact, the cluster’s formation was driven by leaders from a few large, global companies in the region that realized they were not just part of a scattered set of manufacturing industries as defined by their official industry codes, but were connected by the “theme” of water technologies (which is not defined by an industry code).
Further, these leaders formed a staffed organization, the Water Council, in 2009 that knit the cluster together. To confirm that the Milwaukee region was truly globally relevant, the Water Council conducted a study of global water hubs and found that only the nations of Israel, Singapore, and the Netherlands had anywhere near the concentration of water technologies companies and assets as the Milwaukee region, further cementing the region’s global vision as a viable, near-term reality.
The cluster has been further boosted by significant investment from state government and universities, as well as a physical presence (the Global Water Center building) in a water technologies innovation district where all players can connect.