In November, I had an opportunity to attend a week-long conference in Montreux, Switzerland, that brought together 25 Americans and 25 Swiss from government, business, media and education to explore and expand cultural, political and economic connections between these two nations.
I was struck by the beauty of the Swiss landscape, the economic might of this nation of 7 million inhabitants, and the immense talents of the Swiss, many of whom speak fluent French, German and English.
As I met business and political leaders across the country, I also received stark reminders that the Milwaukee region’s focus on freshwater as a life-sustaining natural and economic resource is both wise and vital to Milwaukee’s strong future in a global economy.
On a visit to one of Switzerland’s oldest chocolate factories, I learned that Francois-Louis Cailler chose a specific location on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1819 because of access to plentiful freshwater for production and transportation.
At the worldwide headquarters of Nestle, which employs more than 50,000 people in the United States (and has more than a dozen Wisconsin facilities), I heard corporate executives outline the steps they take to determine where to site factories, what to produce, how to bring products to market and how to invest in research and development.
Freshwater concerns play a role in every strategic decision for this global giant that brands itself “the world’s leading nutrition, health, and wellness company.” By Nestle’s own assessment, water is the determining factor in its long-term worldwide success. Similar themes surrounding the paramount importance of freshwater were struck in a visit to the Swiss Parliament, in discussions of Swiss military relations, and in conversation with leaders from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Without question, our region has taken giant leaps over the past several years to promote our freshwater economy, from the development of the Milwaukee Water Council to the creation of the School of Freshwater Sciences, from water-based internships to Discovery World educational programs like “Building the Water Generation,” which brings Milwaukee high school students in direct contact with legislators and employers to enable them to see both their impact on the natural freshwater resource and the economic opportunities it presents.
Late this year, we will launch a partnership with the Milwaukee Public Schools to bring every MPS fourth grader to Discovery World for a half-day, high focus freshwater education program, giving these students a more tangible connection to this unique natural and economic resource. All of these steps further align our economy and educational system with opportunities available in the global marketplace.
Clearly, we are on the right path, and the region’s investment in education and commerce surrounding water technology are well-founded.
However, we cannot retreat from our intense concentration on freshwater and must expand our efforts in both education and economic development, especially since many of my Swiss colleagues explained that they are turning more of their focus – and investment – toward other global partners.
Whereas at one time they may have made three or four annual trips to engage in commerce in the United States, they now take one and instead spend more of their time, energy and resources in fertile Asian markets. Global investment will follow innovation, and freshwater – as it has for 170 years – provides our region’s best opportunities for innovative strategies, careers and products.
The actions and decisions we make today will have a defining impact on what the history books write about Milwaukee in the next 200 years. We have a truly unique global resource with 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater resources in the Great Lakes, and we must be both great stewards of these waters and seize every opportunity to wisely utilize this economic asset.
Joel Brennan is president and chief executive officer of Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin.