How should Milwaukee position itself to thrive in the future?

Q&A with Milwaukee-area native and futurist Michael Perman

Michael Perman
Michael Perman

With cranes dotting the skyline, a new arena bringing more energy downtown and planners working feverishly to prepare the city to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, it is an exciting time for Milwaukee. But has the city really turned the corner? Major problems still exist, including poverty and segregation. Can Milwaukee harness its current momentum to create a better future?

Futurist Michael Perman will explore what lies ahead for Milwaukee in his keynote address at the annual BizTimes Milwaukee Commercial Real Estate and Development Conference, which will be held on Friday, Nov. 15 from 7:00 to 9:30 a.m. at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee.

A Milwaukee-area native, Perman now lives in Portland, Oregon and his business, C’Est What LLC, is a mindful innovation firm. He has consulted for several major brands during his career, including Nike, Adidas, Williams-Sonoma, Levi’s, Gap, Starbucks, Del Monte, General Mills, Google and Hyatt Hotels.

Perman is also the author of the book, “Craving the Future: Transforming our Deepest Desires into New Realities.”

Perman spoke to BizTimes Milwaukee editor Andrew Weiland in advance of his appearance at the Commercial Real Estate and Development Conference. Following are portions of that interview.

BizTimes:  As a Milwaukee native who now has an outside perspective and as someone who thinks a lot about where things are going and what lies ahead, what are your thoughts on today’s Milwaukee?

Perman: “I think Milwaukee is actually quite similar to Portland (Oregon), where I live now. They are almost exactly the same size. Milwaukee has the advantage of being more diverse than Portland. Both have a river through the city, so water life is a good part of the culture. And Milwaukee and Portland are both maker towns. They have this working-person root. Gears and steel. What’s interesting is that Portland has twice the number of breweries as Milwaukee does. Maybe that’s because the hops are grown here. The way Portland has changed: there’s a lot of technology here, we’re driven by the shoe business – Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, a few others. That changed the trajectory of Portland. It’s not clear to me if the trajectory has changed in Milwaukee in the same way. I think of Milwaukee as doing well at the things it is used to doing well at.”

BizTimes: Portland is a city often described as cool, hip, up-and-coming. What created that?

Perman: “Having spent time in the apparel and fashion business … apparel is very tied to cultural moments and movements. You are dealing with sports, music and film celebrities. Political people. I think the brainpower required to stay tuned into that … I think that has brought in a different mindset over time, a mindset of creation and inventiveness and boldness that brought with it all sorts of other people, and when that happens, you grow. (Portland) is growing by 111 people a day here, net gain. So, there’s a lot of cranes in the area.”

The other thing is Portland is a relief station from San Francisco. In other words, people flee up here from California because they don’t want that life anymore, the craziness. When they get here and realize that people are really, really nice. The pace is pretty slow. People have time to talk to each other.”

BizTimes: Is Portland also considered a low-cost alternative to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, etc.?

Perman: “For sure. You can still get twice the place for half the price here. You get what you pay for here. I’m a little hard on San Francisco. I think that city has been in a downward spiral for a number of years, and I think it’s continuing down in terms of its ability to be an arbiter of social good. The ethos in Oregon around sustainability, around human connection, around kindness, but also around being cultural arbiters and being a town of invention and creation is really strong here and I think that’s why people are flocking here.”

BizTimes: Attracting and retaining talent is a big challenge for Milwaukee. What do you think Milwaukee should do to make it a destination for the best and the brightest?

Perman: “Wisconsin is actually in a relatively safe position in regards to climate change. I think we’re in a situation now where almost every decision about the future has to consider the impact of climate change, because it’s another thing that’s starting to spiral out of control. Twenty years from now, people will wake up in Milwaukee on some fine spring day and realize there was no snow that winter. That will seem very pleasant at first until they realize there may never be snow in Milwaukee again. Milwaukee is likely to have the climate of Arkansas in 20 years. But at the same time Milwaukee has this inherent engineering ingenuity … it has the potential to be a leader in sustainability. Things like that are going to be magnets. People will literally be fleeing other cities and want a different place to go. With that comes talent.”

BizTimes: How should building owners prepare their structures to meet the needs of the future?

Perman: “I think you want to start at the highest level in terms of, what kind of city do you want to be? And then, what kind of buildings do you want to be known for? … At the very minimum any new building has to be either carbon neutral or regenerative, in terms of the operations of the building and the physical materials that are used and how it’s built. To me, that’s square one.”

BizTimes: And why is that?

Perman: “Because of climate change.”

BizTimes: So tenants are going to demand it?

Perman: “I think consumers are going to demand a society that is safe and clean. There are cities around the world that don’t have that sensibility. I don’t know of too many cities that are known for their ability to be ready for climate change. To have buildings that are created in a way that have zero impact. I work with a lot of consumer product companies and everyone is working on ways to be regenerative or neutral in their impact on climate. I do think consumers are becoming more and more interested in living that lifestyle.”

BizTimes: One thing Milwaukee has tried to do is position itself as the freshwater and water technology capital of the world. What do you think of that as a long-term economic strategy?

Perman: “I love it. I think it’s got a lot of potential. There’s close to a billion people in the world that don’t have access to clean, safe water. The degree to which Milwaukee can double down and be a global center for the thinking and the action around water seems to me like a really fabulous strategy.”

BizTimes: Any closing thoughts?

Perman: “I love Milwaukee. The future of Milwaukee is all about the intersection of authentic roots with an innovation future, to chart the course, being known for iconic and relevant experiences and contributions to the betterment of society.”

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Andrew Weiland
Andrew Weiland is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Weiland is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, and son, Zachary. He is an avid sports fan and enjoys coaching his son’s youth baseball and basketball teams.