Chicago's Blue Economy
Illinois has all of the building blocks of a thriving blue economy: a natural advantage with its lakes and rivers, including the Great Lakes, the country’s “Third Coast” and a source of drinking water for 40 million people, and a network of major rivers that connect to the Mississippi; a robust network of researchers at top universities and national laboratories developing new ideas; available test sites; more than 80 water and wastewater technology headquarters to nurture and acquire new technologies; and growing investment in and strength of the entrepreneurship and innovation community. These combined environmental and economic assets position our region to become a global center of water technology innovation, a powerful hub that could demonstrate the potential of new technologies to solve not only the problems we have in our own backyard – managing overabundant stormwater, treating our wastewater, ensuring clean drinking water, protecting water quality and the health of aquatic environments in our Great Lakes and rivers – but also technologies that can solve the world’s water problems, from desalination and managing water scarcity to wave powered energy production.
Even with so many strong building blocks, Chicago’s water economy is fragmented, hidden from view, and therefore underpowered and underrecognized. The entrepreneurial ecosystem for water technology is nascent. Our universities struggle to commercialize their research into technologies that can be deployed at commercial scale, and innovators face hurdles to development and commercialization. Our large utilities must deliver basic services first and struggle with inertia that makes change difficult; the smaller ones lack capacity and resources to innovate. Filling these gaps requires an entity to frame this important economic cluster and the value it already brings to our region’s economy, and then help strengthen it. This involves the fundamental research it takes to identify the components of the cluster and track its impact in terms of jobs, revenue, and other measures; the capacity to strengthen networks, learning about the needs of firms, utilities, industrial end users, entrepreneurs, and the research community; and the task of providing value to each of them. A critical part of this work is helping to build wins for the cluster, securing local, national, and international research and commercialization partnerships, demonstrating innovative technologies that have powerful public-facing components, and celebrating steps forward in innovation. Current believes that its clear focus on building the visibility of this cluster and intentional strategies to support it will enable Chicago and Illinois to become the hub of a powerful Great Lakes blue economy, one that can successfully build technologies to support the environmental health of our region and help solve the world’s water problems.
With Blue EDU, our curated water learning resource geared towards K-12 students, we're expanding our outreach to the public with new virtual learning offerings. Current is now working to develop and launch an innovative virtual curriculum focused on water quality for public high school students in Chicago. The curriculum will provide students with opportunities to learn about the Blue Economy in Chicago and our water assets, build essential skills, teach them how to apply these skills to science projects focused on local water quality data, and explore college and career plans related to environmental science and/or the water sector in the region. Blue EDU leverages Current’s research and technology partners, including Chicago-based universities and companies, and its groundbreaking efforts to provide access to real-time water quality monitoring data for the Chicago River, through H2NOW Chicago.