Successful innovators are the people who see a demand before it arises and develop the technology required to meet it. Certain demands may seem to arise on a whim, as part of some inscrutable cultural shift. But other demands are inevitable; we can see them coming. They develop as a result of irreversible and linear changes: the shifting landscape, the growing population. These are examples of hard trends—what will happen—as opposed to what might happen (soft trends).
One such hard trend on the horizon is the growing scarcity of fresh water and the consequences of drought. Make no mistake: this will be a growing demand. The term “blue tech” has become a shorthand for the community of inventors and entrepreneurs who are at the leading edge of addressing the world’s pressing need for bountiful, clean water.
When we think of water shortages and widespread drought, images of famished faraway lands might come to mind. But the problem hits much closer to home. It was recently reported that the current drought situation in California is worse than it’s been since the Gold Rush. Suddenly, the phrase “dust bowl” is making an unwelcome return to popular usage.
Startups in Milwaukee, Wisconsin are seeking solutions and developing game-changing technologies to address the global water crisis. Milwaukee may seem like a strange locus for water technology until you reflect that the city’s history with water-intensive businesses like tanning, brewing, and meatpacking is a long one. Those industries have moved on or moved out for the most part, but the base of water technology innovators and manufacturers that originally grew up to support them is still present, and they’re now turning their attention to bigger issues.
The blue tech startup scene in Milwaukee is housed in the 98,000-square-foot Global Water Center, which is a hub for entrepreneurs and for associated researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. The blue tech startups focus on water-related issues that range from conservation to sanitation. One particularly innovative company, Vegetal i.D., specializes in creating automated green roofs that gather rainwater to grow plants. Rainwater retention and the utilization of roof space for agriculture are likely to become important concerns for urban farming as the threat of drought persists.
Also notable in the Milwaukee blue tech scene is Microbe Detective, a company that uses DNA sequencing and genetic databases to correctly identify the ever-evolving bacteria that taint our water so we can do a better job of cleaning it up. Microbe Detective just might make it possible for millions of people to have access to clean, fresh water due to sufficient knowledge and treatment of bacteria.
Another important player in the blue tech scene is the San Francisco-based nonprofit Imagine H2O, which helps products that are designed to aid agricultural businesses reach the market. (The agricultural industry accounts for 70% of the water usage in the United States.) Recently, Imagine H2O supported the growth of Fruition Sciences, a company whose “sap flow sensors” help farmers and vintners decide precisely how much irrigation is needed to produce their ideal crop so that no water is wasted.
Blue tech companies like Vegetal i.D., Microbe Detective and Fruition Sciences are facing the hard trend of growing water scarcity and are developing fresh technological solutions to handle it. Each company has a different focus and a unique approach. Innovation in the face of a disruptive change takes myriad forms.
The demand for water is about as inelastic as it gets; dwindling resources of fresh water are going to be one the foremost disruptions of this century. No industry will remain unaffected. Look around now and see the demands before they arrive. By recognizing the emergence of a hard trend, these companies are positioning themselves to be the leaders and winners in their respective fields.
Ask yourself: What major hard trends have I been ignoring because I would rather preserve a false sense of security? And what success could I realize if I choose to meet the challenge of disruptive change rather than ignore it?
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