Talks with the Boss: Earth Summit 2012, Water Accelerator Building and More

– Ryan Matthews

Most would never guess how incredibly busy Dean Amhaus is on any given day. His easy-going and amiable demeanor might lull you into believing he has one of those cushy, stress-free jobs that only exist in movies. To the contrary though, as the Executive Director of the Water Council, our fearless leader tirelessly travels far and wide, working hard to establish Milwaukee as a World Water Center. Dean is often so busy though that he doesn’t have time to stop and brag about his accomplishments. It is with this in mind that we are rolling out a new project,  “Talks with the Boss.”

Talks with the Boss will occur about once a month with occasional upsets in the schedule if there is something happening that deserves more attention. These talks will consist of me or Rachel sitting down with Dean and asking him what he’s been up to for the last month. This will give everyone an insight into what Dean has been working on and will also serve as a window into the mission of The Water Council.

This is what we’re doing and who we are. This is how we seek to serve the Milwaukee area by creating avenues for collaboration between the water-related business sector, researchers and students. So stay tuned. Stay in the know, and check in to our Talks with the Boss.

So Dean, you just spent 10 days in Rio…
Actually, just five days. I was in Washington DC and Akron Ohio too. It was a 10 day trip all together.

You’re a busy guy! What were you doing in each of those places?
In Washington DC, I was attending the launch of the Business Higher Education Forum which was announcing 12 projects that tied the UW System with The Water Council to address STEM education. The project is bringing together five universities:  UW-Milwaukee as the lead, UW-Whitewater, Madison, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Superior. The goal is to help freshmen and sophomores in STEM programs move into internships. What they’ve found is that students tend to get to a point where the challenge of the classwork is too hard and they drop out or move to a different program. We want to engage them right away in a business setting so they stick with it.

In Rio I was attending the UN Corporate Sustainability Forum and spoke at one of the sessions right before one of the bigger UN sessions.

A breakout session?
Yeah, like an advanced session.

This year marked 20 years since the 1992 Earth Summit. What role did water play in this year’s summit?
Water was a portion of the corporate sustainability piece. There was not only my presentation talking about water but also Alliance for Water Stewardship was pretty prominent there. And then you had other companies talking about water as well like Levi Strauss. Water was certainly very present in all the activities.

You mentioned that both you and Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) had sessions. What specifically did your session address?
A lot of it was about our partnership with the United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme. It was looking at the model we’ve created here in Milwaukee around a city-wide sustainability. Not only was Milwaukee featured but also San Francisco and a state in Brazil. I outlined the resources of our connection with the United Nations Cities Programme and talked about how we’re pulling together all the components of a city—business, academia, government, NGOs—around a water issue. The topics around the other panels were varied though. For example, San Francisco’s was about climate change. The whole thing was about how cities can create an enterprise around sustainability. We were there as a demonstration of that.

Then in Akron we did a visit to the Akron BioMedical Corridor. It’s a simulation center around medical emergencies and disasters in a restored old building, so we were looking at what they did with that building to get ideas for our Accelerator Center.

What perspective did this trip give you on what’s going on in Milwaukee?
It certainly spoke to the fact that we are in a very strong position with what we’re doing with water. Looking at the forum in DC, 12 projects statewide…we are the best of the best. Then you look at the way the UW System looks to Milwaukee—both to UWM and to The Water Council—as their go-to people for a statewide effort to link universities. It’s wonderful that we’ve established that. We always said that we wanted The Water Council to go statewide at the right time. We needed to form ourselves first. To have that level of confidence form others now to go farther with that, that’s encouraging.

Then you go to a place like the Rio conference that is truly of a global nature and notice that we’re only a handful of cities that was showcased. A lot of projects we were hearing about were programs and initiatives by organizations and business, but not necessarily by cities. That was very unique.

Akron was a very impressive project too. They have created a community of aligning all the different components of the healthcare field. It helps to reinforce our model and makes me look forward to what the potential could be here in Milwaukee.

Overall, the whole 10 days reinforced that we are in a very strong position both nationally and globally because of the ecosystem we’ve created here around water.

It sounds like this trip was perfect timing. You were at the Akron BioMedical Corridor and the Rio summit. Then when you came back, we just got green-lighted for construction on our Accelerator Center and are ramping up to our own Water Summit in October. First, I want to ask what are the next steps going forward with the Center?
Well, the crews are going in soon to start the renovations. That’s when the whole thing takes on a new sense of reality. Up until now, you walk though the building, and it’s empty. To be able to actually see people in the building doing things reinforces the realization that this is really happening. It’s exciting but also frightening because within a year we’re going to be moving in. We’ve got a good cadre of tenants, but we need to be able to do more.

I would love to put more lab space in there for example, common lab space so business can use it to bring more of a broad mix of activities that will be going on in the Center. So now I can start thinking more about the programing of the building as opposed to just getting the building financed. It creates a lot of other challenges, but that’s the exciting part. And the thing too is that it’s very unique. There’s nothing else like this Center—not of the composition that we’ll have. It’s not just all-stars. It’s not just academic either. It’s a combination of all that with established business as well.

The Water Summit 2012 early registration just went live. What is this year’s summit going to be highlighting?
It gets into the whole notion of how cities utilize water in every aspect—water utility, wastewater, and economics. One of the other things we’ll be talking about is what it means to be “water centric.” In the US we think of “water-centric cities,” but one of the components we hope to present this year is the idea of a water-centric village as well. Our sense of place is one thing for us in the United States and another thing completely in a place like Laos or India. They too are water-centric, just in different ways.

I keep hearing that we have some special guests coming this year and potentially staying for a little bit longer…
Right, we have delegations coming from India, which will stay for a couple extra days afterwards. It could be as many as 20 people. It looks like we’ll also have a delegation from Paris as well as researchers and scientists who will get together with our researchers and scientists here to work on the problem of emerging pollutants. They will have two days after the summit to dive in and collaborate, the goal being to carve out some focused time for them without a lot of other distractions. All too often these researchers don’t have time to talk to each other. We certainly hope to get some other guests who we’ve heard might be coming too.

We’ve moved from having 60 people together for a couple hours six years ago to two full days with international guests reaching up to 400 people. It’s much more complex. I still have aspirations that we attract more people globally so it becomes a national and international meeting, but I also realize that this isn’t going to be something that attracts thousands of people. If we can have 500 of some of the best people in the world coming together, that would be fantastic.

A smaller number but with higher concentration of expertise.
Yes, exactly.

It sounds like there’s a real push to bring in the international community. We’ve already seen how international companies are partnering with companies here in Milwaukee around water. What does this mean for the researchers and scientists?
It gives them a more intense working relationship with these folks who they may have only heard about or read about in a paper or a journal. This will give them an opportunity to work together on an ongoing basis. Many of our researchers already have strong international connections. That’s why we’re already so uniquely positioned. So maybe it’s introducing them to new people that they’re not familiar with to gather new ideas and approaches. It significantly builds on what our researchers have already been able to achieve.

Is there anything else going on this month that you want people to know about?
There are a few things in the works that aren’t ready to be announced yet, but I think that’s it for now.

Thanks Dean!

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About The Water Council

The Water Council, the only organization of its kind in the United States, was established in 2009 by Milwaukee-area businesses, education and government leaders. With more than 150 water technology companies in the Milwaukee area, the region’s water industry is a $10.5 billion dollar market and accounts for four percent of the world’s total water business. The non-profit organization is linking together global water technology companies, innovative water entrepreneurs, acclaimed academic research programs and, most importantly, some of the nation’s brightest and most energetic professionals. The Water Council is capturing the attention of the world and transforming the Milwaukee region into a World Water Hub for freshwater research, economic development and education. The Water Council is located in the Global Water Center at 247 W. Freshwater Way, Suite 500, Milwaukee, WI 53204.
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