Milwaukee is known for our beer, our manufacturing might, our motorcycles and, most recently, for our water industry.
But a theme running through those industries is our creativity, built on generations of skilled, hardworking artisans and craftsmen and -women.
That creative thread is being highlighted by the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee, which released a study last week on southeastern Wisconsin’s surprising jobs potential in the creative industries.
Not only does the region’s creativity reflect our past, but it also could lead to greater global competitiveness in the future.
The study, which was commissioned by the Cultural Alliance and the Greater Milwaukee Committee, was conducted by Mt. Auburn Associates, which has analyzed the economic impact of the creative industry around the world.
When the study was released with much fanfare last week, Mt. Auburn researcher Michael Kane called the region’s creative depth and breadth “absolutely remarkable” and encouraged policy-makers to think of our creative industries as “one element in a diversified portfolio” that can be marketed to other regions and countries to bring revenue to the area.
“Southeast Wisconsin’s economy and prosperity will depend less on how much it produces and more on what it produces, less on its cost of living and more on quality of living, less on its workers’ skills and more on its people’s talents, less on corporate identities and more on entrepreneurial energies,” the report concluded. “Thus, prosperity will result from creativity that, directly and indirectly, produces employment, makes other sectors more competitive, contributes to making the region more desirable, makes people more innovative, and recognizes and rewards the talent that may lie outside the mainstream career pathways.”It's still about creating the things that enable other, less clever people, to be more productive, whether they're in Detroit or Datong.
“We’re a maker economy,” said Christine Harris, head of the Cultural Alliance.
Product design is an integral part of our area’s most iconic products and images. Think of the "rolling sculpture" of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the distinctive shape and color of your average beer bottle, the functionality of GE Healthcare’s medical devices, Faythe Levine’s do-it-yourself “Handmade Nation,” and the elegance of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition, which quickly became the symbol of the city.
Milwaukee was even home to one of the nation’s first industrial designers, Brooks Stevens, whose designs range from the model for Harley-Davidson motorcycles to Miller Brewing’s logo to engines for Briggs & Stratton and Outboard Marine.
Ironically, the importance of product design is relatively unappreciated by the area’s manufacturers, Mt. Auburn’s researchers found. They urged the region's manufacturers to look toward product design—and not lower cost—to increase their global competitiveness.
“[Manufacturers’] best chance for its employers to withstand the global cost-based competition will be to be more creative, to use design in ways that distinguish and differentiate its products, and to make them more desirable because they appeal to customers in ways that mass-produced products cannot—something the region’s most successful companies have been doing for decades.”Whether the city's schools have squandered that cultural capital, or whether do-it-yourself design on a computer is within the reach of any thirteen year old with enough Snickers bars in the freezer remains to be seen.