Innovation can be a nebulous topic. People have their own definition of what innovation entails, and it sets each on their own path to fostering creativity.
The same holds true for local colleges and universities. In examining their own role in fostering innovation across the city, each school has its own mission.
Even so, if you talk to higher education leaders in Milwaukee, the word “innovation” almost always comes attached to another word: "collaboration."
Cooperation and partnership drive many of the initiatives on the city’s biggest campuses.
It’s like the old adage about innovation: “necessity is the mother of invention.” Part of the reason teamwork is so crucial in Milwaukee is the fierce competition from other parts of the state.
Michael Lovell, president of Marquette University, knows Milwaukee is often overshadowed by another city in the higher education universe.
"None of the institutions here are huge," Lovell says. "We're not like Madison."
The University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus is well-known for its research mission. The school also has the upper hand on many universities around here, in terms of attracting bodies and resources.
That’s why for Milwaukee, Lovell says, there’s power in numbers.
"Milwaukee really is a college town," Lovell says. "We have twenty-three higher ed institutions with 183,000 students. We have universities like UWM and Marquette and MSOE, where we have different areas that we have strengths in."
"We don’t have the resources to duplicate each other’s facilities or talents that we have, but if we work together and find ways to truly collaborate, the whole gets to be much greater than the sum of the parts," Lovell adds.
Collaboration appears to be a mutual goal among schools throughout Milwaukee. Stop in at any one of the creative initiatives around the city, and you’re likely to see sweatshirts from a handful of local colleges.
Students and faculty at Marquette work alongside colleagues from UW-Milwaukee in lab spaces at the Global Water Center, on the Milwaukee lakefront. The two schools also partner with MSOE, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Concordia University to encourage entrepreneurship, as part of a project called I-Corps.
Add other initiatives around water, energy and healthcare, and the list grows long. Between just those five schools, more than $250 million is spent on research every year, according to UWM Research Foundation director Brian Thompson. He says all the cooperation makes it easier to keep creative young minds in Milwaukee .
"We have a couple of structures that allow students to work together across institutions and importantly, we’re also bring the industry members into those discussions," Thompson explains. "It’s only natural that an undergraduate who might have worked with a company on water or energy or something like that, might see opportunities there."
Collaboration isn’t just part of the process for education around Milwaukee. It tends to also be the result.
Entrepreneur Jeramey Jannene started his online publication Urban Milwaukee while he was still a student at MSOE. He credits the school for helping him flourish, because of its emphasis on linking up with like-minded individuals.
"There was a big push administratively toward entrepreneurship, and it really allowed us to go beyond MSOE to connecting with other schools in Chicago, and St. Louis," Jannane says. "It was just tremendous to meet other people that were outside of MSOE as well."
Universities have multiple responsibilities in shaping local innovation. They’re charged with creating opportunities for young adults, and also serving as research institutions.
UW-Mlwaukee recently earned a national designation as an “R1" university. That means it’s classified at the highest level of research activity. Researchers around the city have been part of some breakthroughs, including a recent discovery confirming the existence of gravitational waves.
But in many ways, it seems the most important role local universities play in fostering innovation is leading by example.
UWM’s Brian Thompson says the when the goal is Milwaukee’s ability to be competitive on a larger scale, everybody wins.
"The educational experience is, in my mind, in part about learning specific skills of how to do certain essays and how to solve certain equations, but also how to work in teams, and how to do all those other things that are going to make students successful in their careers," Thompson says. "I think the research experience and working across institutions helps strengthen that."
It seems the potential for Milwaukee’s future in innovation relies on players getting on the same page.