Can water save a sinking Detroit?

June 3, 2009
June 3, 2009 -- Michigan's lieutenant governor John Cherry Jr., recently announced a plan to get Detroit's unemployed autoworkers to back work in the water sector...

June 3, 2009 -- Over a hundred years ago, Henry Ford transformed the automobile from a custom-made, luxury item to a low-cost, standardized product that became the engine of the world economy. What would happen if the design skills that created the Mustang Convertible were charged with creating cost-effective "plug and play" onsite water "appliances" to be used by cities and businesses?

Michigan's lieutenant governor John Cherry Jr., recently announced a plan to get Detroit's unemployed autoworkers to back work in the water sector. The "Green Jobs for Blue Waters Initiative," in partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, will pair Michigan workers from Detroit and Farmington Hills with Miya, a global water supply management firm, to train them in industrial design for water management. The goal is to develop the capacity for Michigan to become an international leader in water-management, creating American jobs and "exporting its knowledge and experience to a thirsty world," Cherry said in a recent Detroit News article.

Today, the U.S. water industry remains fragmented, driven by custom projects to fix small parts of our rapidly decaying centralized water infrastructure. But our infrastructure is failing. The EPA estimates that it would cost $267 billion over the next 20 years to adequately repair existing water infrastructure.

We cannot ignore the dramatic benefits of onsite water appliances for businesses and cities. Businesses use an estimated one-third of urban water. Onsite water recycling can save 80-90% of the drinking water required at a business like a retail store, and over 85% of the energy previously required to convey that water from a local treatment plant to that business. In places where water must be transported long distances, the energy savings of onsite water management are comparable to installing solar panels as an alternate energy source.

The need to use water and energy more wisely is great, and the technology for on location water management is well-proven and improving rapidly. What is lacking is the kind of industrial design for reliability and low-cost manufacturing that the engineers who once worked at Chrysler, GM, and Ford can bring.

Here is an enormous market -- estimated to generate $500 billion worldwide annually -- that cannot help but grow in importance. Now is the time to harness Detroit's design expertise to launch this great industry in the United States.

Laura Shenkar is principal at The Artemis Project, a consulting practice that combines business development for pioneering water tech products with projects that apply water conservation approaches to large corporations. Laura supports innovative government policy initiatives that drive efficiency for water resources.