Chicago has a water problem. Sections of the city flood often, and even more often in recent decades as climate change has intensified rainstorms at the same time that the city’s concrete engineering marvels have created an impervious crust on the earth.
It was shocking to learn that Chicago is actually at the “top” of two water routes to the sea. Lake Michigan drains through the Great Lakes and into the St. Laurence River and empties into the North Atlantic. At the same time, a mere 10 kms from Chicago’s downtown core are the headwaters of the Des Plaines River, which flows southward and into the Illinois River which eventually joins the mighty Mississippi at St. Louis and eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, historic records indicate that before Chicago existed, it was a swampy area of land that frequently flooded, allowing for an actual waterway that bisected the continent. No wonder that they have water problems.
Why does this matter to social entrepreneurs?
Well, Chicago (and in fact many cities prone to flooding around the world) has spent billions of dollars on infrastructure projects like tunnels and reservoirs to, as one article put it, “bottle rainstorms.” However, there is a strong movement worldwide to think about ways to work symbiotically with nature rather than to fight to control it. “Sponge Cities” is a term that refers to urban designs that help absorb water. There are multiple ideas borrowed from the past: encourage the development of urban parks that can flood during monsoon seasons, use permeable pavements, plant trees that can soak up (and even clean) waste water, or develop rooftop and backyard gardens to absorb rain where it falls.
To the social entrepreneur, this spells opportunity. But don’t look to technology. This article highlights that we need fewer “smart cities” and more common sense in our design. Indeed, we should make “dumb cities” that use ancient techniques to work with nature to prevent catastrophe. Shoshanna Saxe of the University of Toronto, states the notion clearly:
“For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas,” Saxe says.
So, if you are a social entrepreneur in spirit and you are looking for a product or service to sell that will significantly improve our co-existence with a changing climate, consider reviving and adapting old ideas. After all, there are literally BILLIONS of dollars available to prepare for and manage rainwater, flooding, sewage treatment and natural disasters.
Don’t consider creating an app to register the depth of the problem, consider (re)creating and selling a product that addresses the root causes.