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Working towards national sustainability using a regional approach

Editor's note: If you're interested in this topic or want to learn more, check out the program for our upcoming VERGE Boston event on May 13-14.

Mark "Puck" Mykleby, a colonel who retired from the Marine Corps in 2011, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation working on what he calls a "grand strategy" for the United States. The strategy focuses on activating the public, private and civil sectors to collaborate on long-term regional investment strategies focused on smart growth, regenerative agriculture and resource productivity.

The project is focused in the following four regions: Upper Midwest (Minneapolis, Minn.-Milwaukee, Wis.), Lake Erie area (Detroit, Mich.-Youngstown, Ohio), Southeast (Charleston, S.C.-Savannah, Ga.) and California (Silicon Valley-Salinas).

GreenBiz recently spoke with Mykleby to learn more about his vision.

GreenBiz: Tell us about how you came up with the plan to catalyze sustainable investment at the regional level. How did that come about?

Mykleby: It all really started with this idea around grand strategy that I was asked to work on. I got pulled out of special operations command back in 2000 to work for Admiral Mullin and take a look at grand strategy -- me and a guy named Navy Captain Wayne Porter. Our assessment was that the concept of sustainability ought to be our grand strategic imperative for the nation going forward in America during the 21st century.

The next great global challenge is the fact that there will be 9 billion people -- but also we’re going to have about 3 billion in the global middle class. Their arrival brings about a 300-percent increase in resource consumption. We just don’t have the stuff in the world to do that. And so we really looked at it from that scale of grand strategy.

When I retired from the Marine Corps, I was still really passionate about this idea of sustainability as grand strategic imperative. So now I’m a senior fellow at New America Foundation and am working with a guy named Patrick Doherty at the New America Foundation under a program called the Smart Strategy Initiative.

We looked at the economic theories of the likes of Michael Porter, Mercedes Delgato, Scott Stern, and Willie Hsiao and Gary Pisano at Harvard around industrial commons and regional clusters.

GreenBiz: What's the strategy behind the regional cluster plan?

Mykleby: When Patrick and I looked at this idea, this grand strategic idea of sustainability, there’s obviously a top-down macro policy component that has to happen. We have to fundamentally reframe out large organizational constructs as well as the functional frameworks that we have in our society today. And that runs anywhere from policies around agriculture and energy to things like mortgage policy and transportation policy.

And clearly right now our government is not functioning in any kind of efficacious way. And so that’s why from our top-down policy framework we’re really looking at the private sector as being the change agent for the country.

The reality is that we live in a resource-constrained environment, yet we act like we have unlimited resources. In the words of my good friend, David Orr -- he said, “We’ve got to shape ourselves to the finite resources of the world instead of trying to shape the world into our unlimited wants.” We have to fundamentally re-shift our economy towards our reality, just given from a pure resource limitation perspective.

But you’ve also got to have a bottom-up push, because for this to work, for a grand strategy to work to the United States, we have to have an engaged citizenry. So the regional clusters work was originally what I thought we could do: get a bunch of communities doing what Patrick Doherty coined as "full-spectrum sustainability" -- looking at how do you integrate all these components that constitute a community (food, water, energy, education, transportation and the built environment).

And the initial thought that I had was that if you could do 435 of these communities across the country (because there are 435 Congressional districts in the United States) you could really start changing political calculus, because all of a sudden citizens start experiencing something different other than having to spend two weeks a year in their car or eating 19 percent of their meals in their vehicle and having all the ancillary deleterious health effects ... from diabetes to hypertension. Wouldn’t that be an interesting approach, that people actually start demanding this from a political discourse?

So at the top level, the private sector would be the macro drivers of change with citizens in their own communities being a drive for change. They wouldn't say, "This is the way you have to be." They'd offer up different choices. 

Regional clusters are more digestible, and they map from the macro all the way down to the micro. It's the biggest bang for the buck in the economic sectors that we have available to us, and it grabs the attention of mayors at the very local and regional level.

Image of buildings in lightbulb provided by Sergey Nivens courtesy Shutterstock.

GreenBiz: How would sectors work together to jumpstart sustainable investment?

Mykleby: The idea is that can you bring in all these multiple functional sectors: food, water, transportation, energy, built environment, education, etc. together, but also can you bring different organizational sectors: private sector, public sector, civil sector and academia together to start creating new types of designs and contracts to match to our 21st century reality of a resource-constrained environment. And then you can bring financing to the table and show that from an economic standpoint it matters, that it works. You can find a right kind of tool -- anywhere from innovation bonds to social impact bonds to just direct private investment -- that you could make these things work because when you take a systems approach to these regional economies, you actually start building resilience, prosperity, and start mapping to a different, better pattern for the future that maps again to our resource-limited world. 

GreenBiz: Why focus on smart growth, regenerative agriculture and resource productivity?

Mykleby: Those bins of demand translate directly to the top four payoffs. The top one is manufacturing. For every $1 you put in, you get $1.35. The next one, believe it or not, is agriculture; for every $1 you put in, you get $1.20. And for the third one is construction; for every $1 you put in, you get something like $0.97-$0.98. And then the fourth one is transportation; for every $1 you put in, you get like $0.95 back.

These are huge, and we can calibrate – we can now practically link macroeconomic forces with the micro reality of Joe Average American sitting on Main Street and provide the kind of economic way forward that really at the historic scale could be the foundation for a new American grand strategy.

GreenBiz: How is this working on the ground?

Mykleby: We have four clusters. One is in California, and this one is a little bit different. It was actually the idea of Wayne Porter, who worked with with Admiral Mullin. He’s still in the Navy, and he introduced this idea out in California. Wayne’s getting his Ph.D. at Naval Post-Graduate School right now. They started up on Dec. 13 -- it’s called the Steinbeck Innovation Project. Basically what they’re looking at is creating a regional cluster that links Salinas, Calif. -- the salad bowl of California -- with Silicon Valley. But the basic logic around that is can you converge high-tech with regenerative agriculture and make that a viable industrial commons. And so they’re working on that one right now. So it’s an interesting model.

Image of buildings in lightbulb provided by Sergey Nivens courtesy Shutterstock.

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