Don’t Cry Me a River

Snow.  Wind.  Lake Michigan.  These are the three main natural elements usually associated with the City of Chicago. 

Until recently, the Chicago River was an afterthoughtIts primary function was as a dumping ground.  One day a year, St. Patrick’s Day, green dye is dumped into it for a festive flare.  The remaining 364 days it was often filled with run off, waste, and sewage.  Coursing through the heart of Chicago’s Loop, the river was used as a conveyance to transport pollution away from the city. 

Now, it is being used as an attraction to draw people into the heart of the Loop.  And the process the City of Chicago is using to enact this change is an Effectual one. 

Here are some of the Effectual principles evident, as defined by Dr. Saras Sarasvathy, of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. 

1.      Pilot in the Plane Principle:  The future is not predetermined; it can be shaped. 

The City of Chicago has embraced this wholeheartedly.  Going back to the early 1900s, they were unwilling to accept the River as it was.  Originally, the River flowed into Lake Michigan.  This proved to be a disadvantage when the waste being dumped into the River by Chicago’s factories and meatpacking plants polluted the city’s drinking water. 

So what did they do?  Instead of changing their business practices, Chicago reversed the flow of the River.  After this switch, the River flowed away from Lake Michigan, outside Chicago, and down the Mississippi to St. Louis.  This kept Chicago’s drinking water clean (much to the dismay of cities further South).

Recently, the City applied the Pilot in the Plane principal in a more environmentally friendly way.  Many of the River’s main polluters are no longer operating along its shores.  Yet the waterway was still used as a waste transport channel. 

Refusing to accept this as the waterway’s destiny, the City identified the River as an opportunity for transformation, renewal and a way to stimulate the economy while improving the overall livability of Chicago. 

2.      Bird in Hand Principle:  Look at everything you have access to as a possible asset. 

Despite its presence in the middle of the Loop, the River was ignored for decades.  Now, the residents and leaders of the City are looking at it with fresh eyes.  They see potential for economic revival, ecological renewal, and a host of public – private partnership opportunities.

The results so far include construction of an expanded Riverwalk, the building of new residences that are designed to accentuate the benefits of being near the river, and the creation of protected marshland to encourage the proliferation of native fish and birds. 

3.      Co-Creation Principle:  Find others who opt in to working with you and are willing to commit resources to create a shared vision. 

The Great Rivers Chicago project has employed co-creation on a massive scale.  Over 6,000 people have contributed their ideas to the project and numerous public and private groups have participated in creating a shared vision for what the Chicago River can become. 

In addition to providing input, the participants are being asked to contribute resources.  Manpower and financial contributions are being aggregated across various stakeholders.  The outcome they are striving for is a comprehensive implementation package to bring the vision to reality in the next couple of decades. 

Building a New Future on the Past

Chicago’s grandiose temple to retail, the Chicago Merchandise Mart, sits alongside the Riverbank.  In front of the Mart Plaza, eight bronze busts are perched atop individual podiums.  Each of these busts memorializes an entrepreneur who contributed to the success of the city – Montgomery Ward, Woolworths, Filene, etc.  Chicago once thrived on the backs of these retail giants. 

Today, the spirit of entrepreneurship remains strong.  Because of Effectual thinking on behalf of the City and its residents, the River that once served primarily to export the waste of the City will welcome the next generation of Effectuators, innovators, and entrepreneurs to live and work along its shores.

--Written by Sara Whiffen, Founder & Managing Partner, Insights Ignited LLC