Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Glenn Anderson, Cape Fear Ocean Labs

Glenn Anderson’s friends describe him as someone who grew up as an irredeemably curious child. Even today, he wants to know why things work, how they work, and if you break it, what happens? He was born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee by parents who valued education.  After getting his formal education, he wound up as a corporate banker in Silicon Valley during the eighties when the region was home to genuine ‘garage shops,’ rather than the technology powerhouse it is today. Glenn learned a lot during these years before eventually heading to the Pacific Northwest, landing in Seattle. As he states, “I’ve got this huge fat green streak on my back. I used to go into the wilderness hiking in the Canadian Rockies and the Yukon. It was primitive hiking stuff and I love the place. I decided to go into politics.” 

Glenn became a Republican member of the Washington House of Representatives, representing District 5-Position 2 from 2001 to 2013. He served as a Precinct Committee Officer for the 5th Legislative District of the Republican Party and ran for lieutenant governor in the 2012 elections. For 12 years, he led a statewide initiative focused on education for technology economic development. This effort was an important aspect of Seattle’s deliberate strategy to break away from the orbit of Silicon Valley and become a hotspot for technology.

Currently, Glenn serves as a Strategic Development Advisor at Cape Fear Ocean Labs, a nonprofit spinout of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurialism. The organization is focused on a long-term BlueTech Economy initiative to expand business and entrepreneurial activity, and investment capital in the greater Cape Fear region. As it does, the effort strives to grow a global reputation as a robust applied science and technology deployment hub for ocean and coastal innovations.

In this Blue Economy Convergence Conversation Glenn, and I explore what a Blue Ocean strategy for Wilmington, North Carolina could mean for the future growth of the area. We also discuss the challenges to achieving national, possibly global, recognition as a Blue Economy hub.


Deb: What is your definition of the Blue Economy?

Glenn: For 98% of people, the definition of the Blue Economy is beer, shrimp, conversation with friends, and a great view. The actual definition of Blue Economy encapsulates theirs and various official others from The World Bank, The European Union, and The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Simply put, the Blue Economy is every scientific commercial and cultural activity from the shoreline to the deep sea. 

Everything that happens in that blue band of area is the Blue Economy, including tourism. The sub definition—the Blue Commercial Economy—doesn’t include tourism. It’s all about the businesses that are serving all the other industries in the water space.

I work with an even tighter definition for my group, Cape Fear Ocean Labs. Our definition of the Blue Tech Economy focuses on the tech economy. It’s about the science and engineering that goes into all of the mechanical products and data analytics that support the Blue Commercial Economy. The simplest way to categorize it is to include any business activity that occurs between the shoreline and the deep sea.

Deb: The word economy sounds like a priority on economic growth. How does sustainment or making our environment healthier fit into that definition? We can do things for the economy, especially in the near term, that may damage the environment and our planet long-term. How does this muli-focus, temporal view come into Blue Economy thinking?

Glenn: That’s one of the reasons why Cape Fear Ocean Labs is so focused on the tech side. The word now is “resilience.” While people continue to argue the science, it has become dramatically clear climate change is a real thing. It’s accelerating and it has real impacts. Seventy percent of the earth is made up of oceans. Only 5% of that has ever been explored. (Other than what the Navy is not telling us.) Understanding our oceans is key to addressing climate change issues. 

For example, we just got through Hurricane Ida. We need devices and technology that will spot and warn people of the coming danger. The more time we give them to get out of the way, the more lives we can save.

There is a lot of effort by a variety of federal agencies, nonprofits, and commercial businesses to develop unmanned, autonomous submerge, surface, aerial, and orbital drones that can contribute to a sensor array for understanding our oceans. This visibility will allow us to monitor what happens on and in the ocean and to understand how it impacts the land. For example, we could better understand how what happens in our oceans impacts our wetlands. These efforts are about building technology around the impact of climate change. 

Then there are the businesses that have to operate for our quality of life as we go through this period of addressing climate. Right now they’re changing fueling on ships. Bunker fuel is a nasty thing, so it is being replaced. Now it’s about finding a solution with batteries, liquified natural gas, or possibly hydrogen. Offshore wind provides an infinite supply of energy, and we need to figure out how might we use it. There is a layered solution set in terms of how the ocean can be a place where economic growth and the natural environment learn to live in balance.

Deb: Why is the Blue Economy concept important for thinking about growth or strategy-making for an industry, country, or city?

Glenn: The ocean economy is not necessarily a new thing. It’s a matter of fact. There were 400 years of human history wherein the ocean economy discovered the world. The ocean economy literally was the European economy during the Age of Exploration. Between the 15th century and the 18th century, the ocean drove most of the entire economy. Technology has matured. We can have more sustainable fisheries, cleaner container ships. And implementing this technology creates new high-tech, professional jobs, and highly skilled trade jobs.

There is an opportunity for people here, not a risk of technology replacing people. That’s really the angle here, and probably the greatest and highest value. It’s underdeveloped. I know that this focus on finding a sustainable environment may seem threatening but It means you have high-paying jobs, so people can sustain their environment and their ability to make a living as changes happen. The Blue Economy fits perfectly in both buckets.

Deb: Is the Wilmington, North Carolina community applying the concept of Blue Economy for its future?

Glenn: Wilmington is interesting. It has a luxury of gifts that make it highly competitive, not only for our nation but as a global site for a Blue Economy business cluster. It’s right next door to the second largest coastline river in the nation. It has a relatively shallow, large coastal plain where many things can be done. It has direct access to the blue ocean and is one of the best launching points to the Gulf Stream. It’s a straight line to Bermuda for open sea trials and testing of devices. It also has an excellent regional university and a well-respected community college for workforce training. And it has the state’s port, which is a vehicle for employment. 

In addition, Wilmington is only one hour airtime from DC, giving the community proximal access to large amounts of federal money.

The Blue Economy is tagged as one of the top three spending priorities of all government agencies. 

Because of proximity, you can fly down program managers and congresspeople, give them a product demonstration on Friday and have them home before dinner. That’s a real competitive advantage. There are only seven Blue Economy hubs in the US today and only five in Europe. Wilmington has all the characteristics to join this prestigious club, though that’s not an aspiration for Wilmington’s leadership at the moment. However, if the coalition of the willing all come together, the money is there and the environment to deploy that money productively is there, and the market and audience are growing.

Deb: If you stand in a place of 15 to 25 years from now, what does that future state look like for Wilmington? Especially if the coalition of the willing come together to bring a Blue Economy identity? What does that look like from your perspective?

Glenn: From a pure business point of view, Wilmington has become a center of excellence in Blue Technology innovation. It’s like a Blue Silicon Valley. That’s very rare in the world, and there’s a premium associated with it, like a diversified tax base that allows Wilmington to invest in the parks, sidewalks, bicycle trails, and other cool stuff we all want. We’ve got to figure out a way to pay for all that and establish Wilmington as the Blue Silicon Valley. By accomplishing this transition, Wilmington increases its professional workforce of computer programmers, data analysis, and robotic experts, and gains some of the highest wages in the country. The technical skills in BlueTech are comparable or equal to those in other high-tech companies or industries. 

Not insignificantly, The Blue Economy also gives Wilmington a sense of identity around something meaningful. For decades, the most defining characteristic of Wilmington is the water. We’re known (if we’re known), it’s as “a pretty cool little beach town.” In North Carolina, people basically say it’s a lazy beach town at the end of the road. Becoming a Blue Economy brings purpose and direction to the area and gives us identity on the map and a local and national identity.

Deb: One of the challenges you just clearly stated is the risk leaders feel when trying to let go of past behaviors or perspectives of things that have worked in the past and grabbing onto something that’s new. What are some of the other challenges Wilmington faces if it wants the Blue Economy to be its future?

Glenn: The biggest challenge is determining who Wilmington wants to be when it grows up? Addressing this issue opens up a lot of doors. People take notice and they are interested in the prospects. They want to be engaged. They want to invest. If you have a strategy that whether knowingly or not isolates you from the mainstream of change, you’re going to get that outcome. You will be isolated. If Wilmington is satisfied with being an isolated community, okay. If you’re thinking that your children want access to a future in Wilmington, that’s more three-dimensional. Wilmington will need to make small sacrifices at a steady pace that gradually leads up to big outcomes. Answering the question, “who is Wilmington” and “who is it going to be”—and then identifying what the coalition of the willing is going to do to make it happen is the key and immediate challenge.

Initially, everybody hates change. No matter what changes are suggested, there will be fussing and fighting. But the community has to address the question of who is Wilmington for the future. Once that’s done, community leadership has an ability to speak out with ideas about how to make that future happen. More people will say, “let’s take a look at this” or “I’m investing in that.” More people will engage and think Wilmington is a cool town. If we give in to hesitancy to change, Wilmington will become a ghost town.

Deb: You talked about the workforce and the potential for this very high-tech workforce, does that exist right now in Wilmington?

Glenn: Wilmington lacks economic diversity and suffers from a large income inequality gap. Many of those moving to the greater Wilmington area get a house on the beach or the river. Most come to use the house as a vacation home but they’re not disconnected from the social and business networks in their primary city of residence. They’re gradually migrating into the community but there’s been a lot of feedback and frustration that they don’t invest in the Wilmington community. They come, enjoy, and leave. There’s some money spent on things like retail, but no investment in things that would create well-paying jobs. 

Families that have a history in the area want real jobs that allow their children to be able to stay in the area and raise their own families. There needs to be a means of drawing in more professional and trade jobs to begin to close the economic gap. The schools in the area, such as UNCW and Cape Fear Community College, do a good job trying to address the future needs of the community but there’s no updraft magnet for existing workforce programs. That is why having more of the right kinds of businesses such as advanced manufacturing, advanced science and research, and advanced professional service around a particular thing could help keep professionals in the area. In Wilmington’s case, it is the ocean. It’s a natural fit to close the gap.

Deb: Based on your experience as a banker and being in politics, what do you see are the three to five most important things the Wilmington community and leadership should focus on right now? How would you sequence these actions to put Wilmington on the path to the future we previously discussed?

Glenn: The first is the agreement that they want a future. The power players with influence have to agree that they want a future that builds diversity and balance into it. They want things that are compatible with the existing identity as a “lazy beach town at the end of the road.” On the green side, there have to be people who say Wilmington needs a business model to sustain environmentalism and grow the economy. 

The second thing is that, with respect to a lot of the things we talk about in terms of the Blue Economy, Wilmington is a first responder in terms of providing an economic diversity opportunity. We need to want that right mix and fit with the balance point. 

The third thing is giving people the benefit of the doubt. When nobody trusts each other, nothing happens. People snipe at each other and a lot of money gets spent on stupid stuff. We’re not going to let that happen. win. Instead, we need to make sure the community captures all the opportunities that come to visit. It’s a cultural and political come to Jesus on all three points.

There are a lot of cities that have gone through the argument of figuring out how to cut the pie. They have gotten wrapped up in the micro-slivers and have negotiated to the Nth degree. This is the wrong focus. It should be a focus on, “we just need to find a way to grow a bigger pie.” Then, when somebody shows up with a really good deal, take it. Everybody will get over the concern about the relative share of whatever they’re concerned with, whether it be money, privilege, or righteousness. I’m saying this as a politician who’s been beaten to death on those types of issues. The key thing is, you must put your hand out first to allow the opportunity to build trust to mutual outcomes. You must give it a real shot and put your cynicism aside. It may be justified by the time you get through, but you have to give it a shot.

Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?

Glenn: That’s a dangerous question. I’m going to say that they stopped serving arrogance and stupidity at the same bar. It’s not that hard to talk to other people, even when you have dramatically different points of view. We’re living in a time where there are mega-level changes going on, environmentally, in the business environment, and politically. It’s really easy to get sucked up into somebody else’s fight. My greatest hope is that the coming generation will put ego behind them. Every major religion in the world says some variation on ‘do to others what you want others to do to you.’ It’s probably the most ignored and hardest to practice behavior.

One of the reasons I spent all the time in elected office focusing on the entire education spectrum, from pre-K through higher ed workforce is because nobody can ever take a good education away from you. They can take your money, your land, and even your life. But they cannot take away a good education. The more people that have a good education they can have purpose on their own accord. This can drive them to sign up with a cool idea like Blue Economy. 

Education is the great equalizer. There are people on the left and the right that both want to turn the education system into their boogeyman for one thing or another. There are plenty of justifiable reasons that they might feel that way. My dad would tell me that when you really look hard, there is only one thing that lifts people up. They can still make the wrong choices but this is freedom. If we’re all about liberty and freedoms, the best defense of democracy is education. I’m willing to go with it and think that’s okay.


Glenn reminds us that good leadership is not just about knowing and executing organizational processes. It’s about seeing around corners, asking good questions, challenging old knowledge, and being open to sharing ideas and vision. If we remember that leadership is about people working with people to solve problems, it becomes simpler to identify what can and can’t be done to solve hard problems. Leadership is also the fundamental ability to behave with humility and wisdom, to engage authentically, and to inspire others toward achieving a purpose they might never accomplish on their own. Leaders within Wilmington and the greater area have an opportunity to step up to this leadership behavior bringing purpose and vision to the area to create something special and resilient for the community, now and into the far future.

Wilmington has the opportunity to create a Blue Economy strategy and align efforts across all community stakeholders to create a center of excellence in innovation and sustainable growth. The Blue Economy can give Wilmington a sense of identity around something meaningful for the future. It can help create some rare and valuable while setting an example for other communities around the world to emulate. To do so,  Willington leaders need to listen and respond to concerns from stakeholders across the community on issues like climate change, clean water, responsible manufacturing, education, access to health, and livable wages. To begin this journey, a coalition of the willing need to inspire and equip a group of people to contribute knowledge, skills, energy, experiences, vulnerability, and drive to help accomplish extraordinary things.

Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.
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