Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: James Winebrake of UNC Wilmington

Since July 2020, James Winebrake has served as Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). He came to the role after spending 18 years at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he was a Professor and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. James is a passionate, curious, interdisciplinary academic who integrates science, technology, humanities, public policy, environmental issues, and social sciences to inform policy and strategy. That powerful mix of interests fueled his technical degree in physics, his master’s degree in technology and policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his doctoral degree in energy management and policy at the University of Pennsylvania. With this broad-reaching perspective, James works with a view and mindset that considers the process of balancing technology development with humanity’s needs and values.

In this Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, James and I discuss the need for interdisciplinary participation. We consider how to integrate a wide spectrum of stakeholders to ensure Wilmington’s Blue Economy initiatives are balanced for today and for future needs.


Deb: What is your definition of the Blue Economy?

James: The Blue Economy is about the sustainable use of the ocean’s resources to support economic activity that provides meaningful and fulfilling employment opportunities for our community and that conserves the ocean’s resources for future generations. I use the term “economic activity” as opposed to economic growth because economic activity is an important part of the quality of life. Economic growth doesn’t always lead to improved quality of life. If we can think about the Blue Economy in a broader sense as activities that provide fulfilling experiences for people and communities, we can find a more sustainable path forward than otherwise. The Blue Economy is inherently interdisciplinary, so problem-solving that brings science, technology, and humanistic thinking together in meaningful ways will be critical for sustainability.

Deb: How could the Blue Economy be important for a community such as Wilmington to adopt?

James: Wilmington is a coastal community. As such, we have access to a variety of amazing resources ranging from the Atlantic Ocean to coastal marshes. Developing the Blue Economy in Wilmington needs to add to our community’s quality of life. But we need to develop the Blue Economy in ways that are sustainable, healthy, and green. This requires us to ask how we make decisions responsibly and sustainably, and with stakeholder and community input. The Blue Economy is about bringing people together and collaborating on these issues.

Deb: You talked about the future state and the choices that are made today to put Wilmington on a path to a positive future. Who are the stakeholders that need to be brought together to collaborate?

James: It’s important that we work as a community to do the coalition-building necessary to build trust among all the many stakeholders that are part of the Blue Economy. These stakeholders include industry, academic institutions, local, state and federal government, environmental and other NGOs, and all those who have a stake in the quality of life of this coastal community. Bringing these stakeholders together and doing coalition-building requires leadership and trust. These issues require difficult conversations about how we manage resources as a coastal community. 

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an important article in Science called The Tragedy of the Commons in which he talked about the common resources that we share as a society. He postulated that, without collective governance, the exploitation of “the commons” is inevitable. This is still true today. We need to consider how we are building coalitions and how we are moving towards collective governance of the “coastal commons.” How do we build a large stakeholder foundation? Then how do we engage in conversations about what a sustainable community looks like? What does access to the Blue Economy look like? How do we ensure future generations have access to the ocean’s resources? This is a major challenge. We need to try to keep ahead of where the markets may want to take us immediately and think intentionally and patiently about how we work as a community to manage the ocean resource. 

I believe that universities and academic institutions have a huge part to play in answering these questions. We’re stakeholders for a lot of different reasons. We can provide research expertise and educational opportunities that other types of institutions can’t provide. For these reasons, I believe universities have a really important role to play in the future direction of the Blue Economy.

Deb: Do you believe there is a coalition of the willing in Wilmington?

James: I think so. In conversations that are happening around this community, we have good representation from stakeholder groups across industry, government, environmental NGOs, and academic sectors, including higher education and K-12. We also have the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) helping to stand up formal structures where stakeholders can come together and talk about the Blue Economy activities. Those types of conversations must continue and must be nurtured. More people must be brought in and the work has to be open and transparent.

Deb: There are people in the community who are being left behind from an economic and opportunity perspective. How might the concept of Blue Economy help with positive social impact and help to be a tide that raises all boats across the community?

James: The economic activity that will emerge from the Blue Economy has the potential to create fulfilling and rewarding careers for all people across our community. These careers extend across sectors as varied as aquaculture, transportation, tourism and recreation, biotechnology, and education. All members of our community need to have equal opportunity to engage in the Blue Economy, and the real importance of bringing stakeholders together is to ensure those voices that we don’t always hear can be heard. We need to include all voices in the planning and the thinking about how our local Blue Economy evolves over time.

Deb: What are your hopes for the UNCW CIE All Blue initiative?

James:  The Alliance for a Blue Economy — or All Blue — is a formal approach to bring together stakeholders to discuss future possibilities for the Blue Economy. All Blue is really exciting because it’s doing what I think is critical for creating a sustainable Blue Economy: bringing people together to discuss important issues and to plan a future that doesn’t leave certain groups behind. History provides many lessons on how not to manage natural resources. All Blue brings people together for the conversations that need to take place for the development of collaborative solutions related to the Blue Economy.

The other thing that’s really exciting about All Blue is that it’s an opportunity to think about how technology interacts with policy, economics, human behavior, and our social systems. All Blue provides a really valuable platform where organizations can bring their diverse perspectives to explore new opportunities and solutions to coastal problems.

Deb: You have spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh. In the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t an environmentally sustainable area. Today, the city has moved past its dirty industrial past to become a hub for areas such as high technology and healthcare. With that perspective, when you think about Wilmington in the future, what might be the pivot point to a sustainable future?

James: I have spent time in places like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Boston. These cities have evolved what I call “signature sectors” that evolved over time — as well as strong higher education institutions supporting those sectors.  For Wilmington, I think the Blue Economy will evolve in combination with our other strengths in financial technology, pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceuticals, healthcare, and clinical research. Hopefully, these areas leverage and support each other. For example, faculty at UNCW conduct research related to drug discovery from algae and other aquatic vegetation. The work brings the pharmaceutical sector together with our coastal area to create Blue Economy opportunities in biopharmaceuticals. It’s going to be exciting to see how different areas merge and evolve over time. UNCW is positioning itself to ensure that there’s a pipeline of skills and expertise to support the new sectors that may emerge in the Blue Economy.

For example, as the state’s coastal university, UNCW recently established the nation’s first coastal engineering program. Students can earn a bachelor’s of science degree in coastal engineering. We have engineering students and faculty who are engaged in trying to understand a myriad of problems related to coastal resilience and adaptation.  We also have a world-renowned Center for Marine Science here at UNCW with over 80 faculty engaged in marine-related research. These faculty have hundreds of students working with them. Their work will produce new discoveries and research that shows how coastal communities can develop in responsible, sustainable ways. In fact, we’re standing up an intelligent systems engineering degree next year, which will also have a strong connection with the Blue Economy.

Deb: What are your warnings for the future?

James: We need to be careful that we don’t allow unfettered and unsustainable exploitation of our coastal resources. We need to ensure appropriate regulations keep pace with technological advancement and the development of private interests in the Blue Economy. Once we cross a tipping point in some of these delicate coastal ecosystems, it is very difficult to recover. So, stakeholders from all sectors of the economy need to be engaged and part of the discussions of how to manage these important commons. 

Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?

James: I hope we can evolve the Blue Economy in a sustainable fashion. To paraphrase from the United Nations’ definition of sustainability, the Blue Economy needs to meet the needs of today’s generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. My hope is that we figure out a way to evolve the Blue Economy, especially for Southeast North Carolina, in a way that “provides and protects.” It’s going to take work. It’s going to take leadership. It’s going to take collaboration. And it’s going to take trust among stakeholders. There’s a lot of work to do, but I think we’re on a good path.


James reminds us success is defined by the accomplishment of an aim. As the stated definition of the Blue Economy shifts and matures, Wilmington will need to change its decision-making processes and priorities. Instead of solely making decisions for what’s best for a few, they must also address what is best for the many groups represented in its community, the environment, and the future. If decisions made today have negative impacts on the future of Wilmington, we’re not going to have a sustainable future. Leaders may not get rewarded directly for the decisions they make for the future, but no short-term gain is going to be worth what is lost long term. We must rebalance our decisions for today and decisions for tomorrow. Doing so will need interdisciplinary participation.

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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