"We need a water museum -- a place for and about water. Water is the issue of our time, and we're famous for it. Now we just have to do something about it."

In a quintessential American moment, that was my introduction to Joe McHugh while riding on a parade float on Independence Day. We were in the vicinity of Olympia, Wash., the namesake beer of which made the city famous when the original brew house opened a century ago.

Olympia Beer touted its competitive differentiator in the slogan, "It's the water."

The brewery is now closed, the result of corporate acquisition, although the beer's distinctive name mark is still emblazoned on the city's fire trucks.

McHugh, a community activist, artist and independent producer for public radio who lives with his family in Olympia, was right about water. A decade ago, Ismail Serageldin, the former vice president for Environmental Affairs at the World Bank, famously predicted that this century's wars will be fought over water, not oil.

Indeed, water shortages, and more importantly, shortages of good water, have already been a flashpoint in communities in the United States, Canada and Mexico -- not to mention nations as diverse and dispersed as Bolivia, Ghana, Israel and India.

McHugh was also right about water deserving a place, and what better place than Olympia?

The spring-fed water sources have outlived the legacy industry that made them famous. Yet there is no pre-eminent center for the celebration, study and advocacy of water -- its past, its impacts on our life and health, the technology that helps sustain and move it, and the domestic and international politics that will likely shape its future.

To use nomenclature that has become common in recent years, Olympia could be the Center for Water Security. It has the appeal of tying a community's unique attributes to an issue that will be instrumental in determining whether and how long communities everywhere will be sustainable.

Such centers of excellence are not new.

They have been a theme in the work of John Eger, architect and advocate of the Smart Communities movement, and Neil Peirce, chairman of the Citistates project, for more than a decade. Yet official government plans for economic vitality tend toward the generic -- as if to leave the door open to whatever opportunity comes along (auto factory, chip making plant, Google campus, or biotech startup).

Most state and local government strategic IT plans are worse -- often content to limit the discussion of economic development to a bullet point or two. They reflect the constraints of the current operating environment without much consideration of the changes in the society that government serves. There is scant discussion of the real things happening in the virtual world -- which is now, according to Wired, populated by 80 million MySpacers, 40 million bloggers and a million amateur encyclopedians who want into the public conversation about our shared future -- or the challenges and opportunities facing real places in the physical world.

At this year's Michigan's Mackinac Policy Conference, Peirce challenged delegates to think about the adjectives that best described their communities -- past, present and future. The implied question -- can the Motor City re-create itself as a center for transportation security? Detroit would have to compete with cities that have historic ties to rail, trucking, shipping and air travel -- and each would have to transcend their legacy commitments to any single mode. The same goes for any number of Texas cities if they can get beyond an oil-first or oil-only worldview en route to being a center for energy security.

Many heartland cities could stake a claim as a candidate to be a center for food security. Atlanta is positioned to be a leading center for pandemic security, as is Winnipeg, Canada, based on their respective expertise with disease control and detection.

And then there is the issue of aging in place -- or a center for secure aging. Tucson distinguished itself early among snowbird haunts by establishing the Arizona Center on Aging a quarter century ago. With 78 million baby boomers turning 60 this year, there is probably room for more than one center to bring science and technology to bear on our acute sense of denial about old age.

All that to say this: It is not really just about economic development at any cost. Our future depends on developing global locals who work at home, and can help lead the world on matters that matter.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer