Over the last 13 months, 25 stakeholders representing industry, government and civil society have been participating in Project Blue Thumb – a social innovation lab aimed at maintaining and improving water quality in the Red Deer River Watershed. In this series of posts, team members Milana Simikian and Graham Strickert provide insight into their experience with the lab over the last year. 

As a shared resource, water is undeniably important. Managing water resources on a large scale is a task no individual or group can accomplish in isolation.

Water quality is a collective issue that requires a collective solution.

Project Blue Thumb connects individuals from Alberta and beyond to find creative solutions for watershed management. It is a social innovation lab – a new approach to address a problem through deliberate collaboration. More than a “think tank,” Project Blue Thumb is a “do tank.”


The lab team is made of researchers, government representatives, community members, water-quality professionals, industry members, policy analysts and more. Through intensive sessions, participants actively develop and test solutions to water quality issues.

Milana Simikian is a policy analyst for Ducks Unlimited Canada and is a participant of Project Blue Thumb.

“It is really the people, an important part of the social lab, who make it happen,” she says, adding her involvement with Project Blue Thumb has created a bridge between her networks through Ducks Unlimited Canada and other participants.

Through regular sessions every few months, Project Blue Thumb nurtures relationships and builds trust between the participants. Simikian says frequent sessions help “create networks, collective knowledge and build trust and relationships.”

This approach not only promotes new ideas, but also challenges old assumptions.

“You can’t get that in just one meeting.”


Project Blue Thumb is a new way of tackling water quality issues in Alberta.

“It’s a different approach to collaboration that emphasizes rapid and iterative innovation,” says Dr. Graham Strickert, research associate at the University of Saskatchewan.

Instead of just identifying problems, social innovation labs test potential solutions through small projects.  “The world is moving too fast and is too complex for strategic planning to have much value,” says Strickert.

“Action planning is far more valuable.”

Strickert says the social innovation lab approach should be applied to watersheds beyond the Red Deer River, including in his own in Saskatoon.

“I think the social lab approach is an effective way to solve problems rather than just highlight what the problems are. As scientists, we are really good at that. But we are not good at solving problems.”


A laboratory tries new ideas in controlled ways.

“If you can imagine a chemistry lab, you do some experiments in that lab and you use different elements and compounds to run these experiments,” says Simikian.

“A social lab is the same idea as a chemistry lab, except instead of elements you have people. And instead of chemical experiments, you have prototype projects.”

Project Blue Thumb connects individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. It encourages new ideas and a deliberate analysis of old ideas, an approach that Simikian explains as “fresh.”

“I think it is a great initiative,” she says.

“It definitely has a lot of potential.”

Jeff Wiehler

Jeff Wiehler is a communications professional from Calgary, Alta. He has a strong academic background in environmental chemistry and journalism.

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