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.

Just as water doesn’t linger in the same watershed for long, the benefits of Project Blue Thumb extend far beyond the Red Deer River.

Project Blue Thumb connects professionals from across Alberta and beyond to develop new strategies for watershed management, using the Red Deer River watershed as the laboratory.

Through new approaches for engagement, innovative ideas to improve water quality, and strengthened relationships between academics, local and provincial government staff, and business and community members, Project Blue Thumb is tackling a complex and shared problem.

Improved connections

Ideas and prototypes pitched at Project Blue Thumb are encouraged to directly relate to the participants’ daytime jobs. This not only justifies the value to lab sessions, but it also creates meaningful opportunities to practice what is learned.

Milana Simikian works for Ducks Unlimited Canada as a policy analyst, where she connects with municipalities and engages with community members with issues around wetland conservation.

“Currently, many municipal governments lack the scope and tools they need to effectively conserve wetlands and improve water quality,” says Simikian.

One initiative within Project Blue Thumb that Simikian is involved with is Project AWESOME (a watershed environmental system of municipal excellence). By building tools to support municipalities sort through the complexities of wetland and watershed management, Project AWESOME directly connects with Simikian’s work at Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Simikian’s networks through Ducks Unlimited Canada have been increasingly more valuable for Project AWESOME, and the connections she has made through Project Blue Thumb are useful for her day-to-day job.

“I am glad to help various stakeholder groups connect and collaborate on common issues and similar projects.”

Graham Strickert, a researcher from the University of Saskatchewan, says the biggest value from Project Blue Thumb has been the connections with professionals from a variety of watersheds.

“We are seeing the benefits of the interactions between this very diverse group of people,” he says.

“The biggest benefit that has come out of it so far is connecting people who were not connected before. Those benefits are tangible.”

Improved watershed problem solving

Project Blue Thumb focuses on surface and groundwater quality within the Red Deer River watershed, and the lab team is learning lessons and strategies that can be applied to watersheds around the country.

“The process to identify systematically what people’s concerns are, to come up with a range of solutions to address those concerns, and then to test those solutions against a number of criteria is excellent,” says Strickert.

“I am completely the converted that believing that this process is valuable.”

Since watersheds cross geographical and jurisdictional boundaries, water quality issues are not isolated. Solutions, too, need to cross boundaries.

“It would be great to see it happening in all the watersheds,” says Strickert.

“The big challenge with watershed planning is it is just that – watershed planning is hard and implementing watershed plans is even harder.”

Improved engagement

Participants of Project Blue Thumb are encouraged to contribute. The sessions are deliberately facilitated by Reos Partners to bring out new ideas while reviewing old assumptions.

“It has a very deliberate facilitation approach that is unlike any other group facilitation that I have ever seen,” says Simikian, who has attended every Project Blue Thumb session so far.

“It forces you to think differently, which is not something you would encounter in a regular facilitated stakeholder engagement meeting.”

With her work at Ducks Unlimited Canada, Simikian has attended numerous stakeholder meetings around the province. Through Project Blue Thumb, she has learned different facilitation techniques that can be applied at engagement sessions related to her day-to-day work.

“Ever since the social lab, I became more acute to old thinking patterns that make people jump to the same old conclusions and assumptions in problem solving,” she says.

“If social lab thinking and facilitation processes were applied elsewhere, we would be able to come up with much better solutions and much better working relationships.”

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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