In this post, Josée Méthot, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance’s (RDRWA) Planning Manager, reflects on her month-long residency at the Banff Centre where she explored social innovation in the water sector. 

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

– Leonard Cohen

Working in watershed management can sometimes feel like being a hamster on a wheel, running faster and faster, but not necessarily getting anywhere. Everyday we are confronted with big and important issues that people care about deeply: floods, droughts, invasive species, controversial development patterns, and more. It can be overwhelming, and yet we keep going because we are fueled by a sense of hope and progress, that together we can make a positive difference – even a dent – in the systems that interact to produce these challenges.

Over the past 18 months, one of the reasons I wake up excited to go to work in the morning is Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues – a “social innovation lab” looking at water issues in Central Alberta. In essence, we are running an experiment to help us figure out just how we might get off the spinning hamster wheel to make a real difference for our water systems and our communities.  The lab has been a time and place where we – a group of around 30 people from different walks of life – get to ask big questions like “What are the root causes behind water quality challenges?” and “How can we better work together?”

Since launching, lab participants have been through many ups and downs, detours, small wins and breakthrough moments. We have been so inspired by all the people who have helped steward Alberta’s water resources historically, and by those actively working to address today’s issues and build a brighter future. We have learned a lot and made important progress, but we are also left with some lingering questions: What’s next? What will it really take to leave a positive water legacy for future generations? How can we do better?

To help answer these questions, I was recently fortunate enough to be able to retreat to the Banff Centre for a month for a residency in social innovation. From June 12th to July 9th, I was chosen to join 27 other peers from across Canada working to make positive changes in complex systems. Taken together, the cohort is working on some of the messiest challenges in the country: from water, to reconciliation, to economic diversification, and more.

[If “social innovation” is a new term for you, check out this quick video…]

The program – “Getting to Maybe: A Social Innovation Residency” is a 28-day intensive in the world of social innovation (aka. how to make change at the level of a system). Led by Dr. Frances Westley (Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience) and Dr. Julian Norris (Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary), we spent our time digging into ideas of systems thinking, complexity, resilience, and creativity.  The experience was full and I was in awe of the expertise and creativity of the faculty members and my new friends.

The time away helped me to unpack some of the assumptions behind Project Blue Thumb and to strategize about what else we might do to improve watershed management outcomes. It’s clear to me that we need to reach out to more people and learn directly from the range of experiences –government, industry, First Nations, scientists, and more. We need to take the time to really interact with the landscape – after all, nature is one of our best teachers.  We also need to think long term – how can we ensure that the lab is funded sustainably and supported by the right structures and relationships? I am also leaving with a new set of tools and exercises to use with groups as we grapple with the complexity of this work.

All in all, I came away from this residency with new understandings, new relationships, and a rejuvenated sense of purpose. I am really looking forward to putting some of the ideas into practice. To get started, I will be meeting with RDRWA staff to work through some key concepts and exercises and then with members of Project Blue Thumb.

Josée Methot

Josée is one part environmental scientist, one part process designer, and one part strategist. Her passion lies in approaching complex problems in the water-food-energy nexus from more than one angle. Josée is currently working as a watershed planner while also leading a social innovation lab to advance collaborative efforts to improve water quality in Central Alberta. She has an MSc. in Natural Resource Sciences from McGill University, and has worked on issues including climate change, food security, and place-making in local and international contexts. After moving back to Alberta in 2014, Josée is now focused on accelerating social innovation in the water sector to support long-term watershed health.

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