Often our best insights come from the act of conversation. We think as we talk, we talk as we think. Hopefully there’s some listening in there too. Through dialogue, we can build upon the insights of others, examine our assumptions, and deepen connections.

Dialogue is a big part of what Project Blue Thumb is all about. Structured as a social innovation Lab, we recognize that robust, sometimes tough, discussions fostered in safe spaces allow us to identify and navigate potential solutions that we may not have discovered on our own or through traditional methods. There is a special kind of magic that happens when you make space for reflection that can unleash people’s creativity.

With this in mind, we entered 2017 striving for new water conversations beyond the Lab space we worked in over the past two years and into the wider water community.

But why? A lot has changed since the Lab began. There have been political, environmental, technological, and economic changes. We’ve seen a few Lab members come and go, and are also in the process of shifting into a new Lab phase. We think it is time to update our perspective on the water community and water system in Alberta, and to engage a broader group of people. We invited several people outside of the Lab and active in the water sphere to share their thoughts.

Between February and April, the Project Blue Thumb Secretariat met with thirteen thought leaders across southern and central Alberta to ask some provocative questions about the future of Alberta’s water system. We reached out to those who are working directly or indirectly on water from various disciplines, knowing that water quality affects us all. These conversations will help inform the strategic action focus Lab participants are asking for. Thank you to those who shared their thoughts with us!

Hilary Young - Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation InitiativeLaura Lynes, The Rockies Institute

Stephen Legault & Hilary Young, Yellowstone to Yukon

Bill Snow, Stoney Tribal Administration

Dr. Nick Ashbolt, University of Alberta School of Public Health

Brett Purdy, Alberta Innovates

Kim Sturgess, Alberta WaterSMART Solutions Ltd.

Rachel de Vos, Alberta Urban Municipalities Association

Keith Ryder, Red Deer River Municipal Users Group

Shannon Frank, Oldman Watershed Council

Lisa Maria Fox, Sustainability Resources Ltd.

Dr. Mary-Ellen Tyler, University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design

Dr. Vic Adamowicz, University of Alberta Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences

Thank you to our dedicated Lab members, Larry Wright and Jean Bota, who participated and assisted in the interview process.  Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing insights from these interviews in a series of blog posts through the Alberta WaterPortal.

What have we learned through this process? That water issues in Alberta are viewed through various lenses – such as social justice, cultural identity, and value – among others. We’ve heard that water issues and First Nations rights are massively intertwined and poised to play a bigger role in the conversation.  We’ve learned that crisis, security, and resilience are top of mind for many Albertans. Also, that people value the work that Project Blue Thumb is doing, and we’ve still got a lot of important work ahead of us.

Insights from this interview series guided the development of six Action Pathways, designed to provide a strategic direction to our work without losing the magic of emergent spaces and ideas. The action pathways build off of work done within the lab space over the last two years. Our next step is to refine these action pathways with the core lab team again. What needs to be modified or changed?  What do we want to focus on first? Where do we see the greatest need for innovation? Where are the most strategic interventions? There is a lot of fuel here to energize our work.

Also, be sure to follow the interview series as we post every two weeks through the Alberta WaterPortal blog

Article 1: Water & Headwaters as Cultural Identity: Stephen Legault, Hilary Young, and Kim Sturgess on cultural identity.

Article 2: New Water Paradigms: Interviews with Dr. Nick Ashbolt and Shannon Frank. 

Article 3: Water Worth: Dr. Vic Adamowicz, Brett Purdy, and Laura Lynes on valuing water.

Article 4: Active Reconciliation: Bill Snow illuminates an Indigenous water context.

Article 5: Municipalities: Keith Ryder, Sofie Forsström, and Dr. Mary-Ellen Tyler on challenges for municipalities.

Article 6: Reflections on Water for Life: Lisa Maria Fox and Brett Purdy reflecting on Alberta’s Water for Life framework.

You can find us on Twitter @BlueThumbLab and join the conversation at #ABwater.

We like to think every year should build on the previous one. If Project Blue Thumb was born in 2015, then 2016 was the year our fledgling network really began to take flight. We’ve gathered some of our favourite numbers and stories from the year to share with you. Also, we recap how far we’ve come versus where we are going. Please take this opportunity to explore how we’ve been building a water movement and amplifying voices across the Red Deer River watershed as part of Project Blue Thumb.

Download the PBT 2016 Year in Review.

Since launching in early 2015, a diverse team of individuals from industry, government, and civil society have been participating in Project Blue Thumb – a social lab aimed at protecting water quality in the Red Deer River watershed. In this post, the Lab Secretariat presents three pivots in direction for Project Blue Thumb as we enter 2017 and Phase II of the lab.

“Water is life”.

These words were fixed in the headlines of major newspapers throughout 2016. It was a high-profile year for water: Standing Rock activism lifted water issues into broader public awareness, algae bloomed in some of Alberta’s best recreational lakes, whirling disease was found in the Bow River watershed, and oil spilled into the North Saskatchewan river. These headline grabbing events, among others, put water – and our human relationship to this vital resource – front and centre.

In central Alberta, a community of people are already working together to protect water. This growing group – Project Blue Thumb – came together to participate in a social lab aimed at maintaining and improving water quality in central Alberta. Since launching, we have learned more about our watershed, built new relationships, and tested ideas to protect the water. We have a lot to celebrate (our 2016 Year-in-Review report will be posted shortly) and even more to look forward to.

With 2017 now underway, we are granted the opportunity to think about goals for the year ahead. We hope 2017 will be a year of greater visibility and expanding impact for Project Blue Thumb.  As we begin Phase II of the lab, we highlight three key shifts in our work:

  1. Identifying key Action Pathways to move forward strategically

Over the past seven workshops, we talked a lot about the various drivers behind water quality issues and the key ‘leverage points’ around which we should organize our efforts. Participants asked for more focus, and the time has come to put pen to paper and put our collective vision into the world. These ‘action pathways’ will help us organize and coordinate the lab’s work moving forward, while outlining major needs in the watershed system to share with an expanding network.

We aren’t starting from scratch. Between the lab’s Theory of Change and all the discussions to date, the Lab Secretariat is busy pulling together a working draft. We will then invite feedback through lab networks. We believe articulating these pathways will help the lab in terms of focus, collective impact, and our ability to connect with key organizations and partners in Alberta. More information on our action pathways coming soon!

  1. Moving the focus on ‘prototypes’ to an ‘action toolbox’

The lab isn’t just a think tank, it is also a ‘do tank’ premised on the need for systemic and collaborative approaches to complex water issues. Since launching, we have been identifying bite-sized pieces of an issue around which we can experiment through prototyping.  We have learned the invaluable skill of letting bad ideas go and how to ‘kill our darlings’.  With our action pathways in place however, Project Blue Thumb will focus less on prototypes and more on tools for building lasting, systemic change to water quality and watershed management. We foresee new projects and initiatives linked specifically to the various action pathways.

  1. Expanding circles of engagement

The lab up to this point has placed a heavy emphasis on the internal building of our lab team. Together, we’ve built our shared knowledge, our networks, our skills, and tested key ideas through prototyping. Now we are ready to ask the question: What else is needed? Or rather, who else? In 2017, we will be encouraging lab team members to step up as convenors and catalysts in their own networks. Additionally, we will be looking to expand the circle of participation.  Currently we have the Lab members and Lab Secretariat; we will begin to expand this group to include new lab team members, guest speakers, content advisors, etc.  Please contact Josée Méthot at josee.methot@rdrwa.ca if you would like to get involved.

 

On a beautiful fall prairie morning on September 20, 2016, approximately 30 people gathered near the Alberta-Saskatchewan provincial border to discuss our shared waters, upstream and downstream dynamics, and how we might work together across borders. The initial idea for this event came from a Project Blue Thumb participant, Dr. Graham Strickert, from the University of Saskatchewan who said: “Hey! Why don’t we connect people from upstream and downstream more often?”

Rivers know no borders. As they flow across a landscape, so too do they flow through our lives, tracing a story of natural and human history, and ignoring political lines. These rivers act as connectors, linking remote landscapes with communities far downstream – a thread among us.

In Alberta, three mighty rivers – the Red Deer, Bow, and Oldman rivers – flow across the landscape from west to east, eventually joining to form the South Saskatchewan River. The Bow and Oldman Rivers meet first, and the Red Deer River joins later, a few miles inside Saskatchewan. All three rivers are fed from the Rocky Mountains, and their waters travel across provinces en route to Lake Winnipeg, and ultimately to Hudson’s Bay.

rdr_south_sask

From origin to outlet, these rivers roam across a huge portion of Canada’s interior landscapes. Yet somehow, despite the obvious hydrologic thread that connects us as Canadians, we forget to reach out to people living upstream and downstream of us. With this in mind, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA) and partners decided it was high time to connect with more of our neighbours downstream. We decided to host an event – a tea party! – and invited guests from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan Rivers.

A morning in Empress, AB

On a beautiful prairie fall morning we met in the Village of Empress in eastern Alberta – only 500 meters from the provincial border. We were a diverse group, including people from Alberta and Saskatchewan watershed groups, municipal and provincial governments, the University of Saskatchewan, municipal water management groups, First Nations, and local residents. Two participants – Gary and Karen Carriere – drove over 9 hours from Cumberland House in eastern Saskatchewan to join in.

With participants sitting in a circle, the day began with opening remarks from facilitator Josée Méthot, who spoke about the need to work together across boundaries. She described how the RDRWA’s work with the “social lab” Project Blue Thumb  sparked the idea for the gathering, because lab participant Dr. Graham Strickert with the University of Saskatchewan stressed the need to work more with partners in Saskatchewan. As hosts for the day, Jeff Hanger (RDRWA) and Lis Mack (Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin) went next, welcoming people and acknowledging our presence on Treaty 6 lands. Lis reiterated how “rivers know no boundaries, but we work within boundaries”.  Our task for the day was therefore to help transcend these boundaries, to connect “upstreamers” with “downstreamers”.

Dr. Graham Stickert, a professor with the University of Saskatchewan later presented research showing that governance is the #1 water concern in Saskatchewan, followed by concerns related to water quality and quantity, land use change, drought and climate change. According to Dr. Strickert, “we need to connect people at the grassroots level,” in order to make meaningful strides on these linked issues.

In a passionate speech, Gary Carriere of the Saskatchewan River Delta Stewardship Committee told us about the Saskatchewan River Delta downstream, the largest inland freshwater delta in North America. Gary lamented declines in the populations of birds, fish, and other wildlife in the delta, owing to low water flows and insufficient sediment loads. Gary attributed these changes to man-made alterations of river flow: “Today we have it in our heart to respect the land, but we have interfered with the natural flow by putting structures along the rivers”. He remarked emotionally “Listen to the animals, where has the muskrat gone? I can see what happens with the animals there. God has given us dominion over the land and we are not doing it right”. Gary’s story highlighted how, within the span of a few decades, cumulative changes to the landscape were impacting the traditional way of life of First Nations, people living in the area for thousands of years.

The room was quiet, grappling with the importance of Gary’s words. Eventually a participant spoke up, “We can do better”.

The group later worked on an interactive exercise that asked upstream (Alberta) and downstream (Saskatchewan) participants to draw the watershed system in their area, highlighting concerns, key players, natural and human infrastructure, and more. Participants flexed their artistic skills, and later compared their drawings to reveal similarities and differences upstream and downstream.

Tea at the confluence

Following a brief lunch, it was time to go on a real adventure. Packed into several vehicles, our carpool convoy drove 30 minutes to the Estuary Ferry crossing, passing increasingly magnificent prairie countryside along the way. After a quick ferry ride, we were on our way to see firsthand the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan rivers, about 3 miles from the border as the crow flies.

Conditions were near perfect as we arrived at the banks of the river, a mix of blue skies, golden grasses, and a warm wind. Eager to take in the majestic scenery, the group went for a walk through the native grasses, and hiked up to a lookout point to view “our” Red Deer River join up with “their” side of the South Saskatchewan River.

confluence

Meanwhile, trip organizers Josée and Graham were down at the river’s edge, filtering river water into a large stainless steel pot. It was time for a tea ceremony.

We held the tea ceremony to symbolize our connections with the river and with one another, regardless of any political boundaries. Water was taken from the river, filtered, boiled, and steeped with Saskatoon tea. A small team of engineers helped boil the water using camping stoves, realizing part-way through that we needed smaller pots to make the water boil faster. We had to laugh at the delay; this tea ceremony was a feat of engineering!

making_tea

On top of a small hill, the group gathered in a circle as the tea was poured into beautiful porcelain teacups. Gary gave a blessing in Cree, and with the confluence as our backdrop, we drank in true outdoorsy style.

We closed the day with a sharing circle. Everyone shared their opinion of the day, what they learned, and what they would carry forward with them. Etched in the minds of participants were memories of the two rivers, Gary’s stories of the delta, new relationships, new knowledge, and new ideas. A municipal politician promised that her future decisions would always consider impacts to local and downstream waters. It was a powerful way to end the day.

Overall, our day at the confluence gave us new vigour to work on what really matters to make this a healthy, dynamic, and sustainable watershed. Jeff Hanger, brimming with enthusiasm, suggested we meet up again in a few years, to see how our actions have changed the system. All agreed! We packed the porcelain tea set back in the cardboard boxes and reluctantly headed home.

We had fallen in love with the prairies and our rivers all over again.

 

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The RDRWA would like to thank our event co-hosts, Lis Mack (Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin) and Dr. Graham Strickert (University of Saskatchewan), as well as RDRWA volunteers Tjarda and Rob Barratt for helping make this event possible. We also thank the Town of Oyen, Special Areas, the University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability, and the Global Institute for Water Security for help with event funding. Thanks to Jean Bota for lending the tea cups. Finally, a special thank-you to our gracious and hospitable hosts in the Village of Empress, including Bev Farnden and Dan who cooked our delicious lunch.

 

 

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.

Over the past 14 months, a diverse (and growing) team of individuals from across sectors has been gathering regularly to design, test, and implement solutions to water challenges in Central Alberta through Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues. In this post, Josée Méthot, the RDRWA’s Watershed Planning Manager, provides an update on the 5th lab workshop held this past May.

Project Blue Thumb is about connecting people who care about water and helping them to make a meaningful difference in the watershed. Since launching in spring 2015, the lab has brought together over 30 committed individuals from government, industry, the non-profit sector, and the public to explore solutions to shared water quality challenges.

From May 17 and 19th, lab team members met for the 5th time over 2.5 days for a “special edition” lab meeting that saw them embark on Learning Journeys in the Red Deer area, Edmonton, Calgary and Siksika First Nation.

Learning Journeys are about seeing the big picture, about engaging with “unusual suspects” to learn more about the world within which we operate. They help us to identify new possibilities and ways of thinking, and can expose some of our blind spots. While the Project Blue Thumb team is focused on finding ways to improve water quality in the Red Deer River watershed, there is much to learn from leaders in other organizations – their successes, failures, novel approaches to the work, key lessons learned, etc.

We set up 12 Learning Journeys across Alberta, each one hosted by an individual or organization doing inspirational and impactful work. Four teams of lab participants were then sent to one of four locations.

Learning Journey Host Organizations:

Red Deer Calgary Siksika First Nation & Calgary Edmonton

· Farm On Foundation

· Agri-Trend

· Central Alberta Poverty Reduction Alliance

·  AdFarm

·  Loose Moose Theatre Company

·  Calgary Regional Partnership

·  Siksika Source Water Protection Plan Committee

· Beakerhead

· Winsport

· Alberta Co-Lab

· Situ Strategy

·  Navigator

 

We met with Olympic coaches to learn about how to create high-performing teams (hint: find a training rhythm) and with a leading advertising firm to learn about how to make messaging that sticks (free beer helps). We talked about the future of technology in farming (precision agriculture), and also about how to engage young farmers (online please). We met with leading science communicators, land use planners, political strategists, and systems thinkers – all of whom helped spark new ideas for our work in watershed management.

Personally, I was pleased to learn about how Siksika First Nation is leading the way on source water protection planning. Extending a warm welcome, their Source Water Protection Planning committee highlighted how important it is to bring different people – treatment plant operators, land managers, health workers, etc. – together when dealing with water issues and to prioritize and sequence key management actions.

I’m also told that several of our more courageous lab members tried improv comedy at Loose Moose Theatre – home of members of the Kids in the Hall. Results were mixed and wonderfully awkward. It seems our newest lab team members – from ATCO Electric, Access Prosperity, the Town of Olds, Legacy Land Trust, and Alberta Agriculture & Forestry – were introduced head first into the lab through these learning journeys. Their voices are a great addition to the team.

The meeting also included other activities to advance the lab’s work. The Farm On Foundation team joined us to facilitate an exercise about how to reach an audience through targeted messaging. This was an eye opener for many of us as we began to see where our messaging tends to fall short. Hopefully some of the lessons learned from this session will influence future communications.

All of this exploration made the lab team hungry for some action. The final day of the meeting was spent continuing to work on “prototype” initiatives aimed at maintaining and improving water quality. Some teams worked on existing prototypes (and showed some amazing progress), while others formed new teams to work on new ideas. From policy, to technology in industry, to water literacy, and beyond: the lab team is busy cooking up many interesting prototypes. Importantly, we finally formed a communications team to better share the lab’s work. We now have a website (www.projectbluethumb.com), a Twitter account (@BlueThumbLab; #ProjectBlueThumb), and will be releasing regular blogs in the future. Stay tuned for a photo book from the Learning Journeys and updates about the specific lab prototypes.

All in all, we are very thankful for the people who took the time to meet with the Project Blue Thumb team. We asked some hard (and sometimes personal) questions and everyone was so open to helping the lab team. It is often said but bears repeating in this context: water is a great unifier. We are already looking forward to the next lab meeting in Fall 2016.

 

 

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.”

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.”

Social

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.”

Innovation

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.”

Lab

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.”

“Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes—one for peace and one for science.” —President John F. Kennedy, 1962

Over fifty years after Kennedy made these comments, his words ring louder than ever. Globally, 1.2 billion people live in water-scarce regions, while water demand is expected to increase from current levels by 55% by 2050. Unchecked, water will indeed be a defining 21st-century peace and science challenge.

To promote the good use and proper management of water at a local level, a Social Lab project facilitated by Reos Partners in central Alberta, Canada, is piloting a new approach to watershed management.

Managing Local Water Resources

In Canada, home to one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, plentiful and clean water is seen as a birthright. However, here as elsewhere, water is under pressure due to population growth, agricultural and industrial use, and climate change. While meeting water protection objectives without compromising other human needs remains a challenge, one emergent response in Canada is integrated watershed management—a process for managing human activities and natural resources within a particular watershed.

The usual path for integrated watershed management has been for a Watershed Planning and Advisory Council to create a plan that helps communities identify issues, recommend broad-based solutions, and take coordinated action. However, too often, otherwise laudable efforts flounder in the assumption that plans will automatically lead to effective action.

Faced with this hurdle, and inspired by the potential of Social Labs to advance work on complex issues, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA) and the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation partnered in Fall 2014 to launch Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues, with a focus on central Alberta, Canada.

With strategy, design, and facilitation support from Reos Partners, the Social Lab brings together a diverse group of stakeholders to tackle surface water and groundwater quality issues in the Red Deer River watershed. Pat Letizia, Executive Director of Alberta Ecotrust, describes the rationale for adopting a Social Labs approach: “To us, a Lab is an opportunity to rethink the basics of how we collaborate in watershed management circles. The Lab structure gives us a way to design solutions, test them, iterate as we learn, and actively implement them.”

Bringing Watershed Management to Life

The Red Deer River watershed is home to 300,000 people and covers an area of 49,000 square kilometers, making it bigger than Denmark. A recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature ranked threats to the health of the watershed as “very high”; only one other watershed in Canada was assessed with such a high level.

The RDRWA is one of 11 Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils in Alberta, each responsible for producing an Integrated Watershed Management Plan (IWMP) for its respective watershed. Plan implementation relies on the commitment, action, and goodwill of a wide range of key stakeholders.

In addition to creating a plan, the RDRWA decided to bring watershed management to life by engaging in a Social Lab. Project Blue Thumb joins together 25 key stakeholders with the know-how, passion, and tools required to make progress. This hybrid approach to watershed management seeks to leverage the benefits of a focused plan, complemented by a strong network of relationships, deep inquiry, and adaptive implementation. As one Lab member said, “I now see the watershed through multiple lenses, and I have started to take action rather than waiting for someone else to do it.”

Taking an Experimental Approach

After three meetings, Project Blue Thumb Lab team members are now taking an experimental approach to their work on five initiatives, each of which addresses key leverage points for change in the watershed system. Two are directly related to IWMP recommendations; another two will contribute to creating an enabling environment for collaboration and innovation; and the final one focuses on identifying issues to be addressed in the next phase of the IWMP.

The Lab team also identified a learning agenda to advance understanding and accelerate innovation on key challenges. According to a Lab team member, “The topics being addressed by all of the teams have the potential to make progress in a way that might not have been possible if the Lab wasn’t formed.”

Identifying Pathways to Progress

When it comes to global water issues, the challenges are so many and so complex that it’s easy to feel that the proverbial glass is half empty. That said, the Social Lab approach in Red Deer demonstrates novel ways of opening and deepening the conversation about how to manage this precious resource. As they identify and test pathways to progress, Lab participants also experience the watershed itself in new and exciting ways. Viewed in this light, by flowing new ideas and approaches to the problems of water management, the Red Deer approach may be more than just a drop in the bucket.

Coming soon: a follow-up blog post about the process, outcomes, and learnings so far from the Project Blue Thumb Social Lab.