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.”

“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.