Launching Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues


“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” - Albert Einstein

In early 2015, the World Economic Forum’s annual risk report ranked water crises as the top global risk, as noted by over 800 leaders in politics, business, and organizations around the world. According to these world leaders, declines in water quality and quantity are the biggest threat, in terms of impact, to our global communities in the next decade.

So how does this fare for those of us living in central Alberta, or more specifically, in the Red Deer River watershed? The Red Deer River watershed is home to around 300,000 people across an area of over 49,000 km2 - an area bigger than Denmark. Across this diverse landscape we need clean water for people, for nature, for agriculture, and for industry. But it isn’t so clean anymore, and some trends point to increasing issues with contamination of nutrients, pathogens, pesticides, and sediment. While we don’t face the level of water quality degradation seen in some developing countries, we do know that as population grows and development increases in this watershed, even maintaining existing surface water and groundwater quality will be challenge.

So how do we maintain or improve water quality in the Red Deer River watershed? Enter Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues, a social innovation lab launched to accelerate solutions around a range of water quality issues.

Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues is a social innovation lab convened in partnership by the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA) and Alberta Ecotrust. It is part of the RDRWA’s efforts to bring watershed management efforts “to life”, by complementing and enhancing ongoing work to develop an Integrated Watershed Management Plan. The lab was launched based on the premise that overcoming complex and shared societal challenges requires approaches that are participatory, systemic, and creative. The lab brings together a diverse group of stakeholders from municipal and provincial government, the non-profit sector, academia, forestry, and agriculture to build relationships and prototype solutions to a range of water quality issues.

A two-day launch workshop marked the official kick-off of Project Blue Thumb in April. Over the course of two jam-packed days, 24 lab team members came together to unpack the issues driving water quality concerns, build relationships, and actively design solutions to improve water quality in the Red Deer River watershed.

Day One began with a declaration that team members were in a “PowerPoint free zone” - a clear signal that this was not a traditional workshop. Instead, two facilitators from Reos Partners, a team of worldclass facilitators and pioneers of the social labs process, expertly guided the lab team through a range of activities designed to help team members better understand the system of watershed management while uncovering opportunities for innovation and collaboration.

The two days were a lively and colourful scene. There were sticky notes on the walls and on the floors, Lego models built using “serious Lego play”, and a mountain of objects used to represent different views of watershed management (e.g., puzzles, a toolbox, and some bright blue jello). All of these objects were visual reminders that collaboration can be both fun and fruitful. The lab team was able to rally around the shared interest of improving water quality, challenge assumptions, develop a “learning agenda”, and come out the other side to identify solutions. Moving forward in 2015, the lab team will continue to design and test some of the more promising water quality solutions (or “prototypes”), including five prototypes identified during the launch.

The lab team left the workshop brimming with enthusiasm and eager to get to work on their prototype initiatives. Of course, with any fledgling initiative, only time will tell if it will really start flying. For now, we rest assured that Project Blue Thumb is off to a great start. Over the coming months, the Project Blue Thumb lab team will continue to work together and, in doing so, catalyze innovation and action around water quality issues in central Alberta.

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Please contact Josée Méthot, the RDRWA’s Watershed Planning Coordinator, with any questions at 403-340-7379.


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