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Project Blue Thumb: a social lab to accelerate water quality solutions

Reos Partners
January, 2016

Explore Project Blue Thumb, a social lab to enhance the ecological and social resilience of watersheds and accelerate progress on a range of water quality issues in the Red Deer River watershed.


Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues is a social lab that seeks to accelerate progress on a range of water quality issues in the Red Deer River watershed in central Alberta, Canada. This portfolio of work focuses on communities, the natural environment, agriculture, and industry, all of which face challenges associated with water quality degradation.

In the province of Alberta, there are 11 Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils, each tasked with crafting an Integrated Watershed Management Plan for its respective watershed. But changing social, economic, and environmental conditions limit the ability of planning-based management approaches to deliver desired outcomes. To counter these challenges in the Red Deer River watershed, Project Blue Thumb brings together people with the know-how, passion, commitment, and tools to transform the watershed’s health. This hybrid approach to watershed management seeks to make the most of both a focused plan, supported by strong relationships, and an ongoing, adaptive implementation process.

The Project Blue Thumb initiative is also testing the hypothesis that social labs offer an effective way to advance watershed management, and in doing so, enhance the social and ecological resilience of watersheds. It is an opportunity to make an impact on real-world challenges associated with watershed management and also to demonstrate how a social labs approach could be applied to long-term watershed management.


Project Blue Thumb is co-convened by the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation and the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance. The lab team is comprised of a diverse range of stakeholders from municipal and provincial government, the non-profit sector, academia, forestry, and agriculture. The lab team met as a whole three times in 2015, while also convening in smaller groups to advance their prototype initiatives. The team will continue to meet throughout 2016.

The Challenges

A recent report by the World Wildlife Foundation rated current water quality in the Red Deer River watershed as “good” yet also ranked future threats to the watershed as “very high.” The Red Deer River watershed is one of only two watersheds across Canada that the WWF assessed at such a high level of risk. Despite a strong history of stewardship within the watershed, as population grows and development increases in the region, even maintaining existing surface water and groundwater quality will be a challenge.

Moreover, watershed management is socially complex, with a range of individuals, groups, and institutions all having different and competing water needs. Environmental management in Alberta focuses largely on planning, with myriad plans produced yet spotty implementation. The goal is to respond to needs collaboratively and effectively to get solutions off of the shelf, into communities, and onto the landscape.


Prototype Initiatives
  • Project Blue Thumb lab team members are taking an experimental approach and working on a portfolio of prototypes that address several leverage points for change in the watershed system. For example, two prototypes directly respond to recommendations in the first phase of the Integrated Watershed Management Plan (IWMP), while another two contribute to creating an enabling environment for collaboration and innovation.
  • At each lab team meeting, new focus areas and projects emerge, all serving to deepen the group’s knowledge of the system.
Knowledge of the System
  • In their book “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work”, Harvard-based researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey argue that, “just being able to see the system makes us less captive to it.” After only three meetings, Project Blue Thumb lab team members indicated that their understanding of the watershed system and factors influencing its health had significantly increased. On an 11-point scale, understanding increased from an average of 6.7 to 8.0. As one lab member said, “My knowledge of the issues in the watershed has changed. What I thought were issues are not the issues at all.”
Relationships and Teams
  • Over the first nine months, lab team members indicated that the breadth and depth of their professional networks have improved. This change is a result of lab team members getting to know each another and of the involvement of key resource people within and beyond the Red Deer River watershed. Experience shows that an improvement in both the quantity of people in networks and the quality of those relationships sets a strong foundation for breakthrough results. One lab team member reported, “Participating in this process is expanding my horizons and making me want to be more of a leader than an observer.”


“I think all of the prototype teams are significant and are working towards something that might not have been completed if this group wasn't formed.”

“I have started to take action rather than wait for someone to do it for me.”

“I now see the watershed through multiple lenses rather than just an engineer.”

"There is a renewed sense of vitality among people working to improve watershed health. Before Project Blue Thumb, many of the meetings I attended were low energy. Project Blue Thumb has sparked a sense that more is possible, that through collaboration we might actually be able to improve watershed health."

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