PUBLISHED: 08 May 2017

Conversations around the Water Table with Project Blue Thumb (Part Two)

New water paradigms

By Amy Spark and Josée Méthot

This post is part two of a six-part interview series conducted and written by Project Blue Thumb. 

Project Blue Thumb is a multi-stakeholder social lab co-convened by the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and Alberta Ecotrust Foundation that takes a whole system approach to protecting water quality in the Red Deer River watershed. Building on the work of our current members, the PBT organizing team reached out to 13 multi-sector practitioners to hear their thoughts about the future of water in Alberta and potential directions. This post provides a snapshot from a few of our interviews relating to reimagining water and the paradigms that guide us. 

“Culture is like gravity: you do not experience it until you jump six feet into the air” – Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner

Conversations often veer off into unexpected and rewarding places. The latest round of Project Blue Thumb interviews found our team grappling with the fundamental patterns of thought that guide our water systems and management. These paradigms operate imperceptibly in the background of our day-to-day lives, guiding our thinking about how something should be done, made, or even thought about.

Here we present a few highlights from these interviews, with each person hinting or overtly calling for a type of paradigm shift. Dr. Nick Ashbolt is a municipal water researcher and professor at the University of Alberta School of Public Health. He is also working on an innovative Resource Recovery Centre northwest of Edmonton focusing on the next generation of community water services.

Shannon Frank is the Executive Director of the Oldman Watershed Council, currently working on a campaign to effectively engage recreationists in restoration projects in southern Alberta headwaters.


Nick Ashbolt

Project Blue Thumb: How will the Resource Recovery Centre be different from traditional wastewater treatment centres?

Nick: The Resource Recovery Centre will create and explore new paradigms instead of tweaking and refining the existing infrastructure. For example, we can’t continue to use gravity-fed sewer systems or rely on source water for our growing needs. There’s simply too many people for this type of infrastructure. This infrastructure was developed by the Romans; it doesn’t work for our big urban centres and the impact they have on our eco-services.

Project Blue Thumb: Can you expand on what you mean by ‘new paradigms’?

Nick: Our current paradigm still pollutes the environment, still exploits our source waters, and isn’t costed properly. A new paradigm could treat and extract energy from blackwater, and use the many forms of resulting greywater for various uses closer to its production. But we are so locked into our current paradigm due to our large sunken costs, centralized systems, and how we manage water.

Project Blue Thumb: What’s holding us back?

Nick: Not technology or money – it is policy, education systems, and governance structures. There is ‘disruptive’ technology available, but it should be socially driven. For example, it’s been shown that when wastewater treatment is embedded right into a community people are more responsible about what they flush down the toilet and their waste drains.

Nowadays, the buzz around ‘innovation’ is at an all-time high. Often we’re referring to technological or scientific innovation: the latest gadget, phone app, or medical breakthrough. Here Nick is calling for two types of innovation. Yes we need ‘disruptive technology’, but we also need changes to policy, education, and governance structures. This is social innovation. Can we imagine a future where wastewater treatment and stormwater reuse systems are embedded into our communities and publicly visible? How would this paradigm shift change our relationships with resources such as water, waste, and energy at the community scale?

There is another paradigm shift underway in southern Alberta. The Oldman Watershed Council decided to move away from educating the motorized recreationalist community toward engaging them through dialogue. They have taken one of the oldest innovations – language and the art of conversation – and re-embraced it. Here are a few thoughts from Shannon Frank on the process.

Shannon Frank

Project Blue Thumb: What do you see as the role of the Oldman Watershed Council?

Shannon: We try to spur people to action by supporting and encouraging them. It’s about mobilizing people. It’s really more about the social aspects and relationships and trust than anything else. An important role for Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs) is to always be scanning the context.  

Project Blue Thumb: What lessons have you learned from your engagement of the off-highway-vehicle user community?

Shannon: We are going out and talking to people where they are in a way that is more about dialogue and trust. We’re speaking with people in their comfort zone. It’s about knowing your audience, instead of making assumptions about them. We have to think about what they want, need, and feel. You can come up with the best [public engagement] process in the world, and at the end of the day you’ve made more progress having coffee with someone.

Project Blue Thumb: What advice would you give to other WPACs and water groups in the province?

Shannon: We need to give up the whole notion of events and workshops and expecting people to come to you. A lot of people can’t come to public engagement events. They’re not mobile, they don’t have bus fare, they can’t take a whole day off work, a lot of women can’t leave their children, etcetera. The information and input we get from stakeholders is extremely biased toward privileged individuals. That’s something we need to work on as WPACs. How do we practice what we preach in terms of reaching out to all our residents?


Shifting from an education mindset to a dialogue mindset is no easy task. It will require multi-stakeholder groups like WPACs and Project Blue Thumb to examine our assumptions about who is in the room and who holds power. Who is being heard within water conversations, and who isn’t? What can we do as a water community to remove barriers to participation? How can we practice dialogue, listening, and empathy in our interactions? As Shannon and Nick suggest, by embedding the social dimension into water planning and innovation, we’re one step closer to overcoming key barriers and toward new paradigms.

“Innovation isn’t always about creating new things. Innovation sometimes involves looking back at our old ways and bringing them forward to this new situation.” – Justice Murray Sinclair

Check out our next installment of Conservations around the Water Table to be published May 23 2017, as we dive deeper into the complexity of the social understandings of water. In the next article Dr. Vic Adamowicz, Brett Purdy, and Laura Lynes will discuss the many ways we can ‘value’ water. 

Curious about the project? See the Project Blue Thumb blog for information on our interview series, or join in the conversation on Twitter: @BlueThumbLab #ABwater.


National Association of Friendship Centres (2015). Indigenous Innovation Summit Report 2015. Ottawa. Available at: [Accessed 19/04/2017]

Trompenaars, F and Hampden-Turner, C. (1998). Riding the waves of culture: Understanding cultural diversity in global business, 2nd edn, McGraw Hill, New York