Written By Laura Palumbo, Writer, Producer and Communications Specialist.

Happy World Water Day and welcome to the finale of this three-part interview series with Founder and President, Karen Kun. With tons of memories to celebrate over the past 15 years of growing her organization, Karen discusses the many ways that Waterlution continues to build off of their experience toward innovation in the water space. Missed Interview One or Two? Click the link to catch up!


LP: Thinking of the future now, what are you looking forward to the most?

KK: Over the last few years, we have created a “youth pipeline” to ensure that Waterlution is offering all stages of children and youth an access point into our programs or community experiences. We realized a few years ago that we had gaps, or were offering programs with too broad of an age range and this was not optimal for everyone’s learning experience. I’m excited that we now have an approach that we think can engage larger audiences to learn, innovate and celebrate water.


Tuugaalik High School Learning About Water Changes from a Local Elder in Naujaat, Nunavut.


We are super impressed with our Youth Advisory Board (YAB), which we started in 2016 with the launch of our school-based programming: the Great Waters Challenge. It will adapt in the years ahead, yet having a committed group of young leaders, targeted towards undergraduate students mostly, and seeing them shine and learn over the year has been particularly rewarding. We do our utmost to see that they are receiving specialized Waterlution training and support while also providing them with a platform and organizational backbone to test and launch some of their passions and ideas on water. And of course, every time one of the YAB or Olivia Allen (our marvelous Youth Lead) share photos from a school workshop, it truly makes my day.


Our first children’s book (there will be more) was co-authored by four of the 2017-18 YAB.


Coming in 2018, we have a beautiful new project, again led by a new ‘still to be recruited’ YAB called the Great Canoe Journey. This will be a huge learning experience and a humbling one too. It is centred around traditional canoes, and all the teaching that is offered through indigenous canoes as a connector and cultural guide to Canada’s First People. Various canoes will travel across Canada and Indigenous canoe builders will host these workshops for youth.


“Waterlution was always set up to inspire people to want to be involved. It’s a balancing act of looking at hard issues, and ways to celebrate our water resources and get out and experience them.”


Exploring Streams with Sullivan Heights Secondary Students. Surrey, BC.


I am also excited about the potential for Greatness – The Great Lakes Project – 2017 was an exceptional year with the launch of Great Art for Great Lakes. We worked very hard on the strategy for Greatness over the last many months and we can now look for the right long-term partners and bring the strategy to life in 2018.  This project has reinforced what a privilege it is to call the Great Lakes home.


And one of my biggest priorities looking forward is seeing the full realization the global Water Innovation Lab (WIL) vision and strategy. WIL started in Canada in 2010 and we soon recognized how powerful it is to bring young leaders together into a global network of collaborators and problem solvers. WILs have had many iterations, adaptations and I think we finally are at the right point for the model to truly take off. Our team in Brasil, led by my long-time friend Dawn Fleming, is really setting the stage for the potential of the WIL model and platform. And nothing in the WIL world works without Dona Geagea, she has been critical to our global success to date and is just revving up to where we can take things.


WIL Nederlands (From L to R) Gaspard Durieux, Karen Kun, Dona Geagea. Karen brought Gaspard water sensors from Serpe Lab at University of Alberta, from the project developed out of WIL India (a long journey!)


LP: How do you find joy in your cause 15 years later?

KK: Waterlution was always set up to inspire people to want to be involved. It’s a balancing act of looking at hard issues and ways to celebrate our water resources and get out and experience them.


For years I didn’t know Great Art for Great Lakes (GAGL) was part of my life trajectory, but water stories and people’s connection to water is the heart of how Waterlution started. My time living in rural Costa Rica in 2000, where sharing stories and the relationship to water is so organic, is where I drew my initial inspiration for “a Waterlution style organization” that I wanted to start. Stories are at the base of artistic expression, and GAGL has been a dream come true. I learned so much from working with Project Lead, Chris McLeod, who is a practicing artist himself. We want much of this to grow and expand, both in Canada and globally.


Sometimes, we see potential partners’ eyebrows pop up with some confusion when we introduce any of our programs that have an artistic feature (which is almost all of them) and the words “art installation” or “working with artists” gets shared. It is a stretch at time for some water engineers or scientists to see the practicality of our work when art is in the mix. Yet most of the time we can win them over as we share, this is how innovation happens, actually innovation cannot happen without creative freedom and enabling diverse forms of creativity, and art is the most power way to reflect ourselves and our relationship with water back to us, to inspire a larger audience to have important dialogues on water.


And within the WIL universe, there has never been one that isn’t inspiring or exciting for me. Seeing people open up, them not know one another on day one and be partnering on new methods, projects, businesses, research just days later—all of that unfolding hour by hour before your eyes; well, I never get tired of that experience and seeing it happen for others. Part of the facilitation design is creating a platform for people to be creative and share stories. I find joy in all of this, and using creativity to find new ways to innovate in the water space.


Water friends and collaborators. WIL India, January 2017.


“The value of your network, how you communicate, how you ask important questions, is key to success.”


Walking To Opening Night. WIL India Mumbai, January 2017.

LP: The Water Innovation Labs (WILs) are designed to bolster young leaders—what kinds of advice do you wish to share with young readers?

KK: The value of your network, how you communicate, how you ask important questions, is key to success. And I noted it in a previous blog, you have to be bold. Water issues are only growing and we need to inspire hundreds of thousands of young people to build their water knowledge (from social to scientific to technical) and to be active contributors to solving the vast water challenges that exist and that are coming in the not too distant future. It is much less lonely dealing with such a daunting task when you have a massive global network of peers and mentors—we hope that WIL can be a significant provider of that support network.


I also encourage young people to think first about their interests in water. There is a huge range of opportunities that they can study, volunteer with, and gain experience from, as they build their water literacy and exposure to a variety of sectors. Often there are the social scientist water people and there are technical water people (there are more “types” that this) yet having been at this for a long time, this is a good observational gauge.



Commit to learning a lot where you are most inclined and inspired. Then, as you start to get a grasp of the complexities of the water world, then challenge yourself to look at another side of the issue. A very big learning from the 2017 WILs was that many participants committing to learning more about another aspect of water resources. (Many surveys saying, “I will be a better toxicology scientist if I understand more the human side of the matter,” and water policy people saying how much more they will gain and build into their careers by adding some more technical education to their repertoire).


Learning about water, on the water, WIL Nederlands.


I think it is valuable during one’s late teens and early twenties to start learning about your risk tolerance as that will help guide your career direction. And do your research to explore a variety of paths. The world is changing and moving very fast and so we must be able to exist and excel in this environment. Try to imagine that in only 5 years time, many jobs will exist that do not exist today, so you have to be very nimble to envision a career lifespan. There will be many more entrepreneurs, yet make sure you know what that means. (I have had a few bright young people tell me, “I want to be an entrepreneur, yet I don’t like selling.”) I have advised they may wish to rethink their entrepreneurial dreams.


WIL India, Mumbai Field Tour. (From L to R) Karen Kun with Guvinder Mundi and Vrushti Mawani.


And we also need incredible policy minds as they will craft most of our water futures. The list goes on, yet this is an example of so many ways to craft a career that fits each person, meets what the market needs and is about solving the worlds most pressing water challenges.


And last, yet oh so important, ask yourself: “how can I help other people succeed?” And knowing that when other people succeed, it rarely means you won’t succeed too. Asking ourselves how to elevate other people and their ideas is really where innovation occurs and the culture we bring into our WILs and all Waterlution programs. Every time I am asked what I wish to tell young people, I write it down, and I actually think 2018 might be the start of a book project on this topic.


Start of WIL Porto with Dona Geagea and Dawn Fleming.


LP: As you lead up to WIL Canada, what are key questions you’re asking now? What are questions that others should be asking themselves now?

KK: Here are some questions I am asking myself and others regularly in the last few months:


Am I at a stage of life where I could take more risks? Can my career and lifestyle aspirations co-exist? If not, what is my priority? Who can solve the world’s water challenges? (Hint: young people who explore what I share above and more). What countries are in greatest need? What countries will lead the way? Of course, I want WIL Canada to showcase Canadian water innovation and leadership yet I am also aware that Canada has room for improvement and bringing a global audience to Canada will increase Canadian capacity. What are the largest water security challenges facing us at both regional and global scales? Who do I want to work with to tackle these problems? If I was ever to go into business with someone, do I know who that business partner would be? Am I pushing myself to the edge of my comfort zone regularly enough?


“We hope our Canada-wide school programs directly engage 3000 children and youth each year, and create a virtual network of thousands across Canada at the early stages of caring for water and supporting them through online tools.”


Kortright Water Assembly. Guelph, Ontario.

LP: What do you hope to achieve by the numbers in five years?

KK: We plan to have 500 young people a year attend WILs—so over 5 years, 2500 young leaders trained, supported, and networked globally. We plan to have 40 new collaborative innovation projects emerge from WILs each year, and provide as much seed funding as we can get to take these projects to the next level.


We hope our Canada-wide school programs directly engage 3000 children and youth each year, and create a virtual network of thousands across Canada at the early stages of caring for water and supporting them through online tools. We would love to expand the school program globally wherever possible.


And across the Great Lakes, engaging 20,000 citizens in a variety of programs. Our reach with Greatness will be much, much bigger once we develop the basin-wide marketing campaign.


With Waterlutionary #1 Donya Danesh… Who also became host of WIL Nederlands Webisodes.


LP: As a leader, how do you harness today’s uncertainty to create a better tomorrow?

By bringing more people together, by seeking diverse and thought provoking viewpoints, creating the best possible spaces for dialogue, and the best supportive networks for as many people as possible to shine, by placing water at the centre of our purpose and inviting those who want to be part of a sustainable water future into the same tent. Be open to others, have fun together, try and do it outdoors as much as possible, sing, dance, play, it makes the hard stuff a bit lighter and gives each person more power to press on.


Opening Night at Impact Hub Pineros. WIL Brasil, November 2017.