Written by Dona Geagea, Global Lead, Water Innovation Labs

Waterlution has been running Water Innovation Labs (known in our community as WILs) since 2010. What started as a “let’s try this one time” by Waterlution founders, Karen Kun and Tatiana Glad, became one of the core programs of Waterlution over the past 5 years.

WIL Scotland 2015

My own role with Waterlution started when I led the local Hub in Toronto in 2011, yet once I discovered the WIL model, I was interested in exploring ways to bring the value this program offers. Once WILs went global, Karen and I worked together to transition my role so that I could dedicate my time to their development and growth.

Waterlution’s Water Innovation Labs are front-running, immersive leadership development experiences, designed to accelerate collaborative innovation, fast-track global knowledge sharing, and devise new innovations that improve water security for the planet and support emerging leaders (20-35 years old) to implement SDG targets connected to water in their organizations and projects.

WILs may appear to participants as 7-10 day training learning journeys, yet there is so much prep the team puts in ahead of time and after the training to support the teams and individuals. The most critical part of any WIL, is the relationship-building, and as so many of us know, this critical step takes time.

How do we make Water Innovation Labs happen around the world?

I am asked this question often, along with “Where do you start?”, “How do you choose the location?”, “How do you choose your partners?”, and “How do you secure the funding?”

Teotihuacan, Mexico

The truth is, global expansion is no easy feat. For a small (but powerful) core team that holds the model and vision of our WILs together—Karen Kun, President, Dawn Fleming, WIL Brasil Lead; myself, Global Lead for WILs; and many others that make WILs happen including WIL Ambassadors—with our global strategy still in its early phases it is a huge learning curve, and at times equally a challenge as it is an opportunity. There is much learning we can share from our journey to make WILs possible in more than 7 countries globally (and counting!)

Water Innovation Lab Mexicoa case in point!

If you are curious about the journey towards making a WIL happen, join me on my prep trip for WIL Mexico, where I will share with you my recent experience in organizing one of many WILs for 2019.

This is the 10th global Water Innovation Lab that Waterlution is hosting, and the first WIL in Mexico. Mexico, having a strong relationship with Canada and a multitude of geographies and opportunities for water innovation, has been on our radar for some years as an important Latin American location. Moreover, it is the first Spanish-speaking candidate as a location for a WIL. In addition, we have already trained 6 young Mexican water leaders who have joined us in countries like Scotland, the Netherlands, India, and Canada. Given Mexico’s increasing water challenges and Mexico City’s status as a sinking megacity, there was a strong interest among our Mexican participants who experienced our model for a WIL to take place in Mexico. They saw the value in building an ecosystem of innovation and collaboration among young leaders committed to solving some of Mexico’s most pressing water challenges.

Sense_camp 2018: festival de innovación socioambiental, with one of of WIL Mexico’s partners, MakeSense in Mexico City.

This initiated a call with those in our network who had links in Mexico. Jeremy Tormos, upon spending a year in Mexico working on his water business after WIL Scotland (and then joining us again in WIL India), offered the first critical connection with MakeSense Mexico—the incubator that hosted him. Our values align perfectly with MakeSense and their support of water projects, and they became our first local partner in Mexico.

Since Spring 2018, we began exploration work in Mexico to identify other partners. MakeSense offered introductions, as did the Canadian Embassy in Mexico, and its Consulate in Monterrey. Through these relationships, particularly the Canadian Consulate in Monterrey, many doors were opened to meet with companies whose innovation and research headquarters, and production factories were based in Monterrey. Upon these early conversations, our local champions were identified. This is such a critical step – the champions are important! Each new location we choose involves a lot of research and discussion on how things work. The political environment, policy strategies, Canadian and global companies involved, as well as educational institutions all must be understood as otherwise one can be trying to push a boulder up a very steep hill.  Success happens when our WIL programming fulfills a strategic direction or need identified by governments, industry and academia.  While we bring a lot of experience now, it is critical we are knowledgeable about the local needs, players, competition, and are pitching with all these components in mind.

Meeting Gabriela Dominguez, Trade Commissioner at the Consulate General of Canada in Monterrey, and Dr. Oscar Vasquez Montiel, Centro del Agua at the Tec de Monterrey University.

It was our good fortune that Gabriela Dominguez, Trade Commissioner of Cleantech at the Consulate General of Canada in Monterrey, and Dr. Oscar Vasquez, Director of NED at the Centro de Agua at University of Tecnologico de Monterrey, were keen to see WIL happen, and particularly in Monterrey. (Go champions!)

Within our team we know that no WIL is possible without showing up in person to pitch, build trust and alliances, fundraise and plan. Once WIL Canada in September 2018 was complete, we knew my next stop would be Mexico to build all of these relationships. We had been told that in Mexico, nothing happens unless you show up and we believe this to be true everywhere in the world. The personal touch, the face-to-face, the details are important!

Visit and presentation on research at CIMAV (Centro de Investigación en Materiales Avanzados, S.C) at the Parque de Innovación in Monterrey, Mexico.

Meetings were set up and voila! Here I am, almost 3 months in Mexico, navigating huge amounts of information, partnerships, and using my experience, and many conversations with Karen, to decide what to focus on, how to build an entire learning experience around timely themes, and then how to package that all together with partners and for the local context.

And of course, navigating all of this in Spanish and building a program in Spanish adds many new dimensions. Many water issues exist in communities or areas with less infrastructure, and often, those seeking solutions can be economically or resource-challenged. To engage with communities where the need is greatest, working in the local language is critical. As with many locations we have been to, delivering a program in English appeals to some (often the educated and elite) yet alienates others (those who come from areas where water challenges are most critical). I couldn’t do this work if I did not speak multiple languages and I am grateful that I get to practice my Spanish (scary at times when meeting with partners, yet overcoming fears is part of my own journey). WIL Mexico will be mostly in Spanish, yet some training elements will be English. Intermediate Spanish is needed to apply.

It wasn’t an easy task to start in a Megacity during a political transition

My first challenge was activating interest in Mexico City (known as CDMX) with the right partners. I learned for instance, that Mexico City—being a megacity—is so desirable for projects, that it tends to play “hard to get,” and particularly at a time when political change (an election and an incoming new president) had frozen all commitment to any funding. What drew us to CDMX initially started to shift as our networks grew more in Monterrey, and we understood better the water landscape and the key players in other parts of Mexico.

Shifting to Monterrey

Monterrey is in Northeast Mexico, and the capital of the state of Nuevo León. It is the third largest city in Mexico with over four million residents. Nuevo León is known for its extreme dry climate, and there is very little rainfall throughout the year. The territory covers 64,220 square kilometres (24,800 sq mi), and can be divided into three regions: a hot, dry region in the North, a temperate region in the mountains, and a semi-arid region in the South. The Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range affects in an important way the lay of the land forming the Galeana and Doctor Arroyo plateaus that we will visit. As for hydrography, the San Juan River supplies the El Cuchillo dam, which provides water for Monterrey and the metropolitan area. There are also the Cerro Prieto, La Boca, Vaquerías, Nogalitos, and Agualeguas dams to note. Key challenges to this region include climate change impacts in light of a growing urban population, the increasing water needs and waste discharge of industry, as well as providing water access to rural communities.

Prep trip visit with our partner, Servicios de Agua y Drenaje Monterrey to rural communities near Dr Arroyo, in South Nuevo León, Mexico.

Monterrey is a water cleantech hub, as many industries and factories run their production out of this city. We secured our first successful partnership with Heineken. Soon after joined our Lead Innovation Partner SADM (Servicio de Agua y Drenaje de Monterrey), one of the most important water utilities in Mexico, and then FEMSA. 

The result of several meetings with SADM led to co-planning a prep trip to visit 4 rural communities in the South of the state that could become part of our field tours. This partnership also offered clarity on the themes of focus for this WIL: rural communities, urban demand and industrial impact. With this piece, I transitioned in a day’s time from meetings with suits, to boots in the field, in the Mexican Altiplano (desert). Covered in dust, I spoke to locals about water challenges in the community, introducing our program and asking if they would be open to receiving us when we return with our group of young water experts who will help understand their needs better, and try to devise solutions to their water challenges. And most importantly, if any young people from their community could be interested in applying and being part of the entire program—another key piece to our global WIL expansion is developing skills where the need is greatest.

A prep trip is so key, as no effective field visit with our large group could be possible without early stage relationship building, engagement, and community permission to collaborate.

Next were the venues. We always seek a venue close to nature and away from urban centres, to inspire the connection through closer proximity to that which we are working on and the network development between the participants. The sustainability and health of our environment and natural resources is what we are working towards, and being in the heart of nature becomes a beautiful reminder of this. Nature reflection walks, activities outdoor, hikes, bonfires, and working in open spaces, are all key ingredients for the magic that happens at WILs. The venue we seek needs to meet various parameters, and from a facilitator’s perspective, I know exactly what I am looking for.

A WIL is a balance between process and content, and many in the water space (governments included) align “water innovation” with water cleantech. While some of our focus at WILs has much alignment with water tech, it also includes social innovation, policy, community and overarching leadership development and capacity building on long-term transferable skills.

Mexican Altiplano, visiting rural communities in South of Nuevo León, Mexico.

As soon as we communicate this to our potential partners, the feedback we receive is that they have also identified the need for leadership and capacity building within their organizations and the sector at large, and that often there is this unbelievable moment of surprise we exist as an organization. What many water tech clusters are seeing, is that in order to develop the sector, ensure application of what is being developed and that long-term decisions are being made, it truly comes down to having multi-faceted skilled talent who can navigate the sector and address the needs. This is exactly why we do what we do, as we identified leadership development a long time ago in a growing water sector. By building capacity around collaboration, communication, multidisciplinarity and application of technologies and policies, we are truly adding long-term value to the sector that will assist it to lead in the years and decades ahead.

There is no argument around the fact that water challenges are growing the world over, they are complex, and often rooted in policy and people. This is why we aim to develop more partnerships, deeper holistic learning, diverse our participant base and seek richer outcomes.

Dona working on WIL Mexico from a cafe overlooking the Palacio de Belles Artes, Mexico City.

This journey had a series of highs and lows, success and failing forward, and here we are! WIL Mexico is on! 7 days in Monterrey and region, 70 participants and resource guests, 5 facilitators (most are past WIL participants) and the chance to explore water challenges and innovations within the state of Nuevo León with the first few days spent visiting innovation and research centres at the Parque de Innovación (PIIT), and traveling south for a day of learning with and from rural communities in southern Nuevo León located near Dr Arroyo. The remaining 5 days will be spent in a beautiful venue in the heart of nature in Cola de Caballo, Santiago.

As we plan WIL Mexico 2019, we are already looking ahead to how WIL Mexico 2020 will unfold. Each Water Innovation Lab has a common framework that is based on Waterlution’s core skills and culture, however, each WIL differs too in that the local context and partners help shape the direction. One massively inspiring piece that we have observed in each and every location is that young people in water are passionate and brilliant when given the right opportunities to learn, collaborate, experiment, and build community. There’s much knowledge being shared and innovative new ideas coming forward to co-create a strong, more resilient water future.

I hope you’re inspired to learn more about WIL Mexico and apply today! See you in Mexico!

Pacific Ocean on the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Interested in joining WIL Mexico? Sign up here: https://waterlution.org/water-innovation-labs/wil-mexico/