by Megan Cornall, Water Innovation Labs Coordinator and Amanda Wong, Media and Communications Coordinator

Water Innovation Labs At the Core

Water Innovation Labs (WIL) are one of the main pillars of Waterlution’s work. For years we have been hosting WILs to provide immersive leadership training designed to accelerate collaborative innovation, fast-track knowledge-sharing and devise new innovations that improve water security. These programs have always been in-person multi day events hosted in various locations around the world. So far WILs have been hosted in Canada, Brasil, Lebanon, Netherlands, Portugal, Australia, Mexico, India, and Scotland. It was time for a new step – to design a Water Innovation Lab that brought people from these countries together in one place. WIL Global 2020 began with a vision to bring young water leaders from around the world together to share global knowledge on water

The planning began like any other WIL, by outlining workshops, reaching out to resource guests, developing field tours, building schedules, and creating networking events. We identified two themes that would be relevant to all global participants: the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, and Coastal Community Resiliency. This year was going to be hosted in Vancouver, British Columbia from September 25 to October 2nd, 2020. British Columbia was an ideal learning ground as it already has started to experience the challenges of adapting to climate change as a coastal province in Canada. While unique, the challenges of drought, flooding, and the Water-Energy Food Nexus are common from all over the world and participants with similar shared experiences could learn from each other. 

Facilitation, Programs, Collaboration 

WIL programs are unique in design as they implement facilitation styles that promote open communication amongst participants. The programs provide ample  opportunity for discussions, collaboration, and bonding in traditional (workshop in class like environment) and non traditional spaces (by a lake, around a fire, on a walk). Why does Waterlution focus on immersive strategies and open paths of communication?  Immersive strategies allow people to talk in unconventional ways which creates a space for creativity and learning. In addition, these tools create a space of community, friendliness, and fun while addressing serious and complex topics. WILs are also created so participants can build bridges between each other permitting them to build lifelong relationships which they can take into their careers. One could imagine the Waterlution Team was very excited to facilitate this Innovation Lab! 


As experienced by many around the world, the trajectory for WIL Global became uncertain as government guidelines were ever changing as the pandemic progressed. It soon became clear that a global, in-person gathering would be unlikely.What came next was the deliberation – how would Waterlution rework a 5 day intensive in-person program in a world where travelling had come to a complete standstill? How would we foster the network and community building that is at the heart of Water Innovation Labs? Would it be possible to do this all virtually?

WIL Global 2020 was a challenge. It was challenging to let go of the original program we had spent months planning, and challenging to lean into a new one full of uncertainty.

Megan Cornall, Water Innovation’s Lab Coordinator

A Resilient Community 

Despite being slightly disappointed due to changes in the plans which would inevitably cause the cancellation of some amazing field tours and in-person events, the WIL team was excited to tackle this new challenge. To create a similar learning environment while also meeting the project targets for the year, reworking the timeline was essential. The Waterlution team quickly became aware that in a world of virtual learning and working, excessive screen time was not ideal and would detract from the program experience. With this in mind, the program was fully adapted onto a virtual space where 2 hour sessions covering the Water-Energy-Food Nexus and Coastal Community Resilience would be conducted on a weekly basis over 5 months. This format would allow participants time to step away from the screen, reflect on their learnings, while also leaving space for them to connect on other social platforms. The virtual format of WIL Global allowed participants and resource guests the flexibility and convenience of attending workshops that wouldn’t take too much time away from their job and school. 

Many aspects of the original WIL Global plan were not lost. Several BC field tours were transitioned online to Virtual Field Tours, which was produced by Karey Billyard and guided by Program Coordinator, Megan Cornall. Resource guests would lead discussions through presentations over video conference, and small group discussions were conducted in breakout rooms. The extended timeline also allowed WIL participants more time to create teams who worked together in creating scenario plans or innovation projects.

Bringing energy to an online space

Establishing an encouraging, warm, and enthusiastic energy on an online platform can be slightly complicated, but not impossible to overcome. Warm up activities allowed each session to start on a welcoming note, where staff and members participated in open discussions and check-ins. Breakout rooms soon became a group favourite for WIL members as more in depth and honest discussions could occur in more intimate sized groups. Resource Guests shared fresh perspectives and joined the participants in activities and discussions. And most importantly, the dedication and participation of WIL global participants were amazing – they brought enthusiasm and positive energy to each session, maintaining the momentum of the program. 

Establishing flow on an online platform

The program structure was also modified to follow a rhythm that would be able to endure several months. While systems thinking (Theory U) has been covered in several past WILs, this year due to a longer timeline, the program was able to delve into this topic. The program was structured around the theory U process and each major theme that was covered was then related back to Theory U. The emphasis on this method was to inspire a deeper understanding of people’s previous misconceptions and open a space for listening to help build new perspectives that could address complex water problems in ways not seen before.  WIL also likes to challenge the way people think by integrating arts into each program. Like how each lesson built off one another, the WIL online program was also building creativity within each participant throughout the 5 months. The end result of this fostered creativity was displayed in a participatory art piece called Kaleidoscope Common

Main Takeaways or Final Words – Unexpected Outcomes 

WIL Global 2020 was a challenge. It was challenging to let go of the original program we had spent months planning, and challenging to lean into a new one full of uncertainty. In the end, however, the change allowed us to pilot a completely new program, and in the process learn countless lessons. To our amazement, the community at WIL Global is stronger than ever. 65 young water leaders from around the globe have spent 5 months learning and connecting with each other. The content and connections were still achieved. As Waterlution closes the chapter of WIL Global 2020 we wonder – what next? We look forward to taking these learnings and building them into the new engagement opportunities that we have in the works for 2021. 

Participants checking into WIL Global from their homes. Photo by Megan Cornall.

Stay tuned.