1/15 – Building Water Leaders and Waterpreneurs

Julia Fortier and Karen Kun

Julia Fortier and Karen Kun

Julia Fortier

Julia Fortier

Karen Kun

Karen Kun

Abstract:  As a youth focused water facilitation organization, Waterlution is constantly exploring new ways to build dynamic young water leaders. For the last twelve years, Waterlution has engaged over four thousand youth and five hundred expert resource guests in its community-based programming. By engaging local young leaders (change-agents) Waterlution supports them in developing the motivation, contacts, knowledge and understanding needed to lead change around water across sectors, projects and communities.

Adaptive leaders and communities are needed the world over to create opportunities for a resilient future. The considerable uncertainty related to water as a result of climate change and a growing global population requires new ideas and approaches. Building strong leaders to lead change is a process. Becoming a visionary, strategic, communicative and innovative leader involves a complex web of qualities and variables.

Post-secondary institutions are creating highly knowledgeable graduates with significant sustainability and water content knowledge. However, the economic realities of the last decade have greatly altered career trajectories. Many young people are seeking novel ways to create a living and be a part of positive change. Recent graduates and young professionals are a crucial demographic to work with as they prepare to be change-agents in the workforce.

In September 2014, Waterlution launched a pilot initiative Transformative Leaders of the Future to build a network across Canada of young leaders who are passionate about water and sustainability. The skills and networks developed during the initiative compliment participants’ existing education and experience so each participant can increase their resiliency to thrive in an age of uncertainty.

The water leadership gap

From the last twelve years of discussions and feedback we have heard young water leaders doubt their ability to lead, impact or disrupt the current system. Those who are typically considered a “respected water authority or leader” tend to be middle aged (or older) men with a background in the sciences and are in a senior hierarchical position within an established organization (e.g. a professor at university, a senior executive at a multinational engineering firm, a highly published author, etc.). This narrow view of who has the “best fit” to lead does not reflect the diversity of water users or the highly educated water-related graduates that Canada is producing.

We have found young peoples’ unclear understanding of what leadership is and doubt in their capacity to lead or influence the system is due to limited access to supportive structures to experiment with leadership and new ideas. Many young people think that one must be an anointed leader with an impressive title to have the permission to bring bold new ideas to the fore that are respected and considered. Many young people feel as if they are waiting for a signal to move forward with their leadership journey. However, waiting to train our leaders can have detrimental impacts for individuals and the organizations they are a part of. When reviewing a global and cross-sector leadership training database, Zenger (2012) found that on average those in management positions only began to receive leadership training ten years after they assumed their managerial role. This ten-year gap before training represents a missed opportunity to strengthen systems and mentorship. Confidence in one’s capacity to lead is important considering the changing economic considerations

Many in the workforce have found that conventional funding options and jobs in the water space (conservation authorities, stewardship groups, government environmental departments, environmental based charities, not-for-profits, etc.) are harder to attain given the pervasive funding or budget cutbacks, restructuring and delayed retirement trends. To influence the water system or create one’s own opportunities in a changing economy young people must equip water content and experience with: creative thinking, the ability to convene and host diverse viewpoints, leadership qualities and the ability to grow diverse networks. To meet this water leadership demand, Waterlution launched the Transformative Leaders of the Future initiative to equip young professionals and students with essential and transferable skills in their ‘toolbox’ to increase their employability readiness, credibility and confidence to lead change in the water space.

The need for dynamic water leaders

Water is a complex global issue, which impacts the natural and built systems we live within. Aquatic ecosystems often do not fit within human created political systems (cities, provinces, states or countries), which can fragment water management and stewardship. The shared nature of water and its necessity for survival makes the management, monitoring and protection of water systems challenging and highly reliant on collaboration and co-operation for wise decision-making.

It is estimated that between 1820 and 2007 almost four hundred and fifty agreements on international waters were authorized (OSU 2007). To maintain collaborative water agreements, long-term maintenance and communication is needed for wise decision-making. Two brief examples of ongoing international transboundary (shared) water co-operation are: the International Joint Commission (North America) and Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia.

Further capacity building for open communication, cooperation and the generation of new approaches is necessary to insure wise water investments and decisions to foster resilient systems. It is estimated that sixty percent of internationally transboundary river basins are without cooperative management plans (UNESCO I 2014). The potential impact of transboundary river systems is considerable given that under half of the world’s land surface is covered by transboundary rivers (UNESCO II 2014). The need for water-related leadership, learning, and cross-sector collaboration for responsible water use and decision-making is applicable to all water systems that are impacted by human activities.

No matter where one calls home, there are unique local water realities and challenges. Water in connected to and influences: the local economy, infrastructure, energy, ecosystems, industry, agricultural production and human settlement. Urban centers are of great significance as over half of all humans live in cities and these centers are heavily reliant on outside resources to function (World Water Development Report (WWDR) 2014). Cities consume large amounts of energy to transport water, wastewater, people, support industry and other structures – which is water intensive.

It is expected by 2050 the global urban population will increase by 2.6 billion people (WWDR 2014). Increased urban populations and their associated wealth often leads to increased domestic energy and water consumption. Although, evidence exists that once urban dwellers reach a certain level of affluence domestic per capita water consumption decreases, mostly as a result of the adoption of conservation practices.

Cities are valuable and expensive areas when one considers the concentration of people and investment in infrastructure, industry, buildings and personal goods. For cities to remain livable and productive spaces, they must be protected from severe weather events or rising water levels. To be resilient in the face of climate change, cities need well-maintained infrastructure and forward thinking planning to adapt (Warren and Lemmen 2014).

Building this resiliency into urban systems requires strong leadership to implement and fund. According to a 2014 report from the Blue Economy Initiative the water and wastewater infrastructure deficit across Canada is eighty-eight billion dollars and will increase if current practices continue. Innovative thinkers who bring forward new ideas and solutions to create adaptive and resilient communities are needed.

The general public is often unaware of water-related challenges. Urban populations tend to forget humans reliance on water systems. Cities have been created so that the user is separate from their water sources, the systems that provide clean water and remove non-potable water. Providing widespread subsidies for water (Canada West Foundation 2007) combined with a lack of awareness can manifest in wasteful water consumption. Canadians are prime examples of this disconnect as the highest water consumers in the OECD (The Innovolve Group 2010).

Businesses are not immune to water risk. A recent report found that 68% of participating Global 500 businesses considered water a risk that could significantly alter their profits (CDP 2014). The report also indicated that over half of responding major companies was uncertain about the vulnerability of their suppliers to water stress. Thus emphasizing the need for companies to implement long-term water strategies (CDP 2014). To create resilient economies that confront unsustainable habits and address water realities (that are often complicated by a high degree of uncertainty) we need strong leaders with a long-term vision and who are willing to collaborate, work across silos and test out new ideas.

The Waterlution perspective

Waterlution has worked in the water space for the last twelve years with young leaders (aged eighteen to thirty-five years of age) from across sectors and viewpoints to facilitate new ways of learning, collaborating and innovating. Waterlution aims to inspire pattern-making and pattern-breaking change towards a healthy and sustainable relationship with water. Our vision is for the next generation of decision-makers – across all sectors and stakeholder groups – to be strong, informed leaders with a passion for and commitment to healthy watersheds. Waterlution programs are composed of water content and facilitated processes that offer participants the opportunity to be active in knowledge production and exchange to push water-related innovations forward.  

Waterlution designs, delivers and inspires through facilitated dialogue. Waterlution gatherings provide participants the chance to dive into complex topics, hone their creative capacities and cross-pollinate ideas. What is the end result? These experiences leave participants thinking from a new perspective or connecting ideas they had never previously considered (with a focus on creating entrepreneurs across sectors). We never stray from complex topics (such as resource extraction, pipelines, drought or flooding) and we design respectful spaces so that vastly different viewpoints can exist in the room together. By bringing stakeholders together that represent the system and not vilifying “the other” we can learn, build trust and collaborate to bring about meaningful change.

Waterlution initiatives are nimble and adaptive to various scales, contexts and emerging needs. The Future of Water Workshops Series was launched in 2005 as Waterlution’s initial program. This community-based series engages young leaders in the exploration of regional water issues through inspirational, experiential and interactive, weekend-long workshops. To meet the demand for these workshops across the country Waterlution led “Train the Trainer” to instruct Waterlution Associates on how to organize, host and facilitate workshops. To-date, Waterlution has hosted over fifty-seven workshops in thirty communities across Canada (nine provinces and two territories).  While the workshops continued in 2010, Waterlution launched the Canadian Water Innovation Lab (CWIL). CWIL brought over two hundred and fifty participants from across Canada, to Exshaw, Alberta for the first “unconference” focused on protecting and preserving the future of our water.

Out of CWIL 2010 the Waterlution Hub Network emerged to provide active communities of practice by offering local, regular programming and network development opportunities. To-date, over fifty-five Hub events have been held in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo. The Waterlution Hub Network has evolved to offer opportunities for interested individuals to step forward and be a part of the co-creation team to design and deliver events. During this time the Art of Hosting Water Dialogues was also launched. The workshop series builds on the in-the-field experience of water and sustainability practitioners who come as participants to develop facilitation skills. Drawing on the Art of Hosting – a global community of practitioners and a practice in understanding the patterns of community-building beneath methodologies – this workshop series helps participants discover and learn the art of the ‘host’ and how to host the conversations that matter for the health of our water. Currently, ninety-five facilitators have been trained through the program.

The second Water Innovation Lab (WIL) was hosted in 2013 and offered participants two streams for participation. In the first stream, “Bootcamp Projects” – water projects or start-up ideas were pitched and received in-depth feedback from mentors and fellow participants. The second stream, “Strategic Conversations in Water Work” encouraged participants to enhance their water work by learning what it takes to facilitate conversations and dialogues that inspire and trigger action.

To provide young people access to opportunities to build their skills to lead positive change, Waterlution launched WaterCity 2040 and Transformative Leaders of the Future (TLF) in September 2014. WaterCity 2040 is a scenario planning process focused on designing the future of urban water management. Each participating city will ask, “What could my city look like in 2040 through a water lens?” Each city will create plausible future scenarios as a strategic planning tool that will be shared with municipal decision makers. The TLF initiative builds a network across Canada of young leaders who are passionate about water and sustainability while simultaneously providing the opportunity to work alongside city decision makers to implement components of the scenarios. The skills and networks developed during the initiative compliment participants’ existing education and experience so each participant can increase their resiliency to thrive in an age of uncertainty. The TLF teams are expanding the Waterlution Hub Network and WaterCity project to include ten cities across Canada: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, Toronto, Ajax/Whitby, Ottawa, Montréal and Halifax.

Building the skills

Transformative Leaders of the Future (TLF) is a nine-month experience that offers participants learning opportunities to build the skills that employers are looking for. A few examples of thought leaders or publications we follow that have informed the TLF concept are: Margaret Wheatley, Corporate Knights, the Harvard Business Review, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fast Company, etc. TLF takes a systems approach to offer participants the chance to: explore and implement new ways of thinking across viewpoints and cultures, implement creative ideas to generate spaces of innovation, design and host gatherings for meaningful dialogue and collaboration, develop personal leadership capacity and confidence, experience in collective leadership and opportunities to hone their communication skills to maximize their impact.

The initiative focuses on individual personal leadership journeys as well as the collective leadership within each city team, the connection to Waterlution as an organization and the system as a whole. Waterlution offers monthly itineraries with activity guidelines, open-ended challenges and two hosting and facilitation training session based on Waterlution best practices. As part of TLF, each city team hosts WaterCity 2040 events as part of their facilitation and leadership development as individuals and teams. An important component of the TLF initiative is to create space for experimentation and failure. Of course, we do not wish for participants to fail at anything they try, yet it is a powerful learning opportunity to get back up after a failed effort.

The concepts explored during the TLF initiative are crucial to career development and leading change, yet are currently not often taught or applied in dominant education models. Post-secondary water or sustainability related degrees or similar qualifications tend to be very focused on the academic sphere (reading textbooks, writing papers, producing publications and the memorization of technical information and processes) rather than considering the interface between water and human-based systems that influence or seek to control water.

Given the complexity of water now and in the future, we need more young water leaders poised to innovate and apply new ideas within traditional structures (e.g. government, companies and organizations). We also need leaders who create initiatives and businesses to seize new opportunities and knowledge (waterpreneurs).


How do we move towards a more resilient water future? We need to develop more water leaders and convenors of water dialogues to get people talking, learning and acting to meet pressing water realities. If the average individual embraces that they are a “water person” who relies on water for survival and thus has a water responsibility it will catalyze widespread conversations, new idea generation, opportunities and innovation. It is through dialogue and forward thinking water leaders that trust will be built to foster collaborations across sectors and values to implement wise water action. To learn more about Waterlution and its approach to innovation in the water space check out our website at:


Canadian West Foundation. (2007). Water Pricing Seizing a Public Policy Dilemma by the Horns. Retrieved from

CDP. (2014). From water risk to value creation. Retrieved from

Stinchcombe, K., & Brennan, L. (2014). Blue City: The Water Sustainable City of the Near Future (The Blue Economy Initiative). Retrieved from

The Innovolve Group. (2010). Water and the Future of the Canadian Economy. Retrieved from

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) I. (2014). UN-Water Transboundary Statistics Detail. Retrieved from

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) II. (2014). UN-Water Transboundary Statistics Detail. Retrieved from

OSU. (2007). UN-Water Transboundary Statistics Detail. Retrieved from

World Water Development Report. (2014). Water and Energy Volume 1. Retrieved from

Warren, F.J., & Lemmen, D.S. (Eds.). (2014). Canada in a Changing Climate: Sector Perspectives on Impacts and Adaptation. Retrieved from

Zeneger, J. (2012). We Wait Too Long to Train Our Leaders.  Harvard Business Review Blog Review.  Retrieved from

About the Authors

Julia Fortier was drawn to Waterlution in 2008 as a workshop participant, keen to connect with other water lovers and change-makers. Julia’s undergraduate research at McMaster University looked at the implications of “fishing down the food chain” in Atlantic Canada. Her Masters Degree in Environmental Studies, from the University of Waterloo, focused on freshwater management in Canada. Her research examined the social barriers to urban residential rainwater harvesting and how to overcome these obstacles. By the end of her studies, Julia found she had lots of water knowledge but was lacking a community to share with and the processes to put ideas into action. Waterlution provided this community, the processes and so much more! She is now Waterlution’s Program Manager.   What is Julia’s favourite part of her job? Connecting with those who have different perspectives, and connecting and mentoring water leaders.

Contact: email:  website:

Karen Kun co-founded Waterlution 11 years ago with the purpose of inspiring pattern-making and pattern breaking change toward a healthier relationship with our water. It was during her time in South Africa in 2002 that the idea emerged, that to solve complex water issues, a blended format of content and process was needed; one without the other would lead only to partial results. Karen aims to push Waterlution’s capacity to be more creative and innovative and to inspire others to be the leaders and mentors they are capable of being. Water complexities require us to have cross-sector dialogue, in inter-generational learning, in pushing ourselves and each other to think in ways we never thought possible. Karen is the Executive Director at Waterlution.   Along with her water background, she is a skilled business leader who from 2005-2012 was publisher of Corporate Knights magazine.


1 Comment

  1. Arnold on September 6, 2015 at 10:04 pm

    Love this game

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