WEF Members Address the World’s Toughest Water Problems at UNLEASH

November 30, 2017

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Eleven young professionals represented the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) at the 2017 UNLEASH Global Innovation lab. A sampling of these professionals, from left, Fidan Karimova, Megan Yoo Schneider, Vanessa Borkowski, Jessica Rozek, Brian Shell, and Haley Falconer, celebrate their participation in the program. Photo courtesy of Falconer.

Eleven young professionals represented the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) at the 2017 UNLEASH Global Innovation lab. A sampling of these professionals, from left, Fidan Karimova, Megan Yoo Schneider, Vanessa Borkowski, Jessica Rozek, Brian Shell, and Haley Falconer, celebrate their participation in the program. Photo courtesy of Falconer.

In August, the world-class talent of Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) members was showcased at the global level.

As invited guests to the 2017 UNLEASH Global Innovation Lab, eleven WEF members from all areas of the water sector did their part to improve the planet while gaining valuable insights from international peers. The new, annual UNLEASH initiative brings 1000 of the world’s most innovative young people together to apply their minds toward advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Chosen participants who represented WEF included

  • Jessica Rozek, WEF;
  • Fidan Karimova, Water Environment & Reuse Foundation (WE&RF; Alexandria);
  • Haley Falconer, City of Boise, Idaho;
  • Brian Shell, WSP USA (New York) in Baltimore;
  • Jennifer Walsh, Hazen and Sawyer (New York) in Fairfax, Va.;
  • Mel Butcher, Arcadis (Amsterdam) in Tampa, Fla.;
  • Vanessa Borkowski, Stantec (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) in Hartford, Conn.;
  • Megan Yoo Schneider, Municipal Water District of Orange County (Fountain Valley, Calif.) and Seven Management and Consulting Inc. (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.);
  • Chris Moody, Arcadis in Tampa;
  • Margaret Bellon-Oloriz, Arcadis in New York; and
  • Andrea Corral, Carollo Engineers (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

A busy week for water innovators

UNLEASH brought together 1000 of the world’s innovative young minds together to advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Photo courtesy of Falconer.

UNLEASH 2017 brought together 1000 of the world’s most innovative young minds to advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Photo courtesy of Falconer.

Arriving in Copenhagen, Denmark on Aug. 13, UNLEASH participants were briefed on the agenda for the week. During the 10 day-program, guests were asked to identify large-scale problems they wanted to address, form like-minded teams with colleagues, and work at a break-neck pace to come up with creative and scalable preliminary solutions. Those solutions would then be refined with the help of leading experts and presented to judges, who chose the most promising solutions for further development.

A team develops an idea for mobilizing vendors in India to demonstrate the economic and health benefits of clean water. From left, the team included Monica Louis, Palash Ranjan Sanya, Rozek, Shona Fitzgerald, as well as, not pictured, Himanshu Panday and Haley Falconer. Photo courtesy of Falconer.

A team develops an idea for mobilizing vendors in India to demonstrate the economic and health benefits of clean water. From left, the team included Monica Louis, Palash Ranjan Sanya, Rozek, Shona Fitzgerald, as well as, not pictured, Himanshu Panday and Haley Falconer. Photo courtesy of Falconer.

Participants chose one of this year’s seven UNLEASH themes to guide their projects. Within the water theme, teams explored issues associated with Sustainable Development Goal 6, the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Teams worked on such topics as improving the energy-efficiency of water treatment facilities, increasing and maintaining access to clean water supplies, or addressing rapid groundwater depletion.

Recognized for a visionary solution

Fidan Karimova (second from right) took a selfie with American actor Ashton Kutcher (third from right) and the rest of her project team after winning the Most Visionary Solution award. Photo courtesy of Karimova.

Fidan Karimova (second from right) takes a selfie with American actor Ashton Kutcher (third from right) and the rest of her project team after winning the Most Visionary Solution award. Photo courtesy of Karimova.

Fidan Karimova, water technology collaboration manager for WE&RF, and her team earned the Most Visionary Solution award. Their winning idea, which entails creating synthetic gas from coastal ocean plastics to power water resource recovery facilities, was first conceived by an organization co-founded by Karimova, Global Water Girls (Rockville, Md.).

The team’s prize was presented by American actor and philanthropist Ashton Kutcher.

“The award was completely unexpected. The day before the award ceremony, there was a pitch competition during which our team was not selected. At that point, we came to terms that our team would not be winning anything,” Karimova said. “We were beyond excited, but also realized that we needed to work on our pitch. Also, Ashton Kutcher is much taller in person than in pictures.”

Karimova’s team is working with three partner organizations to conduct a pilot test for the solution. With research grants, the goal is to eventually apply the idea to wastewater treatment facilities and give new life to nuisance plastics, Karimova said.

Pitching ideas and growing as water professionals

During the experience, WEF members worked on different teams to come up with inventive ideas that included

  • using high-tech filters to address emerging contaminants in fisheries,
  • demonstrating the true cost of water use for industrial manufacturing processes,
  • implementing water reuse schemes in water-scarce regions,
  • lowering investor risk associated with water development projects with a development-focused entrepreneurship platform, and
  • mobilizing local vendors in India to demonstrate the hidden economic and health benefits of clean water for customers and collecting water-use data to share with aid agencies.
Young professionals representing WEF at UNLEASH included, from left, Borkowski, Rozek, Mel Butcher, Jennifer Walsh, Falconer, and Yoo Schneider. Photo courtesy of Walsh.

Young professionals representing WEF at UNLEASH included, from left, Borkowski, Rozek, Mel Butcher, Jennifer Walsh, Falconer, and Yoo Schneider. Photo courtesy of Walsh.

WEF representatives left Denmark with a greater understanding of the problems facing the global water environment and learned lessons to spur their growth as water professionals.

“In working through this innovation process and seeing the top finishers from the program, it truly helped me understand the manner in which global issues need to be identified and addressed,” Borkowski said. “Oftentimes as engineers, we want the most complex solution. The best solutions were simple solutions that could be scaled with ease.”

Program participants exploring the water theme had the opportunity to tour a wastewater treatment facility in Denmark. Photo courtesy of Falconer.

Program participants exploring the water theme had the opportunity to tour a wastewater treatment facility in Denmark. Photo courtesy of Falconer.

Others came out of the program with lifelong connections that could help spur the next great water breakthrough.

“I still keep in touch with many of the UNLEASHers that I met during my time in Denmark, and I talk regularly with quite a few of them,” Yoo Schneider said. “I was recently able to meet another UNLEASHer on another continent at another water conference, and today, we are collaborating on some amazing projects.”

All the participants made one thing clear: to achieve real progress toward solutions for global water issues, collaboration is key.

Young professionals who participated in UNLEASH discussed the experience during WEFTEC 2017. These water professionals were, from left, panelists Raad Seraj, Yoo Schneider, Shell, Rozek, Walsh, Borkowski, and moderator Butcher. Photo courtesy of Brittany Burch, Isle Utilities (London).

Young professionals who participated in UNLEASH discussed the experience during WEFTEC 2017. These water professionals were, from left, panelists Raad Seraj, Yoo Schneider, Shell, Rozek, Walsh, Borkowski, and moderator Butcher. Photo courtesy of Brittany Burch, Isle Utilities (London).

“We must focus on who are forgotten,” Falconer said. “Our solutions, to be effective for all, must include individuals and groups who are often not involved.”

Read more about the program from Rozek’s perspective in the WEF blog, “UNLEASHING Sustainable Development Solutions in Denmark.”

─ Justin Jacques, WEF Highlights

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