people sit at tables in a cafe, actively engaged in discussion

photo credit Sylvie Spraakman

The Region of Waterloo is full of community makers that have big ideas about how to improve the quality of life of those around them. On June 9th, several young professionals from various organizations in the water industry came together at Settlement Co. in Uptown Waterloo to help foster some of those ideas into action plans. They put to work the Pro-Action Cafe facilitation technology with modifications so that they could host the event in a hurry, or in less than 3 hours.


  • Corey Wells - Waterloo Regional Representative, Canadian Water Network - Student and Young professionals Committee (CWN-SYP), member of the Ontario Water Works Association (OWWA), and Project Manager and Research Associate at the University of Waterloo

  • Sylvie Spraakman - Engineer-in-Training at GHD; member of Women in Ontario in Water (WOW) professional network; Alumna of Waterluition’s Transformative Leaders of the Future Program

  • Logan Koeth - Vice-Chair of External Outreach for the Students of the Water Institute Graduate Section (SWIGS) at the University of Waterloo

  • Cailin Hillier - Program Coordinator for the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium at CWN; Alumna of Waterlution’s Transformative Leaders of the Future Program

photo credit Sylvie Spraakman

What is a Pro-Action Cafe? It might sound like the professional filming of a movie scene at a coffee shop - “aaaaand - ACTION!”, but it is really a gathering of engaged citizens in a relaxed atmosphere where no one is an expert and everyone has equal opportunity to contribute. Of course food and beverages help to draw out a solid crowd and provide sustenance for deep thinking - a big thank-you to SWIGS for sponsoring refreshments for the event!

The Pro-Action Cafe is just one of several dialogue facilitation methods that are taught at the Art of Hosting Water Dialogues by Waterlution. Though, the techniques are widely adaptable and they can be applied to complex challenges in any industry. Cailin emphasized that these events are not only beneficial for the attendees, but also provide an opportunity for the facilitators to practice their hosting skills, learn more about themselves, and increase confidence in their abilities to facilitate.


The most daunting part of the process can be the first step. Sylvie Spraakman reflected on this,

“The moment we feared the most as facilitators was the moment where we asked callers to come forward and bring their ideas - because we didn't know who would come up, if anyone at all. I love open space technologies because it's up to the attendees to make the event happen. But it can be awkward as an event organizer.  The silence felt like it went on forever - it was probably only a few seconds - and then all of a sudden all of the caller spots were filled!”


In groups of approximately 4 people at each roundtable equipped with chart paper, markers and sticky notes, the event flowed through three rounds of approximately 20 minute discussions:

  1. Clearly define the issue/challenge/idea;

  2. Identify all potential solutions/opportunities/ideas; and

  3. Develop your action plan.

At first glance, this may seem like a basic template for working through any sort of issue. Logan shared my initial feelings about the process and confessed that she had doubts it could have significant benefit to those attending. But during the event she observed that the process of defining and exploring the question brought substantial clarity to each individual project. As each round of discussion proceeded, the callers became more enthused by the question and developed a more thorough understanding of their next steps. One of the benefits from facilitating a Pro-Action Cafe is then identifying other opportunities where the technology can be applied and Logan is looking for that next door to open in the near future.

photo credit Sylvie Spraakman

What actually happens at a Pro-Action Cafe can be fairly described, unscientifically, as magical. Chris Corrigan of Harvest Moon Consultants once said to me, “never underestimate the power of storytelling”, and those words have really stuck with me.


The conversations go much deeper than at a typical networking event.  Sharing personal ideas that are only in their infancy, or project challenges, can put leaders into a vulnerable situation, but the Pro-Action Cafe creates an opportunity for ideas to be planted and nourished in a way that allows ideas to grow to their full potential. In the end, both the “callers” and the contributors feel heard and develop a closer relationship with others in their community.


The ideas put forward at the June event were diverse, unique, and lead to productive discussions around:

  • Drivers and alternatives to urban irrigation;

  • Creative ways to implement low impact development (LID) technologies; and

  • Defining failure in river restoration and engineering in general.

These “un-conference” events are all about quality over quantity. Facilitators guide the conversations so that they happen with specific intention and the callers benefit from having the right people in the room with just the right amount of time for discussion. And when it’s over, it’s over. It is unlikely that those same people will occupy that space again for these specific discussions. That is why it is important to create an open sharing atmosphere so that all ideas and thoughts are put on the table and attendees respect the ideas of one another. Doesn’t that sound like the perfect recipe for collaborative discussions to foster innovation?

photo credit Sylvie Spraakman

Many attendees have followed up with the facilitators since the event. It's interesting how the water sector can seem small and disconnected at times and Blue Drinks help to remediate this factor of the industry. Attendees have since shared reports, connected formally on LinkedIn, introduced people to one another and plan to work together more in the future. For example, this event allowed Corey to meet his networking goal for his involvement with the CWN-SYP. He’s been in touch with one of the attendees since the event and plans are in the works to collaborate on their next project.

There are only positive things to say about dialogue facilitation; it is amazing what can come of these events if you can respect the process and be open to new ideas. How will you foster your next big idea? What stories will you have to share? We hope to see you at the next Blue Drinks event!

For More, check out The Canadian Water Network. They have chapters all across Canada, so see if your area has one or think about starting your own!


Nicole is currently the Kitchener Regional Representative for the #CWNSYP and is working towards her Ph.D. at the University of Guelph. She is fanatical about solving complex interdisciplinary challenges in the water industry and always seeking new opportunities to practice hosting dialogue facilitation strategies.

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