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Academic institutions are usually amazing places to learn, but can be tough organisations to work with. With limited resources, they tend to focus on the recruitment of great students and on high standards of teaching in their core areas. Working with outside organisations tends to focus on injecting money or equipment via dedicated programmes (in my other line of business, the amazing work of Brigid O’Kane at the University of Cincinatti comes to mind here). Or it involves work placements (I keep in regular touch with Geoff Wardle at Art Center Pasadena, who has great students seeking experience in Europe). That said, I’m still waiting for my invite from the RCA to Joe‘s final exhibition this Thursday, despite having acted (willingly I must stress) as his visionary, psychotherapist, editor, dad and tour operator at various points along the way. And finally there are full-scale business incubation initiatives. That’s not a process that’s delivered anyone I know with the big break they needed yet. But maybe I know the wrong kind of people.

So I’ve been curious to see how Akvo can engage with UNESCO-IHE. Akvo is based on the UNESCO-IHE campus in Delft in the Netherlands. It’s a home we share with the Netherlands Water Partnership, which has been based on ‘IHE’s campus since it was formed in 1999.

UNESCO-IHE’s former head of the urban water and sanitation department, Caroline Figueres, played an important role in getting Akvo onto the development map and she continues to support us in her new role leading IICD, a great organisation focused on best practice ‘ICT’ (education language for IT and comms) in the developing world. Her extensive understanding of how water projects actually work out will be invaluable to us, when combined with the power of an organisation focused on developing world IT implementation best practice.

Having UNESCO-IHE actively supporting us would make a big difference as we now seek to scale up our base of active contributors online. Its mission is to educate successive generations of water experts. This video tells the story of how a Dutch education establishment grew from the late ’50s to create a unique new organisation in 2003. The Institute is owned by all UNESCO member states and is the largest water education facility in the world. It’s the only institution in the UN system authorised to confer accredited MSc degrees.

Peter, Malte and I met yesterday with Erwin Ploeger and Maria Laura Sorrentino to talk about how we could connect with the Alumni programme. There are around 13,000 ‘IHE alumni around the world. I’m like a rag to a bull on this one – as far as I’m concerned these people are spread around the world and could be a tremendous asset to us all as Akvopedia editors and contributors. How to encourage them to do so is something I’m looking forward to discussing with Chris Watkins tomorrow, who is coming to visit us here in Delft. What we’re not currently clear on is how much these water practitioners will be willing to start using a wikipedia of water. Ideally this is something we should have researched, but we haven’t. That would have been far harder, more resource-intensive and more time consuming than creating the Akvopedia in the first place. But we now need to get professionals contributing, even simply as high level quality monitors.

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UNESCO-IHE’s Maria Laura Sorrentino talks with Akvo. 23 June 2008.

Another opportunity with UNESCO-IHE is to integrate what we’re learning – and doing – into their curriculum. How much should its graduates know about open source and related new technologies? How can this change how they organise projects and networks of people?

Finally, by the end of the summer it will be possible for ‘IHE alumni who are working on projects to upload those that are seeking funding into the Akvo Matchmaking system. If in doubt, access to development funds could be the trigger.

This is another moment where our collective ability to integrate networked organisations with hierarchical ones is going to be a big factor. You can read more on my thinking on that topic here. Certainly we need the next generation of water development graduates to understand how open source, open communications and the internet change the way projects can be specified, matched to funds and reported on. And to benefit us, their interaction needs to break out of a regular, repetitive form based on email shots and industry or alumni newsletters. We need them to begin contributing to the new processes and tools we are building. Every few days. Help us make this happen.