Each August a lot of influential people meet in Stockholm to try and work out how to address the planet’s most urgent water-related problems. The event is called Stockholm World Water Week and brings together scientific, business, policy and political leaders.
Akvo was conceived at Stockholm World Water Week in 2006, as a response to a challenge from the prizewinning scientist Asit K. Biswas, who announced in front of Akvo founders Thomas and Jeroen (who met ten minutes later) that he was finished with big water conferences because it was always the same people talking each year about the same things.
Thomas and Jeroen spent the next twelve months building out their approach to break this trap, bringing IT and water people together (me and many others included) into a new project, under the codename Smart Water. In Spring 2007, Smart Water became Akvo and by summer 2007 we were ready to launch – and we chose Stockholm.
Photo above: Akvo’s first ‘stand’. Stockholm, August 2007.
For that 2007 launch, we had two panels and two stools on a staircase, and a lot of crazy postcards and posters, designed designed by Dutch artist Vincent Wijers, featuring “The Woman Who Built Herself a Toilet”. We drove the venue insane by putting them in the toilets (most were taken as souvenirs within minutes). And we scheduled a small panel debate with the help of Financial Times environment correspondent Fiona Harvey, about the potential for open source IT to tackle poverty, bribing people to turn up with the offer of free lunch.
That debate was so popular that we switched from a side room to the main auditorium. In general the response we got was amazing – people wanted us to find a new way to fund and share knowledge about small-scale water and sanitation projects, and they wanted us to think big.
In the twelve months that followed, we built our initial system (the one you see today) and by August 2008, we were ready to launch the beta version of Akvo.org. That year we did a lounge, with sofas and no walls – in contrast to the other booths which felt closed and compartmentalised. We had great guests from around the world, including Sunita Nadhamuni, CEO of Arghyam and Bert Diphoorn of UN HABITAT, both of whom spoke in a much bigger debate held on site. Our work with Arghyam in particular has been a crucial component in our R&D, before and since.
Photo above: One year on, Tineke Huizinga-Heringa, Secretary of State (vice minister), Netherlands Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management talks in the Akvo lounge with Sunita Nadhamuni, CEO of Arghyam. Stockholm, August 21, 2008.
And so to this year. Well, we’re going back, but this time in a different way. In partnership with SIWI, who organises the whole event, and IRC, with whom we share space in The Hague, we’re creating a place where conversations can be captured and shared online, with the wider world. I can’t begin to describe how excited I am about the chance we have to connect the discussions at this event to people in the wider world, and I hope we can begin to break down some of the walls that right now hold back innovation. In the spirit of Akvo, and open source, this is about opening up the problem, involving new people, and constantly thinking afresh.
Ladies and gentleman, I’m pleased to announce the Stockholm World Water Cube. Of which we’ll tell you more next week.
Mark is a co-founder of Akvo.