I participated in the Falling Walls Summer School Programme, and all I got was this lousy (critical) reflection

I participated in the Falling Walls Summer School Programme, and all I got was this lousy (critical) reflection

Academics, communicators and activists from all over the world gathered at Leibniz University in Hannover, to talk science and solutions to water security. They were also there to talk “business”.

The Falling Walls Summer School 2023 was a four-day intensive formative and co-creation workshop in Hannover, Germany, where participants from different backgrounds (engineering, environmentalism, law, communication) gathered to learn about water security issues, and to develop innovative ideas for projects that tackle blue infrastructure needs. The program was sponsored by the Hannover Re Foundation, and implemented by the Berlin-based Falling Walls Foundation.

The program offered traditional academic lectures, innovative proposals that took the participants outside of the normal classroom setting, and a workshopped co-creation dynamic that invited the participants to develop original ideas for water solutions projects with a market-oriented approach.

This proposal, that is, to develop social or environmentally conscious projects using “economic” rationale is not new, and has been a staple of design thinking and social entrepreneurship for some years now. But the idea of gathering a host of researchers in cutting edge work on water issues from different disciplines and from different parts of the world presented exciting possibilities nonetheless.

The Summer School offered different types of activities. We were treated to conventional and non conventional lectures in a host of topics related to water security issues, different types of research and advocacy work related to the environment, water justice, blue infrastructure, as well as modelling work on future water issues. The programme provided ample time for the participants to get to know each other, and to learn about the exciting work everyone is doing in their corner of the world.

©Falling Walls Foundation

As the programme advanced, we were introduced to the practical objective of the school: seven  teams of five to four people each were randomly created. Each team would have the task of creating an “innovative solution” to water security issues. The proposed solution would then be workshopped using the Business Model Canvas methodology. With this methodology, provided by the Urban Impact organization, we were to turn our solution for any water issue into a business proposal.

What began as an academic and networking event, quickly turned into a competition to develop the best possible idea in a very short amount of time. A challenge that young and sharp minds surely relished.

The ideas of each group would have to be workshopped in a span of two days and a half. At the end of that timeframe, each group would have to present their proposal in a public event, in downtown Hannover, were the people attending would be able to vote on the best proposal of the bunch. The winner would win an invitation to another pitching event, in a larger venue, and with a larger audience, at Berlin, the following month.

I regret to tell you that my team did not win, when all was said and done. The winners though proposed an interesting prototype for detecting and filtering emergent contaminants found in public water supplies. The winning team did a good job of convincing the public that they had “the best” solution, and that they were way ahead of the “competition”, since they already were working on a prototype, and had even QR code to share with the public so that they could learn more about the proposal.

Although the pitch was made to convince that every project was on the right track, in actuality, not one team composed during that programme had a miracle solution to tackle this and other issues. How could they? Scientific innovation does not follow the times of breakthrough ideas in business, it is far slower and requires an approach that is not easily accelerated, water crisis be damned.

The methodological proposition was eye opening in more ways than one. The basic idea, that is, to train scientists into generating market oriented ideas for problems such as water scarcity, water pollution, precarious infrastructure, etc., goes in line with a more general tendency to approach capital in a language that it understands. The language of money, and the creation of value out of science based prototypes, that can also have societal or environmental impact. This proposition was relatively new in the midst of interdisciplinary research, as the same tutors and workshop facilitators acknowledged.

Yet, the market oriented approach raises other questions, such as the possibility of actually using this type of reasoning to generate urgent “solutions” to “world problems” about water, and not just to generate profit from products that offer mitigating measures. As another participant put it during the workshop, is this type of initiative not transferring the responsibility to generate solutions that are social or political in nature, out of the public sphere, into the private sector, and into the world of “start ups” -and start up bubbles- I might add?

Can the Business Model Canvas be an effective tool for the challenges that the “water crisis” brings, in its new-found forms, for example, when we are talking about extreme weather events related to Anthropogenic and political phenomena?  I asked a similar question to a professor, during one of the presentations in the summer school, and his answer was: that is what you are here for, that is, to think of out-of-the-box solutions (in a very short amount of time).

This last question is one that I believe Falling Walls could definitely foster, provided that it considers with a more critical perspective the nexus between “market oriented” language and tools, scientific or social “innovation”, interdisciplinary collaboration, and, in a more concrete suggestion, the time afforded to the participants to come up with good ideas and to create chemistry in-between them.

Like Leibniz, the great philosopher and interdisciplinary thinker of his time, groundbreaking ideas don’t come in a day. But the basic idea can still be formulated, if given an adequate framework, and in times of “urgent demand”, nonetheless.


Diego A. Padilla Vassaux – RIVERS Coordinator/Producer of the Documentary Project (University Carlos III Madrid)

Ana Garcia