An Interview with #UMF2015 Keynote Speaker Lynn Patterson

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Lynn Patterson

Utility Management Forum 2015
October 19th, 2015

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Lynn Patterson is Director, Corporate Responsibility for RBC, and oversees strategy and communications for the RBC Blue Water Project and the RBC Believe in Kids Pledge. She is also responsible for RBC's corporate responsibility reporting.

Lynn has more than twenty-five years experience in corporate communications and belongs to the International Association for Business Communicators. She is a popular speaker, panellist and moderator at national and international sustainability and communications conferences, and is an IABC "All Star" Speaker. We caught up with Lynn, to ask her about her experience working with the Blue Water Project and about her keynote address at The Utility Management Forum on October 19th, 2015. 

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1. Why did RBC choose to start the Blue Water Project? Why is this project important?

We jumped into water in 2007.  If you remember, this was around the time that An Inconvenient Truth came out. Everyone—companies, governments, socially responsible investors, consumers—were talking about going green. RBC was on the vanguard with an environmental risk policy we’d had in place since the early 90s, and were handily managing our operational footprint. But we didn’t have a philanthropic focus on a single environmental  issue and wanted to find an emerging cause we could support in a very big way, in the 40+ countries in which we do business. We considered issues like air quality, climate change, paper, e-waste, but we kept circling back to this idea of water.   People and communities and businesses and nature all need water, so this was a cause that we knew would resonate all around the world. We also didn’t see a lot of companies in a leadership position, stepping up to help.  As a bank, we also knew that water is a material input for many of our clients, like those in manufacturing, extractive industries and agriculture. So we figured it would be prudent to make sure we were on top of the water issues our clients were having or would have.  And so the RBC Blue Water Project, a 10-year, $50 million commitment to water, was born.

2. What are the biggest challenges faced by the Blue Water Project?

Well, there’s been no lack of projects to fund, I’ll tell you that!  It’s been hard work for us to track the overall environmental impact of the hundreds of diverse programs and organizations we’ve funded. But it’s getting easier since we narrowed our focus to funding urban water issues like stormwater management.  For me, though, the biggest challenge has been getting people to understand the ‘so what’.  In Canada, we don’t tend to suffer the long-term water issues that, say, California has with drought, or China has with pollution. It’s been almost impossible to get people to care about preserving and protecting this precious natural resource, when they don’t see it’s in any imminent danger.   Delicious clean drinking water streams right out of our taps, like magic! What’s the problem? Why should I worry? 

3. Why did you start surveying Canadians about their attitudes?

We supported a ton of ‘awareness’ and ‘education’ projects through our early funding. I’m not kidding, there were a ton of them.  We wanted a way to gauge if these programs, and our own communications about water protection, were having an impact.    What we’ve found over the course of this poll is that Canadians agree that water is our most important natural resource, but water protection is not top of mind at all.    

4. What is the single most important issue or challenge facing the water utility sector today? What can be done to begin solving this issue?

I’m not a specialist in your area at all (at all!). But as an outsider, it seems to me that the challenge of making people care about water is chronic for everyone working in water: utilities, municipalities, NGOs, conservation authorities—everybody. There has not been a single conference or summit or workshop I’ve attended since 2007 (and I go to lots of them) that hasn’t ended with all of us bemoaning the fact that people just don’t get it and that we need to communicate better.  We take water for granted.  We take water delivery for granted.  We take water quality for granted.   We take our clean lakes and rivers for granted.  It’s really hard to make people care about something they take for granted.  And our water conversations become too technical, too quickly for a layperson.

5. What is the focus of your Keynote Address at The Utility Management Forum? What do you hope Utility Leaders will take away from your Keynote? 

I’ll be sharing the juiciest nuggets from the 2015 RBC Canadian Water Attitudes Study—and hopefully you’ll be able to take away a few ways to get Canadians to wake up and pay a bit more attention to water.  I also hope to get some input on questions for our 2016 poll, which we’ll be fielding in the early spring of 2016.