Every Drop Counts – Isla Urbana the Company Rebuilding Mexico’s Water Sustainability Model

Isla Urbana began as a thesis project, at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence Rhode Island. Developed by Enrique Lomnitz and Renata Fenton. As Industrial Designers at the time, they were looking at ways where they could apply it in more positive forms – both socially and environmentally. As they started thinking on how to develop a project in Mexico City in particular – since both were Mexicans and felt a strong pull to the country they were born in. Through research and interviews throughout the south-side of Mexico like Tlalpan, they realized that major challenge access to water was in communities. In 2014, people were having a really hard time, specially in the outskirts of the city accessing water. That is were they began thinking about the potential of using rain to provide people with water. The collaboration and open conversation with Clara Caitan, originally from Oaxaca but had moved into the outskirts of Mexico City, “she showed us a lot about using water in more responsible ways but also about living in water sacristy in a more profound level” said Renata. In 2009 when both Renata and Enriqure graduated they returned to Mexico City and installed the first system as a pilot project- in no other than Clara’s home. By the time the rainy season came they were given an amazing surprise, when Clara realized she could live up to 8 months out of the year with only rain water versus the maybe once or twice a week water supply her family had during the year. A major turning point for Isla Urbana where they realized that rain could really have a profound impact and the effects of not having access to water could actually be diminished.

Inspired by designers like Victor Papanek who talked about how design could have a positive impact is when Renata realized,

This was the way to go, that design was meaningless unless it had some sort of focus on necessity or usefulness at least.”

Growing up in Mexico City, Renata had little experience living with water scarcity – therefore having the strongest pull to this sort of work be the relationships built with the families they’ve met along the way and continue to meet today. “That is sort of the strongest incentive, working in this subject matter I think it is kind of hard to go back once you realize the extent to which it is so essential to the future of this city. To that sense water is and will continue to be very close to our hearts.”

Looking back at the growth of Isla Urbana, Renata still finds it mind-blowing starting as door-to-door sales asking if they were interested in the product. “We were sort of learning by doing”. The growth of the project is not only reflected in the drastic amount of people that have joined in since the almost 10 years we’ve working. Growing the team itself has also opened  doors – different disciplinary backgrounds, visions, perspectives – has become the only way to tackle  a complex issue story as this one. But also the technology itself has evolved, the systems itself have evolved, everything has grown through experience. On the other hand, the experience in community such as the other projects that accompany the installation of the systems such as educational programs shows how more and more people are learning about this sort of topic. It has to do a lot to do with environmental education, but also increasing the trust level between the community, the families and the project. Today, Isla Urbana has installed almost 10K systems, so we see how people are more open that this technology is effective and has something real to provide. At a government level, rain harvesting was basically a ridiculous concept – and nowadays there is a lot more openness within different governmental entities. Providing a very important aspect within the bringing of more sustainable water projects to the city. It has been a constant evolution and improvement.

The vision of the project was there since the begin – we had that idea that one day every house in Mexico City could have a rain water harvesting system, and it wouldn’t be something special but something utilitarian. Allowing for the aquifer to recharge for that season. It’s very exciting, we are just getting a little bit closer over time. Obviously this is a very complex challenge that will only be resolved over very long periods of time and working in collaboration with many other people and sectors. The vision that was, the vision that is, and that will continue.

One of the most important components in this project is the relationship built with the communities they serve, obviously the technology is very important as well but if there is no adoption of that technology then there is a problem. The mission is to have families that are harvesting rain not just installing a system.

The social component became obvious from the beginning – working in the field, the relationship with the families – it was going to be essential if a behavioral change was to occur in the adoption to the systems. “What was really beautiful was that this project was born in one of the communities in Mexico City and was designed and inspired by the evolution of these communities through time” Renata explained. How rain water harvesting systems could be applied to the Mexican architecture in communication with the families that were using them, making it organic. There is something powerful in the fact that they [the systems] just work, and that is something that Isla Urbana continues to strive for and improve the extent and the impact that these systems can have.

Isla Urbana has always strived to make systems that work and have an honest conversation with the communities they work with opening doors to relationships with different groups and sectors. “It has never been our focus to have relationships with global giants – but I think these people that are interested in impact and development have looked and searched for us and wanted to work in collaboration and we are obviously very honored that is so” said Renata.

When talking about what excites her, and motivates her to keep pushing barriers within Isla Urbana, Renata continues, “It can sound sort of a cliche to say but it is the honest truth, the people that we serve and work with make me excited to get up every day and work harder. Just thinking about the younger generations, students we’ve met in different events that are super excited about the technology make me super excited as well. It requires a certain level of commitment and work that the only way to maintain that energy and momentum is through working with younger generations… That is what keeps us going, why we are doing what we are doing.” She exemplifies this through a community in Mexico City called Paraje Quiltepec whom the’ve been working together for more than 6 years – the entire community basically all have rain water harvesting systems today. But they continue to work with them because of their interest in technology, they want to learn, share, and welcome discussion to their community about these important sustainable development projects. Working as a perfect example of a  model community that is evolving. In a more personal note, Renata has grown close to many members of the community, specially the women, that have become role models to her from the amount of work they invest to their family and their community – their names are Silvia and Elena.

So whenever you feel down or you feel sad or perhaps you don’t have enough energy or it’s not the best day, you have these conversations with the people that have a certain relationship to the project and it gives you the energy to continue working.”

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