2019 Stockholm Junior Water Prize winner Macinley Butson on how young people will 'change the game'
Last year, Macinley Butson shook the international water sector when she became the first Australian to win the International Stockholm Junior Water Prize. Now a bright light for water’s future, Butson shares her thoughts on the importance of youth to create change.
Australian Water Association (AWA): You’ve been very busy in the past year, can you tell us about your time in Stockholm during World Water Week 2019?
Macinley Butson: I was fortunate enough to travel to Sweden in August last year as the Australian finalist representative for the International Stockholm Junior Water Prize. It was an experience that’s hard to describe with words. We were there for about a week and I was alongside about 50 other international finalists. We were there to showcase our projects, which all involved investigating water and what we could do to help in the water sector. Being able to make international connections and friendships, with other people my age and with the same drive to help people, was a really phenomenal experience.
The awards were held during World Water Week, so we all attended the conference, too. And that was an eye-opening experience. I knew a little bit about the water sector from my project, but I didn’t quite realise how much opportunity there was for change. Being able to attend World Water Week as part of the experience showed me what is possible and broadened my horizons. I am very thankful to have had that opportunity.
"Being able to make international connections and friendships was a really phenomenal experience." Macinley Butson
The award’s judging was nerve-racking and exciting at the same time. I know it may sound a bit strange, but I was incredibly nervous speaking to the judges. But being able to share my project with the experts in their field from all around the world was a really fantastic opportunity. They had genuine interest in asking me about my work and offered very insightful, and sometimes quite challenging, questions. I never dreamed of winning the international competition and I was so impressed with other students’ work, too. So when I went on to win the award, it was such an incredible honour.
AWA: Now you have an award-winning invention, what do you plan to do next?
Butson: I went over with the SODIS sticker, which is a water purification device. I definitely have big plans. The dream is for it to be on the ground, helping people in developing communities. I’d love to see it doing what it’s designed to do. I’ve got a little bit of work to do before this will happen. But I’ve had the opportunity to do a bit more research and I’ve been in contact recently with Xylem, which was the global sponsor for the competition. We’ve been talking about the potential to collaborate. It’s still very early, but that will be very exciting.
At university, I’ve decided on engineering. I’m not sure where that will take me, but one of the fantastic things about engineering is its breadth – you can almost apply it anywhere.
During my high school years I did a lot of inventing. But, for most of it, I didn’t get to the stage beyond creating, or the prototype stage. At the moment I am focusing on really taking some of those inventions and developing them into products that can be used. There’s always more research involved in making an invention idea ‘world ready’, but I am ready for the challenge.
It’s both exciting and difficult. My mind is more comfortable with engineering and science, that is the part I really enjoy.
I don’t enjoy the business side as much, but the outcome is what makes it worthwhile. It is exciting to see my ideas actually becoming usable and that’s the exciting part, having them being used. The part I enjoy is the science part, but there’s no point in doing it if the ideas are not going to get to that end point.
AWA: What are your thoughts on diversity in the sector and the work being done by young water professionals?
Butson: In any sector, having the diversity in all aspects is incredibly important. Whether this is gender, cultural background or age, which for me is especially important.
You know, we’re at a time where modern medicine has become a lot more advanced. We have about five generations in the workforce at any one time, which is a truckload of experience. At this point, we have a unique ability to harness and utilise all of that. It’s especially important in the water sector because it’s one of the sectors where we need to see a paradigm shift in terms of gender diversity. Diversity propels this force to keep going and advancing our organisations into the future.
If we keep going along with the process that we have been using, we’re going to come up against some problems very, very quickly. Young people are going to be integral in regards to changing the game. Look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from the United Nations as an example; out of those goals, which we’re trying to reach by 2030, most of them are linked directly to water.
Young people have the skill of thinking about things differently and being open to change. We don’t always have the experience necessary to enact that change, but quite often young people have the ideas and an idealistic nature, this allows them to think outside the box and that is going to be necessary for coming up with those new advances for change.
"Young people are going to be integral in regards to changing the game."
It’s important to recognise that this is going to be a partnership between young and senior, where young people recognise the experience and knowledge in our older generations. But our older generations need to recognise the value of some of the wacky ideas that young people come up with. And you can harness that relationship.
We’re going to be able to see the combination of new ideas and a fresh perspective on the water sector, combined with the experience and skills to make that change possible. Water is something that affects every single person around the world, whether it’s too much water, too little water, or unclean water. This is something that in some way affects every single person on earth. It’s incredibly vital that we all step up and try to enact change.
AWA: You’re at the start of a career, which is very exciting. Do you have an idea of how you’d like to see
the world change over the coming decades?
Butson: If I had the answer to world peace, we could all get started! One of the struggles at the moment is that we don’t have the answer to exactly how the world should run. I do honestly think the SDGs are a phenomenal guideline for what we should be working towards as humanity.
They are really a set of principles, which create an equality and fairness in standard of life that everyone should already have. It should be known as basic human rights. Obviously, there’s always going to be more that we can do and more ways that we can help. I don’t think that will ever stop, but the SDGs are good starting points. We need to look closely at our actions and how, as a world, we have been operating for the past 500 years.
We need to take an objective look back on that and recognise that we can’t keep working like this. If we keep working like this, we’re not going to have a place to live. I’m all for trying to stay living on earth, as opposed to looking for somewhere else that we can move, if that were even an option. We need to realise what we have done to this planet and the impact that we’ve had. And we must try to rectify it in a way that’s going to be equal and fair so everyone can call this place home.
AWA would like to thank Xylem for its long standing support of the Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize. Find out more here.
This story was originally published as ‘Spirit of youth’ in Current magazine April 2020.