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Friday, November 2, 2012

Strategic CSR - Toilets

The article in the url below is amazing for two reasons. It reports recent attempts by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reinvent the toilet. Apparently, there has not been much innovation in this vital tool since the 16th century:

In fact, with the exception of S-traps to contain odours, flush toilets have changed little since Sir John Harington installed one in Richmond Palace for Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1590s.

The first reason this article is amazing is because of the winning designs submitted by scientists and social entrepreneurs from around the world. This is not a sexy area, but the innovation the contest generated is outstanding. Here is the description of the winning design:

The winning toilet is smarter still. It has been developed by Michael Hoffman of the California Institute of Technology, and has earned him the $100,000 first prize. His toilet uses solar panels to power an electrochemical system that turns waste into useful things. One is a compound which oxidises the salts in urine to generate chlorine. This creates a mildly disinfecting solution that can be used to flush the toilet. The second is hydrogen, which is suitable for cooking or for powering a fuel cell to produce electricity. The residue from the process can be used as fertiliser.

The second reason this article is amazing is because it demonstrates, yet again, the ability of Bill and Melinda Gates to influence greatly the field of health, education, and overseas aid. When Gates brings his attention and intelligence to a subject (combined with a lot of money), stuff happens and it tends to happen more quickly than the turgid government agencies that (with bigger budgets) have been working in these fields for decades. As the article states, toilets had not seen meaningful innovation for centuries:

Mr Gates considers it time for a change. On August 14th his charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced the gold-, silver- and bronze-medal winners in its Reinventing The Toilet Challenge, which aims to bring safe, affordable and ‘sustainable’ loos to the 40% of the world’s population who lack access to basic sanitation. This could help prevent many of the 1.5m childhood deaths from diarrhea that now occur each year.

Following design, comes implementation:

The Gates Foundation will now pay for prototypes to be tested in the field, probably of all three winners and possibly of some other ideas. Mr Gates hopes that the foundation’s reinvented toilets will start being deployed more widely in as little as two years. They will thus be able to help achieve what is the most off-track of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals: to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to basic sanitation.

In most peoples’ point of view, Bill Gates usually fairs worse in comparison to Steve Jobs. The reason is that our understanding of ‘social value’ is warped. Steve Jobs was a brilliant businessman, but what Gates is doing with his Foundation is phenomenal.

Have a good weekend.

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Flushed with pride
The Economist Technology Quarterly
The Economist
September 1, 2012