Revolutionizing toilets by rethinking the network

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Over time, networks often trend toward becoming more decentralized, more mobile, and less capital intensive to build out. Telecommunications did this with cell phones, and Skype laptop calls; the architecture of the Internet is like this; a future of solar rooftops could do the same thing for the power grid. Is it time for the humble toilet to get reinvented by applying these same principles to the sanitation network?

That’s one of the themes behind some of the toilet innovation that just emerged from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. The year-long challenge asked universities and entrepreneurs to develop next-generation toilets for the 2.5 billion people that don’t already have them in developing countries like India. The toilets in the Challenge needed to be able to function without piped water and electrical connections, and also needed to reuse the waste in some way.

The first place winner, announced on Wednesday, is the California Institute of Technology, which received $100,000 for a solar-powered toilet that creates hydrogen and electricity. Second place went to Loughborough University in the U.K., which won $60,000 for a toilet that makes biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water. And third place and $40,000 went to the University of Toronto for a toilet that cleans the waste and creates reusable resources and clean water.

The Challenge also gave special recognition to the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology for their “toilet user interface” design. Love that. Maybe Japanese master toiler maker Toto should get in on this Challenge. I’ll never forget the user interfaces of the toilets in Tokyo.

Toilet reinvention isn’t all that weird of a problem for entrepreneurs to tackle. On a trip to India last year, it was clear to me that entrepreneurs in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore were very eager to work on novel ways to solve the problem of lack of bathrooms. Some tried to pair the problem with cell phone minutes, because more people in India have cell phones than bathrooms (Poop Rewards is no longer working on that).

In some of the slums in India and Africa there’s a phenomenon called “flying toilets,” or basically people use a plastic bag as a toilet and then go dump it somewhere. Some innovators want to tweak that (completely decentralized) system to create local pickup spots and biodegradable bags, and people that participate in those social networks would get rewarded in some way (like cell phone minutes). The waste could then be reused for power by the company that’s managing the system.

The obvious problem with traditional toilets is that bathrooms with running water and electricity are too expensive to build out in many regions. But not managing waste properly can lead to diseases, sanitation problems, and safety issues (women walking to public toilets at night), among other things.

Can entrepreneurial innovation solve the poop problem?

Image courtesy of epSos.de, and nicolasnova.

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