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Revolutionizing toilets by rethinking the network

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, and nicolasnova.

7 Responses to “Revolutionizing toilets by rethinking the network”

  1. ashish75into

    The idea of waterless, solar powered toilet looks novel. But mass usage would depend on the cost of producing and installing such toilet systems. High upfront cost is the main reason why so many such alternate mass toilet systems have not been able to take of.

  2. Toiletts that don’t need any water still exist. If we combine that with solar-powered ones that take care of waste disposal are going to be the future. Old ones that uses the sewer systems will be gone

    • I think that the bags are OK but think about it. A slum with several thousand people. How many bags per day? Logistics of keeping a supply. Take a container, put solar cells on it, add a composting system, windows/passive ventilation. It would be low maintenance and would service large numbers of people.

  3. Even in modern plumbing, residential and commercial, there is a revolution going on – started in the Orient and moving West way too slowly.

    Home run-plumbing instead of traditional right angle-bends to fit tidy drafting protocols actually saves up to 30% of the energy required – especially in pumping liquids and solids around and up and down commercial structures.

  4. Reblogged this on Red Paint Blog and commented:
    I’m fascinated by all things usability and it’s harder to think of anything the user interacts with more than the toilet… but I’m still trying to wrap my head around a “wireless and water-free” toilet. Isn’t that basically a Port-A-Potty?

    • Nicholas

      In the ecological community, there are many models of western toilets, including composting. The squat toilet may actually be more common throughout the world than the throne!

      Somebody actually wrote a book called “Liquid Gold” that discussed the uses of urine. Stuff like this is critical to the world, although it can seem bizarre at times.