Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet (and: After 10 Years few pay-offs from Gates's Grand Challenges) - Updates

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Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet (and: After 10 Years few pay-offs from Gates's Grand Challenges)

Note by moderator: An earlier discussion about this topic is available here: forum.susana.org/forum/categories/139-in...oilet-challenge-rttc

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Just don't shoot the messenger! ;)

www.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/opinion/bill-.../international&_r=1&

Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet
Article in New York Times - The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
By JASON KASS
NOV. 18, 2013

Isis (yes, this is an actual name and it is not what you are thinking)
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  • Florian
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Re: NYT critique

Interesting, thanks for posting!

The trouble is that the Gates Foundation has treated the quest to find the proper solution as it would a cutting-edge project at Microsoft: lots of bells and whistles, sky-high budgets and engineers in elite institutions experimenting with the newest technologies, thousands of miles away from their clients.

This pretty much sums up my own uneasyness towards many of the BMGF funded projects.

However, in my opinion, the article still misses the main point with its conclusion:

If we embrace these low-tech toilets, we’ll be on the right track to getting 2.5 billion people one step closer to a safe, clean, comfortable and affordable toilet of their own.

I think it's not about low or high-tech, it's not about tech at all, as we have enough of that already. The real questions is how to get 2.5 billion people actually install all this tech (low or high) in their house and use it and take care of it.


To be fair, we are talking here about the Reinvent the Toilet Programme, BMGF's most high profile programme in sanitation. However, BMGF is doing other things in sanitation that are much more addressing valid points I think, such as their work on fecal sludge management or on service delivery models.


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Re: NYT critique

I suppose on one level we should be pleased that someone is prepared to invest money in research into santiation at a pretty basic level. It is hard to see who would have done that if the Gates Foundation had not.

I just think they've missed a trick by not making enough of these projects about sanitation systems rather than toilets. Hence one can invent all kinds of toilets in a laboratory which have little real chance of seeing the light as a mass form of sanitation.

It seems to be a rather like randomly attempting a range of wild approaches with the ambition that one of them might, at some point, find something out that is useful.
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Re: NYT critique

Dear Isis,

No need to shoot the messenger, this is a very good article in the New York Times. :) I probably would have written it in much the same way...What would have been ideal is if the author had mentioned that all these projects are open for discussion here on the forum...

For example, the two "high tech" ones that were mentioned in the article were discussed here on the forum: And the two "low tech" examples have also been discussed on the forum recently: And we have had a very big discussion here on the forum about the merits and demerits of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge of the BMGF in general:
forum.susana.org/forum/categories/139-ge...oilet-challenge-rttc
(with 22,000 views and 47 replies!)

So I think it's definetely a topic that can be (and should be) hotly debated...

I also have my reservations about the "high tech toilets", particular in terms of maintenance issues. But I think the point of these grants is mainly to get top-scientists and engineers to turn their attention to the neglected topic of sanitation in general - where it has never crossed their minds before to do any reserch in this field. And who knows, amongst all the whacky ideas, there could be a real gem somewhere. And/or maybe it really will not benefit the poorest of the poor (who are better served with simple Peepoo bags?), but maybe it will serve the second or third lowest quintile of wealth? Who knows, time will tell.

One thing is for sure: the added media attention that Bill Gates & Co. (and the grants made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) have managed to generate for solving the sanitation crisis and for using solutions that include resource recovery is pretty amazing and can only help us all.

As the author of the New York Times article said:

Five years ago, if I’d told people I worked on toilets, they would have surely assumed I was a plumber. Now, they exclaim: “Oh! Isn’t Bill Gates into that?


Regards,
Elisabeth

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P.S. In my role as moderator, I have merged some earlier posts that are related to this topic into this one thread as I think it fits nicely.

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Re: NYT critique

muench wrote: One thing is for sure: the added media attention that Bill Gates & Co. (and the grants made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) have managed to generate for solving the sanitation crisis and for using solutions that include resource recovery is pretty amazing and can only help us all.

As the author of the New York Times article said:

Five years ago, if I’d told people I worked on toilets, they would have surely assumed I was a plumber. Now, they exclaim: “Oh! Isn’t Bill Gates into that?


Agree, as an awarness raising campaing in rich countries, the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge was certainly hugely successful.

My main critiscim is that this programme reinforces the already widespread but plain wrong perception that technology alone can solve the world's sanitation problems.

About BMGF work in general, it would be interesting to see how it's sanitation budget is spent. My guess is that the budget for these research grants to reinvent the toilet is actually rather small compared to BMGF's other sanitation programmes, but that it recieved far more attention by media and ourselves than the other larger programmes.


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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

While the critic is definitely justified, I do like the fact that the BMGF's Reinvent the Toilet Programme is looking beyond "just" scaling up existing technology.

Florian is right that "upscaling" is what is needed and also that there are plenty of existing solutions, but there is a last missing component which in my opinion is not yet addressed: Having a desirable and affordable solution that "scales up itself" while still taking feces treatment seriously.
In my experience, the only sanitation "solutions" that are increasing in number by actual demand are currently "flush and forget" toilets.

As nice as EcoSan solutions etc. are, they are currently not really desirable for the typical potential user and thus will not get installed without heavy subsidy.

So what we need is a affordable technology product that functions as a EcoSan, but is as desirable as a flush-toilet.

That said, none of the Reinvent the Toilet solutions so far fit that description in every aspect.

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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

JKMakowka wrote: there is a last missing component which in my opinion is not yet addressed: Having a desirable and affordable solution that "scales up itself" while still taking feces treatment seriously.
Currently the only sanitation "solutions" that are increasing in number by actual demand are "flush and forget" toilets.

As nice as EcoSan solutions etc. are, they are currently not really desirable for the typical potential user and thus will not get installed without heavy subsidy.

So what we need is a affordable technology that functions as a EcoSan, but is as desirable as a flush-toilet.


I think you a very right with the analysis of the problem. However, the idea of a new technology that makes a good toilet as sexy and attractive as an iphone, and that makes also poor people craving for that and investing in it as they do now on mobile phones or TV sets, this is pure wishful thinking, I am pretty much convinced.

In places where sanitation is really bad, it is usually so because it is not very high up on the list of personal priorities of people, because people have more important worries like income, housing, water supply, education of children, etc.

The benefits of good sanitation are manifold, but the most important benefits are on a public level (protetction of public health and the environment), not on a direct private level (comfort, status). To most poor people, the comfort and status a good toilet provides is important, but way less important than having enough food, a comfortable house, functioning water supply, etc. No new technology is going to change these priorities, I am sure.


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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

100% agreement, except that at a start it doesn't have to compete with an iphone ;)
Those that want to install a flush-toilet should have an equally attractive solution that includes some sort of treatment or better disposal.
There are many people around the world those livelihoods have increased a lot in the last decades, and which are now at least somewhat interested in upgrading their personal sanitation situation (after mostly satisfying their more pressing needs/priorities). If those would rather install a non-flush&forget system that would be already a huge gain.

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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

JKMakowka wrote: There are many people around the world those livelihoods have increased a lot in the last decades, and which are now at least somewhat interested in upgrading their personal sanitation situation (after mostly satisfying their more pressing needs/priorities). If those would rather install a non-flush&forget system that would be already a huge gain.


Agreed! But these are not the 2.5 billion people we are talking about.


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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

Florian wrote:

But these are not the 2.5 billion people we are talking about.


Hmmm, or maybe they are - at least making up a good fraction of this figure? It's not that we have 2.5 billion people living in absolute poverty on the planet... Take the example of India (which is making up a big fraction of the 2.5 billion people - staggering numbers of open defecators - who are not necessarily people at the rock-bottom of the poverty pyramid - they have other reasons for not having toilets, not (only) the poverty reason...).

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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

muench wrote: they have other reasons for not having toilets

Perhaps. But I am quite sure these reasons have nothing to do with unavailability of the right technology.


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Re: NYT critique - Article in New York Times: Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet

I could imagine the reasons have something to do with not having the right technology available (yet) or about not knowing how to get onto the list of a service provider (as in the Haiti example where 550 households are on the waiting list for those dry toilets + service ( forum.susana.org/forum/categories/99-fae...mit=12&start=24#6359 ) - ops OK, you will say "this is not a technology issue, this is a management issue". But it's a different type of toilet technology they are implementing there (i.e. mobile, urine diversion, dry, external composting).

So anyhow, I am quite sure it has something to do with technology (not everything but also not nothing). But then I have to say that, being an engineer, don't I? :P

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