The Gates Foundation awards teams at 8 different universities $3 million in grants to design innovative commodes for use in developing countries where easy access to clean and safe sanitation is a rarity.
Just this morning, I received an email from Kohler thanking me for checking out Numi, the fixture brand’s new tricked-out, water-saving $6,000 robo-toilet, while attending this year’s Dwell on Design conference in Los Angeles. My pleasure — perhaps some day I too will be able to install one in the living room of my Pierre Koenig-designed Case Study House in the Hollywood Hills and invite my supermodel friends over to stand around looking sexily constipated around it. Some day.
While this dual-flush, hands-free designer commode — the Masarati of crappers, if you will — is certainly attractive and aspirational, thinking about luxury toilets also makes me think about how around 40 percent of the world’s population — about 2.9 billion people — doesn’t have regular access to any kind of toilet, let alone a remote-controlled one with foot warmers and a built-in sound system for tasteful musical accompaniment (“Chariots of Fire” theme, anyone?) while you do your business.
Turns out, the folks over at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also been thinking about innovative toilet design for those in some of the world's poorest areas where adequate means of sanitation are few and far between. Just last week at the Third African Conference on Sanitation and Hygiene in Rwanda, the Gates Foundation announced the launch of the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge, a program in which eight teams from an array of international universities were awarded grants totaling $3 million to "leverage advances in science and technology" and design a new toilet for use in a single family home that’s not reliant on sewage infrastructure, costs less than 5 cents per user per day, and is capable of transforming something that's potential deadly — raw human waste — into something that's useful like fuel, fertilizer and clean water.
The Reinventing the Toilet Challenge is just one small but crucial part of the Gates Foundation's $42 million grant program aimed to improve sanitation in undeveloped areas where about 1.5 million children die annually from diseases associated with the absence of safe and clean places to go to when nature calls.
No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet. But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world. What we need are new approaches. New ideas. In short, we need to reinvent the toilet.
Click here to read more about the program specifics and to learn about each of the eight design proposals including a solar-powered toilet from the California Institute of Technology that generates both hydrogen and electricity and a “pneumatic flushing urine-diversion dehydration toilet” from the National University of Singapore. And, of course, be sure to check out the above video promoting the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge which relies on good, old-fashioned toilet humor to get a most serious message across.