Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Why We Give a Shit about Toilets

July 16, 2013


During a recent internal hackathon at GOOD HQ, our designers and coders and writers got together to dream up a campaign on something big, something daunting into which we could sink our teeth. We wanted to prove that even the biggest problems can be tackled creatively. We coalesced around a big problem that is rather impolite to talk about—access to a good, safe place to do the body’s most basic business. And thus our Give A Shit campaign was born.
 
Here’s the idea: we found out that more people in the world have access to mobile phones than toilets. We wanted to change that, so we designed a mobile tool to allow people to take action on their cellphones to help give better health and sanitation to people all over the world.
 
Why?
 
Because 2.5 billion people in the world—one out of every three people on the planet—don’t have access to a toilet. The consequences of that are deadly serious. 1.4 million children die every year from contact with raw human feces—that averages out to one child every 20 seconds, more than die from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis yearly combined. Human shit contains hundreds of pathogens that are harmful to humans, including E. coli and salmonella, and is a significant factor in spreading infectious disease.
 
Most of that disease burden happens when untreated human waste enters the water supply to be indirectly ingested later by an unwitting farmer or bather or young child. This is a reality far more common in the world’s poorest countries than in the richest. Indeed, poverty is the leading risk factor for many sanitation-related infectious diseases. The modern toilet would be a welcome addition to poor communities.
 
There’s just one problem: the porcelain throne as we currently know it isn’t sustainable. When the first iteration of the modern flush toilet was invented in 1596 by British courtier Sir John Harington, the global population was roughly 550 million people. It was a brilliant invention that caused the global sanitation and hygiene disease burden to drop precipitously, but progress in design has largely petered out since the ubiquitous toilet featuring an S-shaped bend in the pipe was developed in 1775.
 
Our global population has exponentially soared since 1596, by an astounding 6.7 billion people, and we simply do not have enough water to maintain that kind of growth without sucking the planet’s already strained water supply dry. Sparked by this crisis, a movement has begun to change the toilet from an object out of reach of the bottom third of the world’s population to something usable by all. Prototypes of new toilets—designed with the world’s poor in mind and capable of keeping our increasingly scarce water resources free of human waste contaminants—are in development. The toilet of the future may well run on solar or wind power, and could even convert waste into a usable agricultural fertilizer or a food condiment like salt. (Yes, you read that correctly).
 
We at GOOD are not engineers who can help design the next generation toilet. But we have a strong team of talented designers and thinkers who want to work towards a more equitable world. We did that by finding a way in which graphic designers, for example, can get involved in global problems that seem terribly complicated, affect millions of people, and have no silver bullet solution, especially when there are already really smart people working hard to fix it. Being a designer gives you a lot of opportunities to make pretty, but often pointless things. It’s the nature of creating in a world that is increasingly driven by the aesthetics rather than the inherent value design can bring. This is a problem.
 
It’s not bad to make pretty things that don’t serve an immediate purpose or solve a glaring issue, but we work at GOOD for another reason. We want to engage in problems that can be scary and complicated, where the temptation to leave the solutions to people who are more experienced and educated is high. And while it’s true that designers won’t solve big messy issues on their own, designers can play a part in creating solutions by working in tandem with people who know the problem.

We’re proud to be launching Give A Shit, our quirky tool for people to use to take a small step toward getting involved in the fight for better water and sanitation around the world. We've paired playful infogifs with a call to action to donate to our friends at Water for People, an organization that works to ensure that everyone has access to a safe water system no matter where they live. Check it out on your mobile phone at good.is/giveashit.

 
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