Making Innovation Matter in Water's Terms

Ambika, a research analyst who specializes on Middle East environment issues including conflict and water, reports on her trip to Sweden, where she finds grassroots solutions like the Peepoo Bag –  ones that could impact the developing world.

Along the banks of the beautiful Lake Siljan, in the idyllic town of Leksand, Sweden, over 1600 people from 120 countries came together for the 5th Global YES Summit in partnership with the Tallberg Foundation. The Summit brought together almost 150 projects and new ideas, developed by people who have a desire to tackle the challenges facing us today.

These projects and initiatives attempt to solve issues of social cohesion, climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, and youth unemployment. These ideas, which are focused mainly on the grassroots and community level, have the potential to start an innovation revolution in developing societies.

The projects were divided into five broad themes of water, energy, land, cities and people. Each project was not only environmentally sustainable in its own way, but extremely innovative in its approach. Several of these projects, such as the Peepoople bags, SolarCool, KickStart, Solvatten, and others, simply adapted existing knowledge into effective inventive solutions for the future. These exciting new innovations are mostly uncomplicated and easy to implement, with the power to change and transform the society they are introduced into.

I was invited to be on the panel of the Water Theme Introductory Session at the summit, where I was able to witness powerful new ideas that people have come up with first hand. On a broad level, the panel discussed the challenges facing the world today in the area of sanitation and water.

To counter these challenges, small scale initiatives were presented, and the discussion centred on bringing these initiatives and ideas into the larger social landscape.

peepoo bag africa child imagePeepoople bags, a Swedish invention, are biodegradable toilet bags for sanitation and fertilizer. The bag not only presents an alternative to public defecation, but within 3-4 weeks the bag with its contents breaks down into natural fertilizer, creating a much needed local resource.

A response to flying toilets

Originally launched in Kenya to combat the growing problem of the ‘flying toilets’ [a facetious name for the use of plastic bags for defecation, which are then thrown into ditches, on the roadside, or simply as far away as possible], the bag could be extremely effective in societies that have water shortages, lack of toilet facilities, as well as lack of finances to afford fertilizers. In the long run, these bags also represent means to a cleaner, more hygienic local environment.

Another innovation presented at the session by a young woman from Kenya, was KickStart (pictured right) or manual water pumps for efficient irrigation. These are small, easy to carry water pumps, which can be placed around fields or near places of water supply to draw water from the ground to irrigate fields.

The size and nature of the pump makes it easy to use for women and young girls in the villages, reducing the burden placed on them and making efficient use of time.

I also had the opportunity to meet a representative of Solarcool; another excellent innovation that addresses another gap in society – energy supply.

The Solarcool is a medium-sized box, covered in inexpensive solar panels. These panels convert energy into a cooling mechanism, essentially creating a solar-powered refrigerator.

Solarcool not only opens up a whole new market for people without electricity, but will also prove extremely useful in other fields such as mobile hospitals, resulting in an improved system of health care in rural areas.

solvatten water purifyA similar initiative, Solvatten, uses the sun’s rays to purify water. A special 10 litre can has been designed, that upon exposure to the sun for 3-4 hours, purifies the water in the can, rendering it fit for consumption.

These ideas, if harnessed and allowed to grow, have the potential to create real change; where solutions for difficult issues can be found in these small innovations. Many of these inventions, such as the pumps, the bags, and the solar coolers, if mass produced, will be inexpensive and affordable for the poorest sections of society.

Not only are these projects environmentally sustainable, some of them also have the potential to create jobs in the future. The summit ended with two important plenary sessions – on bridging the divide between these projects and financial capital; and merging these approaches into the mainstream policy dialogue.

While plenary sessions are necessary, it is extremely important that these grassroots ideas and inventions do not get lost in the wider political debate. Sweden, known for its openness to innovation, in a number of different fields, was the perfect setting to present existing ideas and develop new ones.

The summit ensured that such an open space was replicated in those few days, and these important new ideas were brought to the forefront, as well as to the attention of decision makers.

About a year ago, Strategic Foresight Group’s President, Sundeep Waslekar, in his monthly column, addressed the question of what makes a nation great, citing innovation as an important factor.

It will indeed be a great nation that recognises important ideas such as the ones stated above, and ensures that these ideas are incorporated into its social fabric. Any country that snaps up these innovations and nurtures the potential of innovators, thereby facilitating a sustainable environment for the future, will indeed be a great nation. Any society that encourages its government to distinguish and boost the potential of a citizen who attempts to create a sustainable future will indeed be a great society.

The question that now remains is how we, as a global society, can ensure that these efforts become transformative forces for large scale change, and are not forgotten. It is necessary that these kinds of emerging ideas and initiatives are given the right kind of support, and that we make innovation matter.

Ambika Vishwanath is a research analyst with Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai based Think Tank. She specializes on issues in the Middle East.

Above image is of Peepoo Bag

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