The simple invention that could save the world

Flushed: This toilet, designed by Cranfield University, also works to “block odours”.

Is focus the key to success? Yesterday was World Toilet Day — and it was no laughing matter. Bill Gates has spent seven years and £155 million reinventing loos. They may save thousands of lives.

Earlier this month, Microsoft founder Bill Gates stood at a conference in China holding a jar of human faeces. “I never imagined that I’d know so much about poop,” he joked.

Yesterday, on World Toilet Day, he reminded everyone why he knows so much: because lavatories save lives.

According to the World Health Organisation, 2.5 billion people do not have access to clean toilets, as many areas in developing countries do not have sewage systems. This is not just unpleasant; it also spreads diseases like cholera and typhoid.

So in 2011, Gates launched the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge”, calling for safe, clean toilets that did not rely on sewers. In the seven years since, his foundation has donated more than £155 million to researchers.

Twenty new “reinvented toilets” were unveiled at the conference in China. Gates described them as “the most significant advances in sanitation in nearly 200 years.”

Most are able to turn urine into clean drinking water, and can dry and burn faeces to produce electricity. The self-contained systems will also help to save water.

There are still a few problems ahead. The biggest is scale: can the loos be made cheap enough for the people that need them most?

Bill Gates has always said that “focus” is the secret to success, whether you are working on toilets or computers. Is he right?

On a roll

Yes, say some. The author Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. If you want to save the world, choose one small but important problem and obsess over it until you have a solution.

This is bad advice, argue others. The best ideas come from the people who can see the whole picture — who have a broad range of knowledge and can make connections between things more easily. For proof, look no further than Leonardo da Vinci.

You Decide

  1. Should all homes have waterless toilets?


  1. List five other simple problems that could be solved to help save the world. (Hint: “climate change” is not simple!)

Some People Say...

“If your culture doesn’t like geeks, you are in real trouble.”

Bill Gates

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A WaterAid report found that one in five primary schools and one in eight secondary schools do not have any toilets. Around 2.5 billion people do not have toilets. Around 800,000 are forced to defecate out in the open.
What do we not know?
Whether Bill Gates can actually solve the problem. He wants to create a toilet that costs less than five cents per use, but this has not been achieved yet.

Word Watch

Bill Gates
The co-founder of Microsoft is the second richest person in the world (after Jeff Bezos).
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a charitable organisation created in 2000.
Save water
In the US, toilets account for around 30% of a household’s water consumption.
10,000 hours
Gladwell wrote about this in the book Outliers, but the figure actually comes from a 1993 study about learning musical instruments.
Leonardo da Vinci
(1452-1519) An artist, scientist, inventor, writer and architect.

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