Toilets and Technology: Not a Waste at the Tech4Society Meeting

It’s not often that you hear the word “toilet” used in the same sentence as “Louis Vuitton handbag” and “Prada shoes,” but Jack Sim has a unique way of describing toilets, which he believes, like designer merchandise, should be promoted as a lifestyle product that is colorful, sexy, relevant and emotionally appealing.

The World Toilet Organization (WTO)— like the World Trade Organization, but we do more than them because we're not constipated," Sim explains about the organization he founded. “So far, we have been very, very exciting to the media with lots of humor, but a very serious subject.”

Sim was one of more than 200 leaders in technology and business who gathered at the February 11-13, 2010 Tech4Society conference in Hyderabad, India, to discuss and develop cutting edge innovations to solve some of the world’s most critical social problems.

Ashoka, the Lemelson Foundation, and Microsoft sponsored this inaugural event, a three-day conference that attracted experts and pioneers making mobile technology, solar energy, science education, health care, clean water, and agriculture available and accessible to people throughout the world.

“Two and a half billion people or 40 percent of humankind do not have access to toilets," Sim said. "The charity model does not solve the sanitation issue effectively. We’re asking for business models at the Ashoka-Lemelson Tech4Society meeting, and there are many of them.“

More than 100 Ashoka-Lemelson Fellows, as well as government officials, business and philanthropic leaders, and citizen innovators came together to advance technology for social change, and rally behind the local entrepreneurs inspiring and implementing change around the world.

The widespread effects of business and technology were two critical Tech4Society issues that are being addressed in the Leveraging Business for Social Change and the Women | Tools | Technology competitions on Ashoka Changemakers partnered with Artemisia and ExxonMobil, respectively, for these two online competitions.

Through these competitions on, participants have identified some of the world's best ideas and initiatives that use social business to improve low-income communities, and technology to expand the economic opportunities for women around the world.

“In the past, technologies have not been created with women in the design process,” said ExxonMobil's Lorie Jackson, director of ExxonMobil’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative. She was a Tech4Society attendee who said she was pleased to attend a technology conference that was not completely dominated by solutions developed for and by men.

The Women | Tools | Technology: Building Opportunities & Economic Power competition puts the needs of women and their families at the forefront, believing that creative approaches to innovation, design, outreach and education will embrace women in developing countries and encourage them to contribute to the global economy. Economic advancement is the focal point of the Leveraging Business for Social Change: Building the Field of Social Business competition sponsored by Artemisia.

Carolina de Andrade, Artemisia's Social Business Accelerator Coordinator, also attended the Tech4Society conference. She said she enjoyed exchanging ideas with social entrepreneurs about how to solve the field’s biggest challenges. She was gratified to find that they recognized how supporting social businesses is a key strategy for getting low-cost technologies into markets.

There is a need to increase the number and diversity of actors in the field, bringing them together and unifying efforts across industries to foster the whole ecosystem," de Andrade said.

The AshokaTech website has a wealth of information on the Tech4Society conference, including video interviews with exciting innovators and attendees, and extensive event coverage.