Sure, We Can Build a Better Toilet. But Will People Use It?
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
The Gates Foundation’s plan to build a better toilet has inspired optimism for the future of sanitation in the developing world.
But if history is any guide, good intentions and clever engineering aren’t enough. Would-be designers of post-porcelain thrones won’t just need to account for water use and material costs, but sociology and psychology — the human factors that, as much as any tech spec set, determine whether an innovation takes root.
“You need a good engineering solution, but there’s also this behavioral and social science problem,” said Mushfiq Mobarak, an environmental economist at Yale University. “How do you enact behavior change?”
Mobarak is supported by the Gates Foundation in studying how best to promote the new toilets. He’s also part of MIT’s Poverty Action Laboratory, a group that’s applied the methodology of pharmaceutical drug testing — rigorously quantified randomized control trials — to the traditionally fuzzy world of social policy.
Mobarak’s most recent study, on the use of clean cookstoves in Bangladesh, holds useful lessons for the Gates Foundation’s sanitation engineers, and for anyone interested in technological solutions to problems in the developing world (or, for that matter, the developed).