Q&A: Nathan Cooke, designer and instructor at MIT's D-Lab

In a Nairobi slum, newly minted entrepreneurs run more than 160 public toilets and transform their waste into fertilizer -- and someday they'll turn it into electricity.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

In a Nairobi slum, newly minted entrepreneurs run more than 160 public toilets that get thousands of visitors everyday. The waste generated in this community is transformed into fertilizer -- and is eventually set to become electricity.

Nathan Cooke, a designer and instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's D-Lab, is also co-founder of Sanergy, a company that builds sustainable sanitation in urban slums. Sanergy was showcased last month at the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance Open Minds conference. I spoke recently with Cooke about innovative toilets, design in underserved communities and how students in New England can help farmers in Ethiopia. Below are excerpts from our interview.

You describe yourself as 'an idealist who uses design to work with others and create a tangible effect on people's lives.' How did you get that way?

I don't know when I became an idealist. There was a time in high school when I wanted to drive a Hummer and find a job that would enable me to drive that Hummer. Then I got into design. It started as design for movies, like props. I began to develop a portfolio for that. Then I wanted to design things that people would feel and use. But after awhile, I realized a lot of these things would end up in the trash. That got me thinking about the environment, as well as people. That was my slow journey from wanting to drive a Hummer to wanting to make a positive impact on the world. That took four years to figure out. I [also] heard about great things people were doing, but I didn't see the tangible results of that. [I was] trying to hold onto that idealism and was focusing on how to use the skills I have to create something where I can actually see the difference.

The class you teach at MIT's D-Lab addresses problems in underserved communities through design. How does the class work?

The class has three goals:

1.     The students build a working prototype by the end.

2.     The students learn the design process. We teach them to do research, frame the problem, come up with ideas and build prototypes to test those ideas.

3.     The students interact with a community partner or user. We focus on the user component of it. We feel that gets overlooked sometimes.

We take them along through the design process. We lecture and give them opportunities to practice the techniques we're teaching them. At the same time, they're in communication with the community partner who we've received the challenge from and vetted for the class. We think the students could potentially create something in class that could be applied in the field. After the class, students can apply for funding to take the prototype into the field to work with the community partner and make further iterations.

Who are the community partners? What was a recent project the students completed?

The projects aren't necessarily local. Most of them are in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

I can speak to a successful project last semester. It was a multi-crop thresher [a device that separates the head of a stalk of grain from the straw and then separates the kernel from the head] for a community in Ethiopia. The goal was to make a device that could thresh wheat, barley, maize and rice. There was a machine farmers were using for this, but they had to rent it. The goal was to make an intermediary machine: not [the typical] $10,000 device, but not doing it by hand. In the middle of those two existed the potential for a device that could fix the farmers' problem. The students developed that over the course of the semester. At the end of the class, a few students wanted to continue working on the project. We got them together over the summer to work with an instructor to further develop the multi-crop thresher. They made more prototypes and took one to Tanzania, where they made even more iterations of that design. They're in the shop now and looking at continuing the design.

You're also the co-founder of Sanergy, where the goal is to build sustainable sanitation in urban slums. How did you get involved in this?

I was sitting in on a class at MIT called Development Ventures [on building entrepreneurial ventures]. I met some of the other co-founders in that class. This was in the fall of 2009. In this class, everyone works on their own or in a pair. I had another idea I wanted to do and, honestly, I thought their idea was crazy. They presented the idea of building toilets in developing countries, working with entrepreneurs, converting the waste and turning it into electricity. It would require a lot to make it work. My project eventually petered out. I kept seeing them around campus and they were pitching their idea. I realized over the course of two semesters that they were serious about this. When they needed to build a test toilet, I told them I'd help them out. I thought I'd only be helping them for a week or two. Three or four years later, I'm still with them.

What have you accomplished so far with Sanergy?

We talk about sanitation. That's time-consuming and expensive to measure. There are so many factors that go into that. We use some numbers to measure our success: We have about 161 toilets in the ground. We have 90 entrepreneurs. We sell the toilet to someone in the community and they run it as a business. They own it. They keep it clean. They collect the usage fee, which is a completely normal thing in the area. We have 8,000 users a day. We've removed more than 500,000 tons of waste from the community. That's the number that's greatest to me in terms of impact. That's a lot of waste and I don't know where it was going before. There's a lot more waste out there that we can capture. We remove the waste. Currently we convert it into fertilizer. One of our future plans is to convert it into electricity [by turning the waste into a biogas] and sell it back to the grid. Our idea is to figure out as much as we can in Nairobi before expanding to other places.

What have you learned so far?

My dealings with Sanergy being on the product development side. The original design has changed a lot. We're hoping to reduce the cost to make it accessible to more people.

Talk about the design. What makes this toilet unique?

The toilet takes up about a three-by-five-foot space, but other than that it's different from what we think as portable toilets in the U.S. It's a squat design, instead of sitting down. Feces goes in one hole and urine goes in another. It takes some user education. It's on the entrepreneurs to help teach people the importance of that. It's made of panels of cement that are about an inch-and-a-half thick.

What keeps you up at night as you continue to work on this and other urban design problems?

I sleep pretty well at night right now, but that's because I'm doing this. I think if I was in another field, not doing something for people with a clear need, that would concern me. I sleep well because I can see the difference I'm making. When I'm in country at the manufacturing site, it becomes on some levels very mundane. There are people just going to work everyday. But I love that because people have jobs now because of the work we've been doing. That's not something you can capture when we talk about how much waste we've removed. It's that feeling of regularity. Everyday they can go in and have a job to do.

What's the future of design for underserved communities?

I do hope this continues. One thing that needs to change is people doing it from afar. One of the most important things with Sanergy is that we're there. It's so different when you're there and you become part of the community. So many little things make a big difference in understanding what people are going through that you don't get if you just go in for two weeks.

Photo: Nathan Cooke

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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