Toilet 2.0

No joke: Bill Gates wants to reinvent the toilet.

Gates is focusing on the need for a new type of toilet as an important part of his foundation‘s push to improve health in the developing world. Open defecation leads to sanitation problems that cause 1.5 million children under 5 to die each year, Gates said, and Western-syle toilets are not the answer as they demand a complex sewer infrastructure and use too much water. As a matter of fact, toilet technology has not fundamentally changed since the invention of the flush toilet in 1775.

One year ago, the foundation issued a challenge to universities to design toilets that can capture and process human waste without piped water, sewer or electrical connections, and transform human waste into useful resources, such as energy and water, at an affordable price. California Institute of Technology in the United States received the $100,000 first prize for designing a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity.

In addition to health issues and equal opportunities, this represents a huge potential market for business. As reported in an interesting article on the Harvard Business Review by Alfredo Behrens:

The largest markets will be seen around the axis of India and China, because both countries have huge populations, with a significant share still living in rural areas. India, for instance, expects to see some 350-400 million people becoming urban residents in the next three decades. That could mean demand for as many as 150 million new toilets.

Beherns estimates that in 2010, the two world’s largest toilet suppliers have shipped about 6 million units to emerging markets where, altogether, there are about 2.8 billion people without access to sanitarily acceptable toilet systems.

It looks pretty clear that demand and supply gap is daunting. Moreover, additional demand for new toilets, and derived demand for raw materials and energy, is only the tip of the housing demand iceberg coming from emerging markets. This will far outstrip the current demand coming from the advanced economies.

Globalization, anyone?

Same old saying: KISS!

I was browsing across the ‘new’ Twitter layout features (oh, by the way: did you know that T’s creative director, Doug Bowman, worked for Google? Here is his gentle but tough goodbye message to Big G), when I came across this:

Simplicity meets serendipity

[link here]

Given the title of this blog, you would admit my curiosity on the subject… It was then that I remembered the video of an interview with Jack Dorsey (creator and executive chairman of Twitter) about the existence of a business model founded on serendipity. How would I define it? Well, in a few words online serendipity is a phenomenon where users encounter something they like that they were not expecting (read my previous blog post on the same subject).

As Dorsey himself admits, Google AdWords has been the first application of this groundbreaking online marketing model. As with fashion magazines, where ads are so well integrated with the content to be not only pleasant but also useful to the consumer, AdWords has made online advertising reputable and even desirable.

In the same way that people believe that Google ads make the search experience better, Dorsey says that Twitter’s ad products – promoted trends, promoted accounts, and promoted Tweets – get engagement rates between 1 percent and 5 percent. And this is done, in fact, in an unconventional sense:

I don’t necessarily think of it as advertising in the traditional sense. It’s, how do we introduce you to something new? How do we introduce you to something that would otherwise be difficult for you to find, but something that you probably have a deep interest in discovering? It’s really just another algorithm, or it’s just more curation, but it’s something that you would find delight in anyway. [..] The user experience is what matters. If the user experience is bad, then we fail.

Now the key question is: How do you engineer a system that, while not literally random, produces the feeling of serenidipitous discovery, meaning emerging from what seems like meaninglessness? AdWords also works because it’s a natural part of the system. You perform a search in order to get results — some of those results come in the form of advertising.

If Twitter wants to fully rely on this business model, it must be sure that the strategy feels like it is natural part of the network.

Marketing Online Serendipity - Oct. 30, 2010


ser·en·dip·i·ty  /ˌsɛr ənˈdɪp ɪ ti/ –noun

1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

2. good fortune; luck: the serendipity of getting the first job she applied for.

In the offline shopping experience, this is quite common. You know, that feeling of walking into your favourite bookshop and picking something up in a section you don’t normally go into just because they rearranged the aisles. The moment when you stumble across some gorgeous shirt in a store you have never visited before, but your friend needed to ‘say hello’ to the salesgirl.

That magic moment where you discover something cool (and better than the others) by accident.

Or – as happened to me not so long ago – entering an hotel where you stayed only once a couple of months before and the concierge welcomes you by name.

In the online experience, things get a little bit more complicated.

Just like in the “real” world, online serendipity is a phenomenon where users encounter something they like that they were not expecting. We all know about targeting and segmentation: Amazon made a sort of 11th commandment of it (the “people like you buy stuff like this” functionality), and this has been replicated in thousands of platforms and marketplaces. Clearly, providing important and relevant information from your peers will help increasing conversion rates significantly.

But serendipity happens when you are not going for shopping.

Amazon’s lists (and the likes) never amaze. Serendipity gives you things that you weren’t looking for right now and suddenly you think: “OMG, I gotta have it!

In my opinion, the next phase will be to anticipate users’ questions and answer them before they are even asked. That’s the same kind of experience you have during your offline saturday afternoon shopping session, when you see something blinking at you from the window of that never-even-realized-it-was-there bazaar.

Social networks have a strong part to play here, but we need something more than rating and sharing to be genuinely surprised.

Google+, are you ready?