At the end of this blog post I will ask for a contribution to fund the development of the water quality device in the image above. I hope you contribute. Whether you do or not, please read the post and share. I’ve been told I do not ask for what I want and I bury the lede. Not this time.
A few months ago, after a great conversation with friends/designers at Axis Design, I decided to write a thematic article covering what we discussed. The issue was (and still is) the design of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and the missing element in these products; Empathy. The article, ‘The One Missing Ingredient In Connected Devices’, has received 70k views, 5k shares and a couple hundred comments.
We also had a few public companies reach out but I was so blown away by how many people read/shared/loved the post, that I totally missed the point…
Flint, Michigan and the Poisoned Wells of The Water Utility
There is hardly anyone in the US who hasn’t heard about the water issue that happened in Flint Michigan; 2 years ago Flint city officials chose to stop paying Detroit for water from Lake Huron and chose to get water from filthy Lake Flint. The water was corrosive and iron seeped from the pipes into the water for 2 years, turning it brown. As officials claimed the water was fine, Dr Mona Hanna-Atisha, a pediatrician, tested and found thrice the recommended lead levels in kids exposed to this water. The water was switched back to Lake Huron’s but the damage was done. By this time, at least 9000 children in Flint had been affected by lead poisoning. 9000 kids affected by decisions made by folk who didn’t have empathy for these kids.
The issue in Flint is not a one-off. Almost all water infrastructure in the US needs replacement. Earlier this week, due to possible spillage at the Oroville dam, the evacuation of 200k people in California brought the fractured state of water infrastructure right before all our eyes.
What is the scope of this problem? The EPA classifies 52,000 community water systems and 21,400 not-for-profit non-community water systems. In 2012, the American Water Works Association concluded that the replacement value for more than one million pipes was approximately $2.1 trillion if all the pipes were to be replaced at once and $1 trillion if the costs could be spread out over 25 years. This amounts to $7000/American citizen just to get the water utility system up to par with, for example, telecoms technology.
Over the past several years, significantly elevated lead levels in many cities have provoked public outcry. Lead-contaminated water in homes and schools has been detected in Boston, MA8,9; Durham, NC10; and Camden, NJ,11 among many others. In Washington, DC, in 2004, there was considerable public concern when more than half the homes with lead service pipes were found to exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) action level of 15 parts per billion.
The shouts from Flint MI, St Joseph’s LA and Evanston IL echo that quote above, from 2008, and speak to the urgency of the work required. In December 2016 the Water Resources Development Bill, authorizing $100M’s of spend to address some of these upgrades, was signed into law. Almost countering the impact of that decision to improve the water situation is a congressional review act bill, signed on 02/16/2017, that now allows coal companies to dump their waste into streams. With every big step forward we seem to immediately then take a huge back flip.
Unfortunately, these large scale solutions will not address the issues we are now facing daily. Daily. We have to start at the grassroots level. This grassroots approach will be aided by technology that we have today.
Two other factors add to the urgency around the water situation in America. These are
- A scarcity of drinkable water. 97.5% of the water on the planet is salty water. The remaining 2.5% is freshwater but 65% of the freshwater is locked up in glaciers. Leaving only .33% drinkable without some treatment.
- Increasing demand for water: In many parts of the world, the wars and conflicts are actually about access to water sources. And in the US in particular, utilities (that generate our power) also use a lot of water. It’s a nexus of need and at the rate we are going water demand will exceed supply by 2050.
We are seeing an explosion of technology and smart devices. The water industry, like its sister electricity industry, is moving to a more distributed model where the customers (due to the technological capabilities they have in their homes) can personally monitor and adapt their usage to suit their needs. Throw in intelligent devices that take the work of management out of consumer hands (“Alexa, switch off the sprinkler”) and there is hope for hyperlocal solutions right in our homes.
Doing the work that matters: Varuna
We live in a time where we have more devices than friends. Where Artificial Intelligence threatens to take our jobs. And with all these systems issues it feels like we need gods and heroes to save us from the convergence towards a global water calamity. Especially as we lose trust in our governments and need to take more personal responsibility for the care of our families and our stewardship of the planet.
While the problems are systemic, the solutions have to be local. I believe Varuna is one of the ways to solve the problem at the most local level for low to middle income consumers who will suffer most from any calamity…
As the views racked up for the blog post, I realized that the message I was hearing from people was that a smart water quality sensor is a product that thousands of people want. That consumers were telling me that they would like to be warned about possible issues with their water quality before it does any damage or causes any illness. That I was being called to do work that matters at the intersection of resource utilization and health.
Considering water industry inertia, due to lack of money and aging business models, I realized the product has to go directly to the consumer. Something else I realized was that building this product would have to be done in a different way. The image above is of the work currently going into the electronics of the smart water quality meter. And the image below is of the current form factor we are considering for the product. The two initial quality measures the product will focus on are turbidity (pollutants in the water) and lead content, these are the two most recurring choices requested by respondents. It will also measure usage. We are plugging away excited about the impact this can have on millions of lives. But we need your help. And it’s why I’m reaching out to you today.
How can you help? By Donating here if you’d like to see this product exist in the world. No amount is too small. Or by donating your skills and time to bring this product out to the world. You can email me at seyi at asha-labsdotcom or fill out this form. We need your help! And please share this post. But why donations though? Why not the traditional Venture Capital (VC) model?
Why you should not contribute
Reaching out to the mass market to donate and fund product development for a product that might not work seems, on the face of it, counterintuitive. But it’s not as radical as it seems. It’s a variation on the approach that’s now been established by sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. It’s a form of funding that rewards the work that goes into creating something new. It’s also how we fund (what we consider) movements in the form of political contributions.
It also recognizes the fact that creating something new opens up room for failure. The disappointment by contributors to failed kickstarter projects stem from the feeling that the creator had duplicitous intentions in the first place. I’ve personally contributed to several kickstarter campaigns but only received 1 of the products (a book of poems). And so there are reasons why you should not donate to Varuna.
- While the technology risk is low, this is more about integration than invention, what will win is branding. We are not yet Kohler but give us a few years. This method, building a brand with your help and support, actually helps us do that.
- We are sharing the warts and all; the goal is to get a device to market at a cost that works for the mass market, we’ll need help to get there. We’ll share a lot of our screw ups and that might be uncomfortable viewing if you donate.
- What if someone steals the idea? Then the product gets to market and I’ll be over the moon at the number of people who are prevented from drinking dangerous water. It would be great to feed my family or make a lot of money doing this, but the loose collective working on this can feed our families now without Varuna. It’s work worth doing regardless of the outcome.
- You’re being too unconventional about this! I’ve gained enough idiosyncrasy credits to try to build a new business on a new product/platform in a new way. If we fail, I want it to be because we tried our best and it wasn’t enough and not because we didn’t try. Rather than trying the old non-iterative ways of product innovation for the utility market, we are trying this approach. Join us!
- This will be hard! Of course!! That’s why we need all the help we can get.
Despite how tough we know it will be, we believe strongly that no one should unknowingly drink or use water that is dangerous for them and that we now have smart technology that prevents that from happening. The first step to that optimal product is Varuna, a smart water quality meter. Donate here to help our work or sign up here to lend your expertise. Thanks!