For the past several months I have been working on the ground with a multidisciplinary team of young doctors and technology entrepreneurs looking at innovative ways to manage the vast amounts of waste we humans deposit in our water supply.
Of course, because this is the amazing 21st Century, we learned the “usual” post dot.com miraculous stuff.
We can generate enough electricity from human waste to power cities. We can clean up our water for pennies, not billions of dollars.
We can use novel genetic engineering and math to modify bacteria in our septic tanks to produce drinking water from sewage, mine increasingly scarce minerals from our waste at high profit, generate biogas to power the sewage mining and purification processes, even mine precious metals from our pooh.
We may use the same genetic engineering to recover industrial chemicals from the Maquiladora-saturated Rio Grande.
Genetically modified bacteria can “tune” sewage sludge to create customized fertilizer that reduces the amount of irrigation water we need to create the food we eat…and the 30% we throw away.
Modified organisms can even perform the same profitable magic on that food waste. We don’t have to wait for the food to pass through our intestines to profit from our world-class waste stream.
The Gemba of Pooh
All these discoveries and more happened because our team has learned from the most sustainable companies like Toyota and Honda that the best way to innovate and start new ventures is to “go to the Gemba”…the “real place”. Get out of your office or classroom, and go watch how real people solve real problems, where they solve them.
Learn from the do-ers, not just the talkers.
The best entrepreneurs in the world do exactly this: learn by doing, and from those who are doing.
In the past 6 months our team has seen first hand almost every form of human waste. This can be daunting to a society that distributes hand sanitizer like candy, but after the first few days it’s not so bad. And when you listen to even some of the several million Americans employed in our waste stream, you begin to see the incredible technology innovation opportunities in waste.
Our team is now working to operationalize some of these technologies – our lessons learned from pooh.
But we learned something more. We learned that waste innovation is now a global industry and America is likely to miss much of it.
Unintended Lessons: the Global Power of Pooh
Going to the Gemba always teaches one “unintended lessons” that can be more important than the ones we intended to learn. What else did we learn?
- Americans are scared of waste, while 3 billion people in “emerging” nations are immersed in it, and are developing profitable new industries from it. This means Americans are missing out on our own new technology of waste, and just like we lost cars, TV’s, consumer electronics, industrial software, computing, and other industries to “foreign producers”, we are likely to lose out on the biological and computational revolution in waste that is staring us in the face.
- American scientists and entrepreneurs are developing amazing new waste technologies right here, but America largely ignores them. Small companies have installed innovative sewage “digesters” in rural America for more than 30 years. These existing digesters allow genetic mining of sewage with little modification. Just add new “active cultures” like we eat in yogurt to keep our own intestines healthy. Using standard components, these digesters can scale quickly from residential to municipal size, faster, at much lower cost than the massive group-think sewage plants that are now failing us. But American law creates a massive, tenured, government-industry near monopoly on 100-year old sewage plant design. This means “developing countries” are likely to adopt advanced distributed waste technologies before we will.
- America has a gold mine in 50 years of geographic sewage data that would let us mathematically “Google-ize” treatment of entire watersheds. Good News: we could “mine” pollution from 1,000 miles of the Rio Grande at once. Bad News: these data are buried on paper in more than 30,000 municipalities. Good News: innovative “data services” companies in Asia can use high tech scanning to transform tons of paper into searchable electronic data bases. At such volume, small errors in handwriting can be corrected with 21st century math. Such a data base would help technology innovators break free from overwhelmed city sewage systems to distributed “biological waste mining”.
Big Unintended Insight
The world is generating pools of talented young people in the most unexpected ways.
America’s health care systems are – inadvertently- creating a new pool of extraordinary talent. In our travels we found young doctors looking at human waste systems – trying to escape what some call “factory medicine” – to help many patients at once through the growing disciplines of environmental, preventive, and occupational medicine.
Think about this. Doctors are trained to visualize – and fix – extremely complicated 3-dimensional biological networks. They see rivers like arteries. They see sewage digesters as mitochondria. They can look at the Rio Grande, the Colorado, the Mississippi and instantly visualize a patient that needs help. They can see how injecting small innovations can help cure complex systems.
Young technology entrepreneurs have grown up with cheap, global, image based systems. They can compose business plans in 3-D networks using video and game-like environments, which create the business models in near real-life before they start. The only reason they use text-based business plans is because many investors use text. Why write 5 pages, when you can zoom video from almost anywhere on Earth?
This visualization is the key to unlocking the potential in large biologically driven systems.
If we can’t take you to the Gemba, we can take the Gemba to you with modern visual technologies.
Young doctors, technologists and in fact most global citizens under the age of 40, are now using cheap 3-D media to translate the images from their brains to communication that can scale to literally a billion humans in hours.
This cuts right past the nay-sayers to the willing innovators on the front lines
I wrote this because it was faster to write. I can’t wait for you to see the new wave of 3-D visualization of complex global biological systems that are being created to help 7 billion humans thrive in this century
All this started with a Gemba visit to a local sewage digester.
Such is the power of Pooh.