A Response to Turnbull by Christopher Hong

 Brita’s Replacement: A Ceramic Pot-Shaped Filter

In Kenya, a land where Brita filters are seldom found, ceramic pot-shaped filters are being used to clean water for consumption. Each of these filters removes 99.98% of bacteria and pathogens, costs $20, and lasts two to three years. These “pots” are used in an initiative called PITCH_Africa.

On Monday, September 24, 2012, David Turnbull, director of ATOPIA design<>communication<>urbanism (LLC) and an architecture professor at Cooper Union, gave a guest lecture to our seminar about his projects. One of the projects is PITCH_Africa, which is an initiative to build multiple facilities which combine sports and rainwater harvesting in Africa.

PITCH_Africa was inspired by both the difficulties in obtaining clean water in Africa and the Homeless World Cup. This event was a worldwide street soccer competition, like the Olympics, except it was played by homeless people in order to bring attention to poverty, diseases, and alcoholism. After watching the competition, Turnbull sketched out his PITCH_Africa idea and successfully prototyped the project in Los Angeles.

Turnbull then applied the project in Kenya, a country that receives about two feet of rain per year. With this initiative, about one million liters of water can be collected per year and this can serve thousands of Africans. The filtering system under the soccer field is based on a pot-shaped ceramic filter.

This ceramic filter, which originated in Nicaragua in the 1980’s, is made from a special mixture of clay and fine sawdust, two materials abundant in Kenya. When this mixture is formed into a pot and is placed on top of a fire, the fine sawdust burns, and creates complex and microscopic tunnels. It is then coated with some silver, which acts as a disinfectant. The ceramic filter can remove 99.98% of bacteria and pathogens and lasts for two to three years providing a simple, yet effective solution to filtering the rainwater collected by PITCH_Africa.

Towards the end of the seminar, Turnbull brought up “reverse innovation,” which is the idea that a developed country should learn from an underdeveloped country. The ceramic filter is a perfect example of this concept. Turnbull used the innovation he learned about from Nicaragua, an underdeveloped country, instead of importing expensive charcoal filters, for PITCH_Kenya.

In the United States, some Americans, including me, use charcoal Brita filters to clean tap water prior to consumption. Each filter costs about $8 and only lasts for four months. Therefore, in three years, I would need twelve of these filters costing a total of $96. One of these ceramic filters, costing $20 ($10 when mass-produced), would save me a lot of money and provide the same quality of filtered water.

Why isn’t reverse innovation being applied to bring these ceramic filters to the United States? One reason is a lack of communication and exposure. I have never heard of using clay “pots” to filter water before meeting Turnbull. Innovations, like the ceramic filter, need considerable advertisement to developed countries to be considered for regular use. Another reason is a potential resistance to reverse innovation. The ceramic filter may not be considered for regular use because it came from an “inferior” country, when in fact, it is one of the best ideas I have ever heard. With innovations like the ceramic filter, what else is out there in underdeveloped countries is waiting to be adopted for our own use?

Works Cited
Harrison, Jane. “The Fit between Football and Rainwater Harvesting.” East African Flyer Aug. 2012: 22-37.

ThePortofLosAngeles. “The Annenberg Foundation’s PITCH:AFRICA Live Demonstration Event at Port of Los.” YouTube. YouTube, 08 July 2010. Web. 4 Oct. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9NnEG_8VHo>.

Turnbull, David. “Cooper Union.” Design Through Translation: David Turnbull and PITCHAfrica. Cooper Union, 2012. Web. 04 Oct. 2012. <http://cooper.edu/about/news/design-through-translation-david-turnbull-and- pitchafrica>.

Turnbull, David. “Global Challenges: Design and Social Innovation.” The Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square, New York, NY. 24 September 2012. Guest Presentation for the course S318: The Cooper Union World Forum.