Others Have Succeeded in Building a Better Water Bottle But What About the Fountain?

fountain33.jpgby Sara Kozlowski
This fall, I joined the inaugural cohort of CCA’s DMBA program as a fifteen-year veteran of the fashion industry. In Innovation Studio, I joined forces with four other DMBA pioneers and embarked on a semester long journey to develop solution areas for our chosen domain of “packaging”. We tenderly christened ourselves as Team Swill and went straight to the business of seeking to build a better water bottle. Our research quickly evolved into the study of urban potable, drinking water. Humbly, I’ll share a few glimpses at the evolution of our journey and a particular “aha” moment.
Access: Others have succeeded in building a better water bottle but what about the fountain?
Early on in our quest to build a better water bottle we learned that it already exists, in fact several of them do. The real problem is access. In an urban sprawling city like SF blessed with good free clean drinking water, one would think this resource would be exploited. Sadly, one could walk from The Haight to SOMA and still not find a drinking fountain. Enter a public building, school, museum, or shopping mall and you might get lucky. Once you find it, filling your Camelbak can be a hassle as most fountains are designed for direct mouth to fountain access. Try to fill your vessel from a fountain that wants to be drunk directly from and you end up with a bottle that is at best half full.

The Authenticity of Water
Peoples’ relationship with water is complicated. As one of few things we consume that is an undeniable need versus the many unquenchable wants we buy to satisfy, potable water is huge business. Yet, no matter how much branding and marketing the corporate world inflicts on water, it remains authentic. To my knowledge, man has not yet discovered a way to clone water or to modify its molecular structure, or to manufacture it in synthetic or artificial form. Since we cannot “make” water we must source it, harvest it, and package it. Corporate beverage giants rely upon these processes in order to create a lucrative revenue stream.
This makes for one hot commodity ripe for debate. The political, social, and economic ramifications associated with the supply and demand of potable water are projected to reach catastrophic levels within the next ten years. Seeing the water activism documentary FLOW ignited awareness in me concerning the glaring global water crisis. I was stunned by the colossal magnitude of this problem and its many corporate, government, and financial prongs. However I was also inspired to learn about true innovators like Dr. Ashok Gadgil’s UV Waterworks technology that utilizes ultraviolet technology to disinfect water. With his invention, it is possible to provide clean water to those in remote rural areas for $2/ yr.
“Unlike other ultraviolet-based water purifiers, UV Waterworks does not require pressurized water-delivery systems and electrical outlets,” stated Ashok Gadgil.
In context of Team Swill, I’ve seen grown men fall into heated argument over the innocence of water. I have experienced conflict first hand within my team as we deliberated once for twelve hours straight over the opposing characteristics of our personas.
For Convenience’s Sake

During need finding, we charted perceived needs, as user needs separate from the fundamental biological, physiological need for to hydrate. I directly observed my students’ relationships with water which later impacted Team Swill’s final solution. With primary motivations of saving time, convenience, portability, immediate need, enjoyment, social interaction, it is easy to see what drives these people to the bottle who we deemed are part of what we call “the problem”. Actually, we had a slightly less censored name for the bottle consuming user group “Planet Fu*%$s”.
My school recently did away with the water cooler and installed a filtration system attached to its drinking fountains. This was supposed to be part of its green initiative to reduce bottle waste. The problem? These fountains are placed adjacent to the bathrooms, often in the literal bowels of a floor plan. Drinking from one of these is certainly not an inviting experience nor is it conducive to a social gathering of any sort! In contrast, there is a communal meeting area that receives high traffic. Placed seductively are vending machines, flanking round meeting tables for lazing and gossiping, perhaps even napping.. This is where time is spent and saved, bonding occurs and bottles are copiously consumed and wasted. Off in the distance, exiled and institutional, is the “do gooder” water fountain poised for an isolating and unsatisfying user experience.
A secondary conclusion of my observational research is the aspect of cultural upbringing. Nearly 40% of students where I teach are international of which 80% come from Asia, including Thailand, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore. Many are from cultures where it is not possible to drink municipal water and thus have been brought up never to drink tap water. Their minds are embedded with perceptions that bottled water is cleaner and safe. These observations are also grounded by my experience teaching fashion at a University in Shanghai. There and here, bottled water is often equated with safety, health and affluence. Despite the San Franciscan eco lifestyle they are immersed in, consumption remains habitual. Their habit will be harder to break.
What could be done to change this? ‚Ä®What if the access point was moved away from the bathroom at the sake of being near plumbing and brought closer to a communal area? ‚Ä®What if instead of being painting a dismal shade of beige it was modern like an Eames chair or designed by a Philippe Stark-esque type of icon? Perhaps these students could be educated to drink from the water fountain and making the fountain attractive and fashionable could enforce their behavior changes. At the very least, let’s make it a little easier to fill rather than drink directly from the fountain.
I chose to leave the industry at a time when I felt fashion was being driven by three bitter themes: branding, celebrity royalty, and “getting the look for less”. Five years into my career as a full time design educator, I have constructed a kernel of hope that I offer up to my students as a possible anecdote to the perils of mass production- the pursuit, resurrection and maintenance of… authenticity. Oddly enough, these same themes seemingly apply to drinking water habits I have observed over the last several weeks. Like fashion, I wonder if the catalyst for change could lie in the same place- by seeking authenticity in our access and by simplifying people’s complicated relationship with water…Without revealing Team Swill’s solution, let’s just say it involves bottles, water, and vending a la carte, these are the areas that provoked us to persevere through a daunting first semester:
* Restoring the function of water access points as social gathering/ communal watering holes
* Create user-friendly drinking fountains in socially strategic locations
* Rethink the water bottle as vessel and canteen
* Keep water free and help people to access it.
* In commerce, separate, the water from the bottle.
Team Swill’s mantra Change.. one drop at a time..
Members:Gwen Armbruster,Ingrid Dragotta,Rowan Edwards,Jason Hui,Sara Kozlowski
Bottle as vessel, canteen and new fashion accessory?
In the last year or so, refillable water vessels have been deployed en-masse throughout Bay Area Stores. A market of designer water bottles is quickly emerging including exclusive and luxury driven water vessels. At price points ranging from $3.99- $39.99 this seems to be a booming market even in the midst of our bleak recession. San Franciscan urbanites are ready to drop the bottle, but how can we make it easier to refill?
Refillable water containers have become trendy, and that is not a bad thing. At Elephant pharmacy on Shattuck in Berkeley, Colorful SIGGS line shelves in a myriad of colors, glistening like jellybean colored iPod Nanos. Answering the call for BPA free, lo impact needs and bottled water panic, Starbuck’s Ethos brand of water now positions refillable Camelbak-esque containers alongside coffee mugs and traveler cups. REI has nearly an entire aisle devoted to refillable options from Platypus to Nalgene at all price points from economy to luxury. A total of 108 water containers are available on their site, ranging from $3.50 for an Ultimate Direction Gel Flask to $49.95 for a Katadyn Exstream XR with a built in filter for anti-microbial protection.
Looking for a last minute holiday gift? Consider a limited edition SIGG for $25.00. Like the new Macbooks, SIGG’s single piece of aluminum construction are present worthy vessels and are contenders as the new lo tech functional gadget every urban nomad wants.
Kor One would like us to think that every fashionista needs one of their sexy water bottles. Their campaign invites us to “celebrate water” as well as ourselves with built in Kor stones- where you can write messages to yourself that only you see as you drink. In this economy, can we afford to pay $29.95 for water bottle fashion accessory du jour?
Predictably, the trickle down theory of the fashion cycle is in effect. At discount outlets, knockoffs appear to be abundant. Meanwhile TAPNY is taking back its tap by branding and bottling the city’s finest own water.
Sara Kozlowski, Designer and Educator
Joins the DMBA CCA cohort with a background in fashion beginning at Parsons School of Design followed by recruitment at Anna Sui. Founded NY based label CAKE. (1995_2001) Since then, she has created costumes for film and stage including Jason Wishnow’s stop motion “Oedipus” and Shift >, “The Shape of Poison,” for ODC Dance Theatre. She began teaching full time in Shanghai (BA Honours, Northumbria University, Donghua University)2004 and currently is full time faculty at Academy of Art University, MFA School of Fashion where she is developing a course devoted to sustainable design in the context of fashion.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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