The Ripple Effect: Seeding Innovation in Securing and Transporting Clean Water


ripple effectIn so many parts of the world, attaining and transporting clean water for drinking and cooking takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and effort. In fact, an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide lack easy access to clean water. And even those who can get to a source of clean water, oftentimes end up with contaminated water by the time they transport it home in various types of vessels.
It obviously just shouldn’t be that way… so global design consultancy IDEO decided to join forces with the Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund that invests in entrepreneurs to solve the problems of global poverty, in order to find suitable solutions for clean water portability in the developing world. The effort is called The Ripple Effect. (The project will be one many innovative projects discussed on the second day of the Social Capital MarketsSOCAP09 conference in September.)
So far, the collaborative has completed the first half of the project in India. The second half, focusing on East Africa, is now underway. Funding for the project came through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The approach is to work with local organizations that are already providing community water–some of these groups are businesses, some are NGOs. Our goal is to innovate in the sector as a whole by improving access [to clean water and transport] through collaborative design,” explains Sally Madsen, an IDEO designer working on the project.

The first phase of the India project was to partner with experts in India to assess the needs and the unique requirements for collecting and transporting clean water in India. The team learned a number of important aspects of water collection in India from this experience which would later impact how they developed solutions.
They learned, for example, that one’s caste has a direct relationship to what type of access to clean water one has, and that this could mean that even if a person in low caste is provided an improved means of attaining water, they might not be permitted to use it. They learned that in some slums, such as in Mumbai, families have very little space inside their homes to store water, a factor that would need to be worked into water storage design. They also learned that different people around the country have differing levels of standards when it comes to defining what clean water means.
In late winter of this year, the collaborative team conducted a workshop in Hyderabad, to which it invited members of local organizations involved in water procurement to join. During the workshop they talked about ways the group could create systems tailored to the particular needs of Indians and begin brainstorming and creating prototypes. The next step was to identify local companies and NGOs to which it would award grants and coaching as they move forward with their designs.
These grants went to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, Naandi, Piramal Water, WaterHealth India, and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP).
These groups proceeded by creating prototypes and testing them in the field for various water-toting applications, based on the distance that individuals would need to travel with the water and how they would store it once they arrived at home.
Finally, each of the awardees presented its solution for clean water procurement and/or transport at the India Water Summit on June 12, an annual event designed to advance clean water access and infrastructure in the country. You can read more about their presentations and solutions here.
“We are looking at this as seeding innovation,” says Madsen. “We are not just doing design, but we are teaching the design process and we think that these organizations can internalize this. These groups will then learn from each other. It’s a new model for encouraging collaboration.”

photo: IDEO

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to

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