FuturArc Interview

Sep-Oct 2017

Jack Sim

Founder, World Toilet Organization & World Toilet College
by Dr Ann Deslandes

Singapore’s ‘Mr Toilet’, Jack Sim, is the founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO; 2001) and the World Toilet College (WTC; 2005).

The WTO was developed to provide an international platform for toilet associations; governments;academic institutions; foundations; UN agencies; and corporate stakeholders to exchange knowledge as well as leverage media and corporate support in an effort to promote clean
sanitation and public health policies. The WTC develops and delivers training in best practices for sanitation methods across the world.

Sim has achieved enormous success with the WTO, WTC, and related activities such as the World Toilet Summit (held annually since 2001, to be held this year in Melbourne, Australia, 20–21 November). On 24 July 2013, WTO achieved a key milestone for the global sanitation movement when 122 countries co-sponsored a UN resolution tabled by the Singapore government to designate 19 November, World Toilet Day, as an official UN day. WTO was granted consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council in that same year.

The WTO’s vision is “a world with a clean, safe toilet for everyone, everywhere at all times” and Sim has made this his personal mission too. He regularly challenges Green architects and designers to place toilets at the centre of their practice; connecting them with products such as the training offered by the WTC and the WTO’s ‘Sanishop’ toilets, which are built and sold by low-income communities in Cambodia, India and Mozambique. Sim spoke to FuturArc writer Dr Ann Deslandes.

AD: You have a number of personal achievements related to water use: back in 2004, you won Singapore’s first Green Plan award; you’re an Asia Development Bank Water Champion; a council member with the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda for Water Security; TIME magazine’s Hero of the Environment—what do you want Green architects and designers in Asia-Pacific to know about water?

JS: When you say architects, do you mean the people in the city or does it include everybody else, like the people who design houses for the villages and rural areas?

AD: I mean everybody—people designing big office buildings in the middle of towns, as well as people who are designing affordable housing or small village buildings as well.

JS: I think they need to know more about toilets. While water is quite a well-known subject, sanitation has been subsumed under the water agenda, and not spoken about as much. You put something ‘underwater’, it goes ‘underwater’!

In the cities, you have sewers, but it’s only 20 percent of the entire world that have sewerage. So the vast majority of people might have toilets but not good sewage treatment. This means that a lot goes into the waterways, to the sea.

If you want to design something, you have to design it as a closed loop. Otherwise, it comes back to haunt you in the form of a public health disaster, undrinkable water, or water that cannot be used for bathing or washing.

Ninety percent of all the surface water in India is contaminated by faeces—this is very poor design. And in Bangladesh, the entire waste water from the textile industries goes into the river, so you can’t do anything with the water anymore.

I think that for designers, thinking about what happens after you flush is very critical. The other thing is designing an enjoyable place that people to want to use to relieve themselves—where people have a quality experience rather than just a utilitarian place that might be disgusting.

AD: Many low-income and/or so-called slum communities have come up with low-cost, truly Green solutions to sanitation problems. I’ve seen this happening, for example, in favela communities in Brazil. Have ideas like this had an influence on you? Has WTO been interested in or is able to leverage or improve upon ideas like this in your work around the world?

JSYes, actually there are a lot of very good proven ideas around the world. Every solution has already been found. The problem is that the solutions that exist are not widely disseminated. Part of this is the taboo around talking about toilets. So that’s why I am all about training people and making toilet knowledge fashionable. A lot of architects, designers and city planners don’t address toilets because it is more glamorous to address water. If you do water, you get your politicians a lot of votes. If you do toilets, they laugh at you—and the politician doesn’t want to be laughed at.

It’s like the toilet is the ugly duckling and the water is a swan, you see? Now it’s time for the ugly duckling to also be a swan! Toilets and sanitation need to be given equal treatment to water, because there is nothing that is unrelated to toilets. Whether it’s about architecture or environment or energy or design or production or manufacturing or financing or agriculture... the toilet is related to everything because it plays a part in an essential human function. It is something that you cannot choose not to do. You can choose not to go shopping to buy a new pair of shoes or you can choose to skip a meal today, but you cannot choose not to go to the toilet when you need to! You cannot say, okay, I will just take a toilet holiday for two days. You can’t.

AD: You’re very insistent that solutions to sanitation need to be market-based. Why is this? How or why does the market do better at promulgating these solutions than governments and non-profit exercises?

JS: Without the market, donations are never ever going to solve the problem. The business cycle of donations mostly ends up on the overheads of the NGOs. If the NGOs cannot survive because they are fighting for donations, then their focus on solving the problem becomes much less than the focus on paying their staff. So there is mission creep—the NGO moves from solving the problem to working for the survival of the NGO’s overheads. So the NGO culture is unfortunately now driven to please the donors more than to solve the problem. It makes charities competitive and exclusive, and gives them an interest in the idea that the poor are helpless and need the NGOs to give them money.

Instead, at the WTO, we say that the poor are entrepreneurial, resourceful, hardworking and willing to take charge of their lives. Let’s train them; let’s lend them money and expect them to pay us back. Let’s use the market to solve this problem. Because only through the market is this business solution sustainable. Then you can continue to grow the solution, where it is motivating for job creation; it has a multiplier effect in the economy and grows entrepreneurial spirit. Once the poor have money, they can solve the problems of water and sanitation. But if you keep them poor by giving them freebies, you’re never ever going to get them out of poverty.

To read the complete article, get a copy of the Sep-Oct 2017 edition at our online shop or at newsstands/major bookstores; or subscribe to FuturArc.

Previously Published FuturArc Interview (Abstracts)

Jul-Aug 2017

DR JOHN KUENG — Former CEO, Building and Construction Authority, Singapore;
Dean, BCA Academy, Singapore by Dr Nirmal Kishnani & Lakshmi Menon

As Dr John Keung, CEO, prepares to step down after 11 years at the helm and takes on a new role as dean of the BCA Academy, he reflects on what has been achieved and what more needs to be done.


May-Jun 2017

Dr Kessling has been instrumental in spearheading the energy concepts of prominent international projects. He shares his critique on system-centric building design practices of
today, at the wake of an impending energy crisis.


Mar-Apr 2017

Suhasini Ayer-Guigan is one of the pioneer practitioners of sustainable architecture in India. She co-founded the Auroville Centre for Scientific Research and currently heads Auroville Design Consultants.


Jan-Feb 2017

Mike Guerrero is perhaps one of the most active personalities in the Philippines’ sustainability front. His design ethos hinges on the principles of good design, and his work is a showcase of intense passion and advocacy on sustainability.


Nov-Dec 2016

Chitra Vishwanath is an architect based in Bengaluru, India. She is one of the influential architects in making sustainability a household term in India.


Sep-Oct 2016

Bill Browning is widely regarded as one of the foremost thinkers and strategists in the world of Green design, and an advocate for sustainable design solutions.


Jul-Aug 2016

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, Sigit is an emerging architect and urban designer best known for his design projects and research in architecture, urban planning, and environmental and social community movement.


May-Jun 2016

In her seminal book—Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature—she described an emerging discipline that emulates nature’s designs and processes to create a healthier, more sustainable planet.


Mar-Apr 2016

The roots of architect Harrison Fraker’s distinguished career lie in the US energy and environmental crises of the 1960s and 1970s. A key figure in the development of US environmental design, Fraker founded the University of Minnesota’s architecture school. 


Jan-Feb 2016

A pioneer of biomimicry, Michael Pawlyn founded his London-based practice Exploration Architecture in 2007 to concentrate on solutions found in biology. He was shortlisted for the Young Architect of the Year Award and the Buckminster Fuller Challenge in 2008. 


Nov-Dec 2015

Madhura Prematilleke, at one point, was seen to be anti-Bawa by some in the architecture fraternity in Sri Lanka. This was a misreading of his position on the well-known Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa. In an interview with FuturArc editor-in-chief, Dr Nirmal Kishnani, he explains why the Bawa legacy is complex.


Sep-Oct 2015

David Orr headed the effort to design, fund and build the Adam Joseph Lewis Center, which was named by an American Institute of Architects (AIA) panel in 2010 as “the most important Green building of the past 30 years”, and as “one of 30 milestone buildings of the 20th century” by the US Department of Energy.


Jul-Aug 2015

The Singapore hospitals that Liak Teng Lit has managed as CEO—particularly Alexandra and Khoo Teck Puat—are seen to be game changers in design for healthcare. He is now the chairman of Singapore’s National Environment Agency.


May-Jun 2015

Rahul Mehrotra is an architect, urbanist and educator. He is founder principal of RMA Architects, Mumbai, as well as professor and chair of urban planning and design, at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.


Mar-Feb 2015

Chrisna Du Plessis has been both an articulate advocate and a blunt critic of the sustainability movement, a global thought leader often seen presenting keynotes at sustainability conferences worldwide. 


Jan-Feb 2015

Robert Engelman is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research organisation based in Washington, D.C. He originally joined Worldwatch as vice president for programmes and was named president in 2011. 


Nov-Dec 2014

Daniel Kammen is an internationally known energy expert, and former Chief Technical Specialist of the World Bank’s renewable energy and energy efficiency programmes. Kammen is a professor at the University of California – Berkeley’s Energy and Resources group.


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