Meet Mr Toilet

Jack Sim founded the Restroom Association of Singapore in 1998 to break the taboo of discussing toilet issues and habits and improve toilet design.

Globally 2.5 billion people do not have access to a toilet, with significant health and pollution consequences. Realising the extent of the global sanitation problem, Jack founded The World Toilet Organisation in 2001, with the aim of forming a global network to promote sustainable sanitation systems – now running a World Toilet College and annual World Toilet Summit.

After achieving financial independence at age 40, Jack has devoted the rest of his life to social work, receiving numerous business, environmental and humanitarian awards in the process.

“A life is 80 years, I’m now only 52. If I’m going to spend my next 28 years consuming ostentatiously, just to have a diamond watch, with which I can’t even tell the time because it’s so sparkly, it makes no sense! Doing social work that creates some impact, I think it is better to die doing that.”

Known as Mr Toilet to his many admirers, Jack hopes to see the day when everyone has access to a clean toilet.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in The Year I Saved the World]

Photo from Wikicommons

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The Cities of Tomorrow

The world changed in 2008 – for the first time in human history, more people were living in cities than in the countryside. With around 1.4 million people a week moving from the country to the city, it’s estimated by 2030 two thirds of the world’s population will be urban. What will these huge mega-cities be like ?

The evocative title: Cities of the Future, might conjure up images of Star Trek like, gleaming high technology environments – but for most of their inhabitants, these cities of the future will be very different.

The three books below all give fascinating insights to how this urban future is likely to look.

Shadow Cities: A New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth

Robert Neuwirth takes us into four of the world’s largest and densest squatter cities, in Mumbai, Nairobi, Rio and Istanbul. Far from being the stereotypical cauldrons of destitution, crime and violence, these complex environments are instead full of energy, creativity and vitality, with a surprisingly high degree of self-governance.

But these rapidly growing cities also face tremendous challenges; including lack of water supplies, drainage, lack of affordable transport and other infrastructure, as well as vulnerability to flooding and other environmental problems, lack of health care and effective policing. In addition two problems faced by dwellers of squatter communities worldwide are the absence of land rights and security of tenure, and lack of political access and representation.

But bit by bit, these communities and neighborhoods are developing, with businesses, schools, medical facilities, transport systems and all kinds of supporting infrastructure being created by their hard working and hope filled inhabitants.

Rob writes regularly on the issues facing squatters and the development of squatter cities on his blog: Squattercity. [AMAZON]

Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

As well as publishing influential studies on social inequality, the renowned economist Edward Glaeser is a strong advocate of cities – both for their reducing effect on individual environmental footprints, and also for their ability to bring people and communities together, enhancing communication and generating prosperity and ideas.

He argues that cities are particularly advantageous for the richest and poorest in society, as they provide more opportunities for both the rich to spend their wealth, and for the poor to become richer. In many cities, he argues, the presence of large numbers of urban poor does not necessarily indicate urban failure, but rather that poorer people are attracted to a vibrant city, with the prospect of a more prosperous life.

Although cities offer the best long term prospects for the future, there are many problems and challenges to be overcome – “the problems of the urban slums won’t be solved by mindlessly relying on the free market” he writes, strong and capable governments are needed to provide essential systems and infrastructure, like policing and water. [AMAZON]

Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand

The sub title of Stewart Brand’s book is: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, Radical Science and Geoengineering are Necessary – which he accepts enthuses and enrages sections of the environmental movement in roughly equal measure. One of his best known quotes is “technology can be good for the environment”.

A champion of progressive urbanism (and tug-boat dweller), Stewart writes about how cities tend to be far ‘greener’ than the countryside, across multiple indicators – energy use per capita, water use per capita, land take per capita, recycling rates per capita etc.

He argues in his book that the squatter inhabitants of rapidly growing cities have informal economies that are largely untaxed, unregulated and unlicensed – and over time these economies have to be amalgamated into the wider ‘legal’ economies, or they risk becoming amalgamated into a culture of crime. He also champions the advantages of density and proximity – amazingly shown in the third video below (at 6:00 minutes). [AMAZON]

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Photo by Godwin B, via Flickr

7 Tips for Dematerializing

We all know that our homes, lives and economies are becoming increasingly digital – with mountains of ‘physical stuff’ being increasingly replaced by ‘virtual stuff.

While there can certainly be environmental downsides to this (such as the energy and resources needed for device manufacture, and data energy footprint etc), there’s no doubt there are very significant environmental benefits – with far less paper, plastic and other materials being needed, processed, transported and ultimately thrown away.

A physical edition of a single national newspaper would use thousands of tons of processed paper, tons of ink and a sizable fleet of trucks to deliver it . . . and one day later it all would be sat in people’s rubbish bin, newsprint and colour suppliments alike, waiting to be landfilled, incinerated or just possibly recyled !

Replacing our collections of CDs and DVDs, shelves of books, racks of magazines and albums of photos with a collection of ones and zeros stored on computer memory will not only provide us with the benefits of easy use and sharing, but also declutter our homes and lives, and reduce our impact as consumers on the environment.

If you’re not fully digital yet, here are a few ideas how you can make the switch.


Set aside time to plan your digital storage system. Physical stuff like books, CDs etc doesn’t need much in the way of filing – just pick a shelf and line them up – but digital files all essentially look the same, and need a bit of organisation if you’re to be able to find and use them easily. Think about what you’re storing, where you will store them, naming and filing systems, tags or labels, how to transfer and share them to other devices or across the internet. There’s no doubt in the future the art of collecting, curating and organising a personal digital archive will be more important than ever.


Another key difference between shelves of physical stuff and digital is the potential vulnerability of electronic files – a crashed hard drive, lost laptop or dropped ipad could be the end of your music collection, financial records, or personal photos. There are all kinds of ways to develop a backup strategy, but broadly its a good idea to ensure as much as possible is backed-up, in as many places as possible, as often as possible. The cost of storage has fallen considerably in recent years, and cloud storage options are also increasingly affordable. A wide variety of backup software is also available, to automate the backup process – so there really is no excuse for not backing up your stuff.


Everyone has their preferences when in comes to devices to interact with their ‘digital stuff’ – desktops, laptops, smart phones, tablets and ipads, media streamers, ebook readers, games consoles, big screen TVs etc. There’s obviously no right or wrong choices, but a few things are worth considering: from an environmental and cost perspective it’s obviously not a good idea to be change or upgrade our devices too frequently, or to have devices sitting around unused for large periods of time. Consider buying second hand, or holding off on every single upgrade – if you’re gadget minded it’s easy to get swept up in the techno-hype surrounding new devices, focus on whether the improvements really warrant you buying a new device.


Once you’ve got a well organised digital system you can trust, and is secure, set about replacing as many of your incoming paper documents as possible. Ask for digital bank statements and utility bills, insurance details, warrantys, travel documents, manuals and instructions etc. Cancel hardcopy magazine subscriptions and sign-up for digital editions instead. Scan anything paper that does arrive to move it into your digital system. Build a habit of quickly and routinely adding documents to the right place in your filing system.


You’ve probably got a box, trunk, filing cabinet or cupboard full of paper documents of various types – birth certificates, qualifications, car details, house details, medical records, old financial documents etc. Many (thought obviously not all) can be scanned then shredded and destroyed. Work through systematically, scanning, naming and filing, either retaining or shredding the originals as appropriate.


Many of us keep hold of paper and other things, out of a sense of nostalgia, rather than utility – old school reports, scrapbooks, children’s art work etc. I’m quite a fan of nostalgia, but increasingly try to digitize these items, either by scanning them in, or by taking a photograph. As well as helping declutter your home, you’ll probably find things are easier to find, look at, share and store safely in a digital form. Various online digital scrapbooking groups and forums provide a large range of ideas for how digital nostalgia can be organised.


As more and more of our lives are digital, and we spend more and more time sat still, looking at screens as a result, it’s worth remembering that the ‘real’ world is still out there, and we should take care not to become too detached from it. Getting enough exercise, spending time in the company of others, nature and sunshine are good for us . . . try a screen free day a week, or have a ‘no screens after 11:00pm rule’.

Photo by Motoko Henusaki, via Flickr

Urban Forests

Whether tree-lined streets, parks and open spaces, suburban or rooftop gardens, or perhaps something more unusualtrees are incredibly important in cities, and are increasingly valued as such.

They provide islands of natural ecology for birds, insects and other animals, as well as filtering the air, moderating water flows, providing street level shade, screening road noise and also reducing the urban heat island effect caused by the thermal properties of buildings and hard surfaces.

In addition, of course, they look nice, which is not a trivial issue, both due to the significant effect mature trees can have on property prices in an area of a city, but also in the promotion of general health and wellbeing. American sociobiologist Edward Wilson argues that the people are attracted to natural environments and feel happier in the presence of nature.

The presence of urban trees also have a number of more unexpected beneficial effects – average traffic speeds are lower along tree lined roads and less ‘road rage’ is also known to occur, tree dense areas typically have a greater sense of community and are often safer as a result.

There are many charities and groups promoting the beneficial effects of urban trees, and running various planting schemes; including Trees for Cities and the Government backed Big Tree Plant scheme in the UK.

Photo from The Seafarer via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – Masdar, Green Roofs, The Vertical Farm


In Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates $20 billion is currently being spent building the sustainable eco-city of Masdar.

Proposed to be home for some 50,000 to 90,000 residents, over a thousand business and a university, unlike the seemingly mythical Chinese eco-city of Dongtan, which has yet to be started, construction of Masdar has is well commenced, with the first 6 buildings having opened in 2010.

Masdar is proposed to have pedestrian only streets with numerous parks and green spaces and underground electric driverless cars and public transport systems. The city aims to be fossil fuel free, have zero emissions, zero waste and ultimately be carbon neutral. A large number of new sustainable technologies are being developed and used in Masdar, and it is anticipated that the university and science park will develop into a global center for environmental technology research and development.

Whether Masdar is ultimately able to present a model city for the future remains debatable, but it is certainly attracting a lot of interest and attention from around the world, has the support of the WWF, is hosting the World Future Energy Summit in 2013 and will also ultimately become the home of the International Renewable Energy Agency.


Photo by Jan Seifert, via Flickr

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