Singularity University and the Water Global Grand Challenge

Darlene Damm
Mar 25, 2019

Water is one of Singularity University’s global grand challenges. Specifically, we believe that we can use exponential technologies to create a world with “ample and safe water for consumption, sanitation, industry, and recreation for all people at all times.”While all of our global grand challenges are inter-related to some degree, water in particular deeply cuts across many of our other challenges. If we can solve the water challenge, we can also make monumental strides in solving the health, environment, and food challenges. Given that many businesses and industries rely on water, it is central to the prosperity challenge. Because water shortages and disputes are causes of major and minor conflicts, water is also key to the governance and security challenges. On the flip side, if we can solve the energy challenge, it will help solve the water challenge because energy can play a major role in more efficiently purifying or transporting water.As our Vice Chair of Global Grand Challenges, I wanted to share with you some of the positive impact our community’s work is having on solving the water challenge.

Our faculty and speakers cover the water challenge from multiple fields

A number of SU faculty and speakers talk about the water challenge as well as other global grand challenges that intersect with water. In my post outlining how our community is addressing the environment global grand challenge, we featured our Energy and Environment Chair Ramez Naam along with our faculty members Jonathan Knowles, Sylvia Earle, and Owen Gaffney, whose work on environmental systems naturally overlaps with water and ocean challenges.In addition, we have also worked over the years with a number of experts in the water space, especially during our Global Startup Program, where we help our innovators and startups understand the complexity and nuances of the water challenge.For example, Gemma Bulos, former director of the Global Women’s Water Initiative and founding Director of a Single Drop for Safe Water, shared with our participants best practices around social innovation and the water challenge in low-income countries as well as the intersection between water, gender, and peace. Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, shared about the intersection of water, sanitation, health, and prosperity, and how we can help address them through global-scale social movements. Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, discussed the complex geopolitical and human rights issues related to water given that rivers, water bodies, and other natural resources cross through multiple national boundaries.

SU Startups and Water Challenge

Our startups are working to solve the water challenge

A number of SU startups are working to solve different aspects of the water challenge, ranging from creating portable devices that individuals can use, to implementing large-scale initiatives that cut across continents.FREDsense builds kits that use biology and engineering to detect water contamination in the field. The company’s portable field kits provide quick results and require no training to use. The kits can detect arsenic, iron, manganese, and acids, as well as chemicals specifically requested by customers. Read our case study to see how, working with SU, FREDsense discovered the primary applications for its technology and identified the right buyers and market opportunity.Justdiggit is restoring and regreening land by building hydrological corridors with active projects in Kenya and Tanzania.Optineo Group invests in efficient water management, air purification, sanitation, and clean tech energy solutions.

SU Community & Water Challenge

Our community is also engaged in the water challenge

Over the years, Singularity University has also been active in hosting a number of community challenges to tackle the water issue.In 2015, at the height of the California drought, we hosted a Water Impact Challenge in collaboration with then-Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom to address California’s water crisis. The finalists included Permalution, which was exploring ways to harvest water from fog; Sanzfield Technologies, which, in partnership with Rotoplas, has created a high-speed light-weight, onsite wastewater treatment system that can process 400-1200 gallons of water per day (see our case study); Desolenator, which is building solar and thermal heat desalination units for individuals, households, and communities; Awe, which has built an “Atmospheric Wind Extractor” that harness both electricity and water from wind; and Sun to Water Technologies, which generates water by dehumidifying outdoor air through a low-maintenance eco-friendly system.In addition to the Water Impact Challenge, in 2015, Singularity University also partnered with Lowe’s to encourage Bay Area citizen scientists to design affordable water purification devices. Moreover, in 2016 and 2017, Singularity University hosted the Global Grand Challenges Awards at our annual Global Summit in San Francisco, where we were able to highlight the work of such innovators as Loowat, which is deploying waterless flush toilets in Madagascar, the United Kingdom, and soon the Philippines; and Off Grid Box, which has deployed 36 kiosks around the world allowing entrepreneurs to sell water and electricity to earn incomes while also supporting villages with their resource needs.

Blacktip sharks looking for snack

Looking forward

According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as of 2015, 29% of the world still lacked access to safe drinking water and 61% of the world was living without adequate sanitation services. The water challenge is one of the more complex ones to solve, and at Singularity University, we have noticed that we have had fewer innovators working directly on the water challenge compared to other global grand challenges. We are not sure if this is related to the complexity of the challenge, the price point of water-related exponential technologies still being too high, or perhaps a belief that the water challenge may be solved indirectly.For example, in the agricultural space, some of the new vertical farms and farming robots dramatically reduce water use, as only a small stream of water needs to be applied to each plant rather than spread across outdoor soil or through inefficient irrigation systems. And new tech-infused communities and housing units are incorporating systems that recycle water and wastewater.If you’re working on a solution to the water challenge or have ideas for how the world can solve the water challenge with exponential technology, consider applying to our Global Startup Program, join our faculty, or pitch your story to Singularity Hub.