It’s Time to Start Thinking Bolder to Tackle the World’s Problems

10/07/2017 07:57 am ET

Take It from Me, I’m Turning Poo into Power

She stood there facing us, draped in a colourful sari with her face mostly covered. She didn’t say a word. She just stood there. The image is vividly engraved in my mind. The bright blue and red flowers on her clothes masked the darkness of her illness. This young 15-year-old woman standing in a remote village of Khipro in Sindh, Pakistan had contracted tuberculosis from inhaling wood smoke when she cooked daily meals in her poorly ventilated hut. And she’s certainly not alone. Every day millions of people use unsafe forms of energy like firewood with adverse health and environmental outcomes.

This is the problem that my non-profit Shift ambitiously aims to solve, using a solution that is admittedly messy yet elegant. You see, Shift installs “energy domes” in remote villages that turn animal waste (cow manure) into clean, reliable gas that can be used for cooking and lighting, supported by the science of anaerobic digestion. Think poo power. In doing this, Shift addresses two global problems: energy insecurity and climate change. You’re now already familiar with the energy insecurity angle but what’s remarkable about poo power is that by converting animal waste into gas, we can capture harmful methane emissions that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. And these emissions are not trivial – some estimates peg methane emissions from cows as more damaging to our planet than car emissions! An added benefit of poo power is that people will not have to cut down trees for firewood to satisfy their energy needs.

I’m proud to say that Shift has already built multiple energy domes in Pakistan and we’re set to build several more in areas where there is an abundance of animal waste, no gas line (and no prospects for one), and limited electricity. It’s the simplicity of the technology and the plethora of benefits that makes poo power and the work Shift does so enticing. Think about it. Reliable clean gas, preventing climate change, lighting for nighttime reading – all from free cow poo! Shift is certainly not the first to develop this technology. In fact, the science is decades old. But what Shift is doing is popularizing poo power and scaling it across continents to have a global impact. As my marketing guru friend quipped, “it’s a poovolution!”

When tackling big, convoluted problems such as energy insecurity and climate change, I think the approach, both in the non-profit and for-profit space, should be one of entertaining bold ideas. The world’s seemingly intractable problems necessitate fresh, bold solutions that address all sides of the problem and are rooted in evidence. Take climate change for example. Governments around the world are rightfully banding together to implement stricter fuel standards and/or eliminate gas cars altogether but arguably far less is being done to combat other sources of emissions such as cow manure, and so a big part of the equation is left unaddressed.

To arrive at these bold solutions I speak of requires observation, research, and testing. The first step is perhaps the most important. In an age of distraction, many of us have unfortunately lost the ability to simply observe and to identify opportunities in the mundane. After all, we at Shift managed to see poo as a huge untapped energy source. The same needs to be done in so many other areas.

My tactical advice to those who want to make the world a better place (and I know there are many such people out there), the next time you go out for a walk in your neighbourhood make notes of the problems you see (homelessness, food waste, discrimination, gun violence, etc.) and what could be potential resources to solve that problem. Start at a local level but also do this when you travel to other countries. Keep an ongoing log of this. Observe, read, talk to experts, and periodically return to your problems log – you’ll be surprised at the interesting connections you can start exploring and developing.

I’ll give a concrete example of this process in action. When I recently visited Pakistan to see Shift energy domes in action and to identify locations for future projects, I noticed a lot of garbage and homelessness in the major cities. There were heaps of garbage everywhere and it wasn’t being used or organized in any way. I started wondering if the garbage could be compacted into building material for small homes for the homeless. When I floated this idea with a friend, he referred me to several specialized non-profits that are doing something similar with plastic waste in other countries but not Pakistan. A potential solution is born! I would also highly recommend reading and travelling widely as it will open your mind to new ways of thinking and finding magic in the mundane.

The world desperately needs bold solutions to a wide variety of pressing problems – poverty, healthcare, education, clean water, affordable and clean energy, and on and on. My non-profit Shift is only addressing a sliver of the problem pie. What’s needed is for more people much smarter and more creative than myself to take a fresh look at these problems and develop innovative solutions to them.

I’m confident we can do this.

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