Saturday, August 24, 2013

Patenting Potties: Portland Loos Fight to be Number One

The business of doing your business is complex and competative. What can be said to be intellectual property, and what is just basic common sense?

Just found out that the City of Portland has sued Rometic Inc. over its similar design in sidewalk toilets (see Portland Sues over its Loos)

I visited the Portland Loo when I was in the area for my Brother's graduation in May, having read an article about its design. On the face of it is an interesting concept, but has definite room for improvement.

The Portland Loo is meant to be inhospitable as possible: to get people to do exactly what they are supposed to do in the loo and nothing else. The slats at the top and bottom provide ventilation, but also allow authorities to see if there are too many pairs of feet inside. The stainless steal walls are meant to be graffiti resistant (though people have got round that by scratching messages into them). The sink is on the outside to prevent homeless people from using it to wash their clothes or to shower... though I have to say at the one I visited this prevention was further helped by the fact the tap didn't work at all, so no one was going to wash anything... including hands!

It was otherwise a reasonably nice, if unremarkable loo.

The city is hoping to make significant profit from these loos, and so far has sold 3 at a cost of $90,000 each (1/3 profit according to commentators on the article) and argues that Romtech's significantly lower priced loos are going to edge them out of the market.

While I understand the business side and the desire to protect intellectual property, it seems that Portland is missing a few tricks here.

They have identified several problems that are faced by cities across the country when looking at toilet provision, and have proposed a solution. What that solution honestly needs now is for people to take and improve on it. Rather than trying to protect a fairly common-sense design that works decently but not brilliantly, Portland's efforts might be better spent looking at how they can improve their offer to be able to legitimately compete on the market or become an advisor to others. Three sales is not a great track record, and if we all have to wait for a Portland Loo until they are affordable everywhere we may have to wait a good long time!

In her book The Big Necessity Rose George talks about a time-honoured tradition of entrepreneurs who chose not to copyright their innovations because they say them as the solution to a widespread problem and, quite the opposite of wanting to make them exclusive they wanted to make them widely available and easily adoptable by others.
"...I see this attitude often in sanitarians. None has applied for patents. None wants to remove his useful ideas into expensive inaccessibility... Patenting is daft, according to the two Steves [creators of The Gulper]. It defeats the purpose. "The idea," says Sugden, "is to develop something a small-scale sector can afford to adopt. If you patent it, it's expensive and they can't adopt it. It has to be simple and rugged and bomb-proof." (George 2008, 218) 
Now, most of the innovators in this chapter are developing technology for third-world countries where having any toilet at all is an issue. But the principal of needing to find an innovative problem to a social solution is still there.

I will be interested to see where this case goes (and to reflect on what that means for the business of toilets).

Saturday, August 17, 2013

'Toilet Dating': The Shit has hit the fan!

Myself (The Loo Tour Lady) and Matt (Creator of Doing Something) Lead the charge on the first Toilet Date Night. (Photo: Jose Farinha)  
Mostly this blog is meant to be about my research, not my tours, but it has been such an odd and exciting week I simply have to share.

About the same time I was exploring festival toilets I was contacted by a company called Doing Something to run a date night tour for singles. They find the quiryest things to do on dates and go do them. Which is a brilliant concept if, like me, you're incapable of having dinner with someone without discussing toilets. If that terrifies your date at least they have something to distract them. Unless they happen to have come along on the toilet date, but then they are presumably prepared!

We wasted no time, and a week later I lead my first Friday Night Loos event. A really lovely group of people showed up and I took them on an abridged version of the tour with slightly more of a focus on pubs and socializing. It was both my largest tour and my strangest, and I loved every minute of it.

And they pitched it to the press- so just one week later I am feeling semi-infamous. Responses range from amusement to disgust.

Here are some choice quotes:
"The monthly night held on Fridays will give participants the opportunity to get to know each other in the unique setting of a loo, which will hopefully flush out the losers." Dating firm hopes to wipe out the competition with toilet night for singles (The Metro)
 "If the date doesn’t go well you can probably get some editor to buy your story called, “The Toilet Wasn’t the Crappiest Thing About Our Date.” Five reasons toilet dating doesn't sound like the worst idea ever (The Gloss) 
"OK, to be fair, I actually think this isn't maybe the worst idea ever." Introducing toilet dating. Maybe it sounds cuter in a British accent. (Glamour) 
There are many more, including one in French!

The press have christened the adventure "Toilet dating" which has probably helped the rise to the (to be expected) slew of assumptions that it involves illicit encounters in grimy toilets by desperate singles.

Here's my take on it:

Ironically, I think it takes quite a classy type of person to come on a loo tour. Anybody can joke about it and take the piss, but my experience has been that the people who actually take the plunge and do it are the people who get the fact that there may be more to it than cheap jokes about bodily functions (much as I do love those!)

I have certainly been known to talk about toilets on first dates... in fact, generally (date or not) within half an hour of meeting someone they will know about my tours. Then they will want to know why. Then they will want to tell me their favorite stories. It's like "If you give a mouse a cookie..." Generally the longer the conversation the more I like the person. Not because I have a weird toilet fetish (interest yes. obsession... okay, probably. fetish no.) but because it leads on to other subjects... I find out about their awareness of innovation, social justice, communities and cultures. The toilet is the source and the destination.

It's at once wonderfully taboo and wonderfully communal. We may blush or laugh, we know we're not generally allowed to talk about it, but we all have experience with it. So why not start a date with one of the few things you know you are guaranteed to have in common? Once you've got over that you can probably talk about anything.

Booking are already coming in for the September Event.

If guests are expecting grime and dirt, cramped stalls or 'speed dating' (as it was advertised on one site) then they will be sorely disappointed. Besides, I'm sure anyone that way inclined can figure it out without my help.

The rout is still being determined, but it will definitely include The Cellar Door, which remains my absolute favorite location not only for its toilet-connections but for its wonderful staff and amazing cocktails. If that can't change people's minds about the dignity and sophistication of the toilet then nothing will.

I guess the night will separate the losers from the loos-ers?

Explaining the history of waterborne sewage. What would you discuss on a first date? (Photo:Jose Farinha)  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Festival Toilets: Personal encounters

Since my interest in Toilets began I have generally heard dire things about festival toilets. So I was unsure what to expect at my first true festival experience at Camp Bestival in Dorset this weekend. I was rewarded with a larger than expected range of toilet options and a couple very interesting conversations and discoveries.

Toilets may not be the first thing most people would think about in this case, but it's probably safe to say they are one of the absolute most important. The camp has a capacity of 30,000 people (thanks wikipedia), so you're probably looking at somewhere in the vicinity of half a million loo visits over the weekend (admitting this is a rough number. Not everyone is there every day, but you've got artists and crew to account for too.)

If an average bladder can hold 16 oz you're looking at 62,500 gallons of urine over the weekend! Not to mention about 32 tons of poop!  You can imagine what kind of disaster it would be if we were all doing that in the open!

I got into camp around 1:30 on Friday with the rest of my youth dance company. We spent a good long while finding a camping place and getting our tents pitched... something that takes a good long while when you have 12 people to stick with and the not-particularly-organised check-in system keeps sending you round in circles.

We were pretty well spoilt in the artists section with D&P Luxury Toilets which have a cabin, sinks, proper (if blue) flush, sinks, mirrors, and most of the comforts you'd expect of any decent home toilet. Their only fault was that they smelled a bit toilety. Wheelchair users had slightly less luxurious choice, with a bog standard A1 Loohire (which had a paper sign on the door indicating it doubled as a baby changing facility).

 The first really exciting toilet discovery came when we were making our way back to camp after our dress rehearsal. My eye was caught by a big orange tent labeled When Nature Calls with the rather clever slogan "The Only Place To Go!"

I wasn't able to investigate right away, but decided I simply had to find out what it was about. There was a long agonizing wait while everyone gathered together, sorted out dinner vouchers, found the food tent, and negotiated with the dinner lady, as we had mistakenly been given lunch vouchers (she wasn't super keen to accept them, but the simplest rout when faced with eleven hungry people who haven't eaten in 8 hours is not to argue!) When at last I had wolfed down my chicken curry and chocolate cake I explained to our chaperone what I wanted to do, and why it was vitally important I be allowed to wander off on my own for a bit (though I am generally considered a responsible adult, some members of the company are as young as 14, so by the strictest common denominator we were all kept good track of for the weekend. Hence the chaperone.) She gave me the puzzled disbelieving face I get from most people when I first mention my favorite topic, but she granted permission, so off I went.

The entrance was busy. Two men were manning the fort, collecting money from the public. From watching I gathered it was £2 a use, and they had run out of bills so were routinely giving change for 20's in coins. It was past 9pm at this point, so they had probably had a long day of it.

When there was a momentary lull I approached one of them and asked to speak to the person in charge. Turns out I had got it in one- the man's name was Tim, and the company was his brainchild. I hastily explained what I was about (the tour, the blog and the book.) He was cheerful enough, and indulgently agreed to answer my questions, pointing out that "that's an odd thing to be interested in. I didn't press the fact that he was the one who actually owned a toilet business.

It turns out that Tim is, by profession, a property developer in the Isle of Wight.  He started the business in 2011 in response to the normally terrible conditions at festivals, to provide an option for those who don't mind paying a bit extra for the luxury of a clean seat and warm running water. The toilets are manned by cheerful attendants who clean each stall after every use, ensuring that no one will ever have to suffer a less than optimal toileting experience. He personally accompanies the toilets to every event, because, as he explained, he has his brand reputation to maintain. All it takes is one less than happy customer tweeting a picture of a dirty stall to undo the ethos he works so hard to uphold.

He explained that the pay-as-you-go method was a one-off for camp bestival, due to the family nature of the event (for £20 a wrist-band for unlimited uses could be purchased for the weekend). Normally wrist-bands for exclusive access can only be purchased online in advance, and are limited to a couple thousand. He told me proudly that his formula for how many stalls and attendants are needed is "a bit of a trade secret" but revealed that they expect about 8000 uses/day at full capacity.  

He invited me to come have a look inside, which I was more than reasonably excited to do. We went through the rather grand inflatable orange enterance to the spacious tent, whuch had about 40 toilet cubicles as well as some orange bean bag chairs. It's toilet entrepreneurship in the true spirit of Victorians such as George Jennings... making "spending a penny" far more than a simple bowel movement, but a complete experience...  something of a novelty even.

He showed me a cubicle, and explained that they use a vacuum flush (like you see on airplanes) which is much more water efficient than most toilets, and is much more powerful. He even let me have a free go! Again, I was more pleased by this than any normal person ought to be.

One thing that has helped the company is the strong brand reputation they have built. It's fun and memorable, and imprinted on almost everything in the space. They even sell t-shirts... which of course became my one indulgent purchase of the festival. It may be making an appearance on one of my tours in the near future.

My next interesting toilet experience was the following evening. I was on my way back to camp to turn in for the night and stopped off to use the loos in the artists bar area. While I was washing my hands one of the toilet attendants came in and started cleaning. My attention was captured as I heard her cheerfully chatting to other hand-washers about her job and the general aimiability of the toilet-cleaning staff. "We're not here to have a shit weekend," was her catch phrase. She added, as she scrubbed the sink "it helps that I'm a bit OCD." I told her I would very much like to talk to her when she was done, and stationed myself outside the door.

It took a good fifteen or twenty minutes as she did both the men's and the ladies, working around users all the while (the queue was not long, but the flow of people was steady). Thankfully I wasn't apprehended by security during this time... which I was half afraid I would be standing outside the toilets taking pictures and scribbling in my notebook. This is perhaps the advantage to being a young female in this particular area of research. I imagine a man in the same situation would have come under much more scrutiny.

At last she was done in the gents, and I grabbed her on the way out. I'm not sure she had really expected me to wait all that time, but she was cheerful enough, and was more intrigued and less disgusted by my story than most people are. She had to continue her rounds, but let me tag along for a bit.

Her name was Becks, and toilet cleaning was not her full-time job. The company, Truly Scrumptious, is owned by her friend Sarah, and consists of a small and close team. She says it definitely helps in that business to know who you're working with rather than just get a group of strangers, because at the end of the day you can have a cup of tea and chat about what you have found in the loo (and there are apparently some good stories. Think about that next time you're tempted not to clean up after yourself! The toilet cleaners see all!) I asked how many were on the team for the event. She wasn't sure off the top of her head, but rattled off names. Probably about thirteen or fourteen. She was part of the team on the artist's section only, where the standards are slightly higher than the main festival. After disappearing for a bit into the VIP section she popped out to ask if I wanted to see what a portaloo should look like. The amused security guard obliged us with a flashlight. Clean as new walls and seat, loo roll placed next to the seat and two spares neatly stacked in the corner. It truly was a thing of beauty. I asked her how long it was expected to stay that way and she sighed and said "we do what we can."

She still had four hours of her shift to go (finishing at 2am, making the rounds from toilet to toilet in her section) so I left her to it, but not before giving her my contact details and asking her to promise to get Sarah in touch. She gave me a hug before I left and said "I feel so... appreciated!"

Our final morning I finally got to experience the true grit of festival toilets. We had to get up quite early, and when I went to the luxury camp toilets there was no loo roll to be seen, and blue flushing liquid (along with other substances) was splashed all over the seats and floor. There were empty beer cans and wads of dirty tissue. I searched 7 portaloos before I finally found a roll. Some of them were in pretty poor condition as well. There was poo on the floor and walls of at least two of them. Almost as though someone actively decided to trash the place. I thought of Becks' perfect loo, and it made me mad.

Is it really so hard to clean up after ourselves? Experts have apparently done studies on the degree of respect people show for public toilets. Apparently the farther removed the less inhibited and more entitled they are. But this is, I suppose, why businesses like When Nature Calls have such a valuable place. It raises an interesting question: what would be an ideal situation for toilets? Would it be one where every toilet is attended and cleaned as regularly as WNC? Or where every person took the time to clean their own toilet (a practice that Ghandi tried -somewhat unsuccessfully- to promote). Or, given that there are a range of time places and people that call for different things, is the sort of free market of toilets that currently exists perhaps the best solution?

I should mention the one last type of toilets at the festival. These were composting toilets, and I didn't get a chance to speak with anyone representing them. The company is Natural Event and their rather clever slogan is "changing the world from the bottom up." The verdict on these: actually fairly pleasant (smelling more like woodchips than anything else, but no paper in any of the stalls when I tried to use them in the afternoon.

I hope to get the chance to chat further with people at both these companies eventually, but for present, I will sign off for the night and crawl back into my real bed (hurrah!)