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Past I2S Winner, Judge Jasmine Burton: Why Sometimes the Problem You’re Solving Isn’t the Right Problem

Jasmine Burton, a Georgia Tech graduate, product designer, social activist, and founder is passionate about a problem fairly novel to most: access to safely managed sanitation. She's also a new judge in the upcoming Ideas to Serve (I2S) competition.
l-r Brandie Banner, Jasmine Burton, Erin Cobb

l-r Brandie Banner, Jasmine Burton, Erin Cobb

Developing countries have many infrastructural, social, economic and environmental challenges that social entrepreneurs all over the world are trying to tackle. But Jasmine Burton, a Georgia Tech graduate, product designer, social activist, and founder is passionate about a problem fairly novel to most: access to safely managed sanitation.

While studying at Georgia Tech, Jasmine and a team of her fellow students came up with a design for a low-cost, easy-to-operate toilet geared toward use in developing countries. They won the 2014 Ideas to Serve (I2S) Competition “Best Poster and Pitch" award as well as first place and People’s Choice Award at the Georgia Tech InVenture Prize that same year with their Safichoo mobile toilet, and were eager to test their ideas.

But when Jasmine got on the ground in Kenya under the auspices of another Georgia Tech-founded organization Sanivation, she realized there was quite a bit of problem discovery work yet to be done.

“You realize that you don’t know all the answers but the users from the communities in which you seek to work do,” says Jasmine, who now works as a contractor at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta in addition to continuing her social impact work as a social entrepreneur. “The idea of working with the communities to co-create a solution that works for them is critical for sustainability and inclusion.”

Jasmine’s organization, Wish for WASH, has spent five years doing research and undergoing iterative pilots across Sub-Saharan Africa and in resettlement refugee camps. She and her team, largely comprised of students and recent graduates from Georgia Tech, are determined to bring a human-centered design lens to solving the global sanitation problem.

Jasmine shares more about her journey and the importance of ethical and socially-responsible problem discovery that she is excited to see in this year’s I2S contestants.

Team Sanivation Wins 2014 Inventure Prize

Tell us how and why you founded Wish for WASH?

As an industrial/product designer, I was excited about the idea of utilizing my creativity professionally. However, I began getting disenchanted by the idea of just designing trend products, as I was interested in pursuing design work that seeks to positively impact humanity.  For me, that was the moment where I began to think about how I wanted to use my degree for something that does social good.

In my freshman year, I went to the Georgia Tech Women’s Leadership Conference, where Tech alumna Susan Davis was speaking about how nearly half the world doesn’t have access to toilets. She also shared how this is a much bigger problem specifically for women and girls.

I marinated on this knowledge for a few years, and in my senior year, I had the opportunity to put my idea to action. For my design capstone project, I was working with an organization called Sanivation, which is an organization that operates in the Circular Sanitation Economy by turning human waste into briquettes for fuel in Kenya. From our initial conversation, I had the idea to bring together an interdisciplinary design team focused on a new kind of toilet design for use in resource-constrained communities. We were keen on creating an improved, even aspirational, toilet design.

We brought together three incredible Georgia Tech women from the Industrial Design, Civil Engineering, and Bioengineering degree programs to create a project that could act as a capstone for all of us.

As an outsider, how did you first approach the problem of access to sanitation?

We approached it in a way that has been amplified in the I2S program: problem discovery. We interviewed over 50 people who worked in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) space globally, and we then tested several toilets and mocked up some prototypes to test some ideas. We eventually came up with this new sit-squat, waste separating toilet concept that we were invited to pitch at the Georgia Tech InVenture Prize Competition and I2S in 2014.

Four weeks later, we had the opportunity to go to a refugee camp in Kenya to pilot our design in tandem with Sanivation’s waste treatment and nutrient recovery technology. We did a ton of conceptual designing, research, and interviewing, but it became very real once we put it in front of real people and got real feedback.

Was your design solving the right problems? Was it going to work?

In Kenya, we collected data and learned that a lot of the things that we thought would work did not due to cultural differences and the cost realities within a refugee camp setting.

We wanted to get this low-cost, operational toilet on the market (and are still working to do so with the 2.0 toilet model that we have today), but we also want to make sure it makes sense within the communities in which we operate. So over the past few years, we’ve been doing a series of small pilots to make sure it is truly feasible from the user experience to the market viability.

How would you encourage this year’s I2S teams to think about these problem discovery methods?

As much as I love solutions — and I think Georgia Tech students and graduates are wired to create brilliant, diverse, and just cool solutions — I think problem discovery is really important in this sector and at large. As creators, designers, engineers and other makers, we need to make sure we are designing for problems that truly exist for the end-users that we intend to be creating for. I’m keen to see how people come to their problems at I2S this year. For example, what inspired them, what they learned through their research, and how they’re challenging their own biases throughout the process. Additionally, I'm interested to know how they plan to continue moving the needle of change and working toward a sustainable solution with real users, partners, and stakeholders?

Coming back to my personal journey, that problem discovery phase was so informative, critical, and humbling and I believe it is the game-changer for the social sector. That’s what I’m excited to see as a judge this year — how people came to their problem, how they’re addressing biases, and where they plan to go with that information. As always, I am forever grateful to be a part of the amazing Georgia Tech community, and despite all of the uncertainty in this world of social distancing, I am looking forward to coming together in this virtual environment to continue ideating and inspiring the positive social change in our world.


Note: Due to the COVID-19 health crisis, I2S has moved to a virtual format for the 2020 Finals.

Teams can still enter the competition by completing the “Intent to Compete” form by April 2 at 11 pm and submitting an executive summary and video presentation by April 7.

Send documents and video to Finalists will be selected by April 13 and all awards will be announced on April 20.


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