When inventor Virginia Gardiner wanted to test-drive a toilet aimed at providing safe sanitation in the developing world, she knew just where to turn — a British music festival.
Her firm Loowatt, which turns waste into fertilizer and energy, is among a growing number of organizations using revelers at European summer festivals to trial products intended for humanitarian disaster zones or to cut energy use.
“It really, really puts the technology to the test,” said Gardiner, whose waterless toilets provide relief to British festival-goers and poor families in Madagascar without safe sewage systems.
“It’s an environment that does test the ability of technologies to function, not only without your usual access to water or energy, but also in terms of their robustness,” she said.
Glastonbury — Britain’s best-known music and arts festival, held on a dairy farm in southwest England — opened on Wednesday, with campers arriving to pitch their tents ahead of headline performances by Stormzy, The Killers and The Cure.
The 2015 Glastonbury Festival was used to test a urinal for refugee camps that turns urine into electricity to power lights and charge phones.
The project, a collaboration between British building firm Dunster House, the University of the West of England, Bristol and charity Oxfam, is being piloted in African schools this year.
Another success story is the Semilla Sanitation Hub, which converts waste into drinking water and agricultural nutrients. It is now being used to help Kenyan farmers hit by climate change, with plans to roll it out into Jordanian refugee camps.
Industry experts say open-air, densely populated festivals create huge potential for innovation because — like refugee camps — tens of thousands of people suddenly arrive at a site that has to be built from scratch.
“If you are creating a temporary town ... obviously you need to bring new infrastructure into a place,” said Claire O’Neill from British-based non-profit group A Greener Festival, which assesses festivals on their environmental performance.
“It also provides an opportunity — you can then trial new ways of doing things,” she said.
The Netherlands Red Cross worked in 2017 with electronic music festival Mysteryland, near Amsterdam, to test wind turbines and mobile solar panels for use in refugee camps, said Juriaan Lahr, the society’s director of international operations.
“It’s important to maintain high standards when you are looking at the performance of new solutions,” he said.
“It is not always ethical or responsible to do it [testing] in the places where we work, because then we are dealing with people that are already exposed and vulnerable, who have already gone through a lot of suffering,” Lahr said.
While large aid agencies can often afford to role-play disaster responses, the festival scene offers an alternative for small, impact-oriented companies without such deep pockets, said Mojtaba Salem, of the Research Institute on Leadership and Operations in Humanitarian Aid in Germany.
“In any kind of humanitarian operations, particularly the disaster relief, you have uncertainty and you have to deal with the logistical challenge, and these kinds of uncertain situations — you can find that in music festivals,” Salem said.
The potential of festivals as living labs for innovation inspired former start-up industry worker Anna van Nunen to cofound Dutch non-profit Innofest three years ago to help about 30 entrepreneurs test their products at 10 festivals each year.
Nine out of 10 innovations fail, often because a prototype has not been tested well enough, according to Innofest, which has worked with 90 innovations, from tents to energy and waste products, at Dutch music, theater and motorbike festivals.
Organizers were keen to harness their events for “greater societal purpose” by signing up for tests, Van Nunen said.
While about half of the products Innofest had tested would not be noticed by festival visitors, she said revelers had also been eager to participate when they were needed to help with trials.
Salem urged caution over how much information a successful festival trial could provide, but said that they offered real value and might become a fixture of the summer party scene.
“You should not 100 percent think that whatever works in the festival is going to work in the humanitarian sector because simply the extremity of the context is much higher and the uncertainty is also much higher, [but] there is definitely a discussion right now ... I think it will grow,” he said.
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