In the glare of the media spotlight
By Ruth Francis
The Science Walden Living Laboratory sits at the centre of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) campus. Open to the public, visitors can experience facilities developed by UNIST researchers: the living laboratory, engineering lab and vegetable garden. They can use the new BeeVi Toilet, which turns human feces into energy, and pays users in a digital currency named Ggool, which can be used to buy goods on campus. Led by Jae-weon Cho, the team devised the system to challenge people to value products, goods and services in a new way, without thinking in terms of standard currencies.
The system uses biological anaerobic digestion to produce bio-energy, such as methane, and solid waste is used for composting. The methane, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, is used in the kitchen and bathroom for a gas range and to heat water, and transformed into power through a generator.
Unsurprisingly, the system and digital currency gained a great deal of media attention, and after a whirlwind couple of weeks navigating the storm, we spoke to Jae-weon Cho, Director of the Science Waldon Center.
Were you expecting interest from the media or did it come as a surprise?
Jae-weon: No, I did not expect this great interest and attention. The media attention enabled us to show people what we can do with the BeeVi Toilet, the currency and how those can be connected to the real world.
Have you worked with the media before this story was picked up and was so big?
Jae-weon: About one month ago, SUBUSU News, a Korean Youtube News channel contacted me to say they wanted to make a news piece with BeeVi Toilet and our digital currency, feces standard money (fSM). Their news got high attention, and then a journalist from Reuters Korea contacted the UNIST PR Office and the global coverage grew from there.
Watch the Reuters video (English)
Watch the SUBUSU video (Korean with English subtitles)
Have you had media training or did you have time to prepare anything before speaking to reporters?
Jae-weon: I have not been trained at all. I am a researcher and an engineer, and I collaborate on interdisciplinary works with colleagues from the humanities and arts, under the project. Within our Science Walden team there is no one person who is responsible for PR, so we had not been doing active media outreach. We understand the media is important though, and when they come, we do our best. If the interview is in English, I spend a bit of time preparing for the interview and my colleague, who is an English native speaker, assists me where needed.
How much time did it take for you speaking to reporters about this?
Jae-weon: It depends on the media. When they visit my lab, Science Cabin, I generally give them enough time, from 30 minutes to one hour or even longer, as we go around different places and spots for their camera. For a phone call, it takes 10-20 minutes on average, though one outlet took only about six minutes.
You have said that you would love people everywhere to embrace the BeeVi Toilet and fSM, and in particular have a vision to work with the people of North Korea, some of whom lack water, energy, and fertilizer. Do you have plans to promote this further in the future?
Jae-weon: In the past I had interviews with Radio Free Asia, which has a channel for North Korea. Unfortunately, we do not have any direct ways to communicate with people from North Korea (DPRK). So, one thing I can do now is to promote our project as much as we can. After the media attention, I hope they may contact us sometime down the road to find out what else we have developed.
What challenges remain for the BeeVi Toilet and fSM?
Jae-weon:There are still obstacles particularly in economic feasibility with the system. But fundamental changes are driven not just by emergence of new technologies but by the desire of the people to embrace the change. Questions about economic feasibility can be answered once we can show that people are willing to pay for something that helps the environment and brings us closer to nature.
About the BeeVi Toilet
Human feces is not only waste to be treated and dumped at the end, even after being treated, to the surrounding environment, but also the most trustable and sustainable resource for bio-energy. Where there is waste, there should be a corresponding system. That is why we created the BeeVi Toilet to turn human feces into energy, power, and even currency. The system includes a toilet, collecting pipe, biological anaerobic digestion to produce bio-energy, such as methane, process of separating methane out of carbon dioxide, and composting.
The team created feces standard money (fSM) with units of Ggool (honey in Korean), and value the production of bio-energy and manure at 10 Ggool based on what one person creates in an average day when they use the BeeVi Toilet.
30% of the Ggool currency received must be shared with others in the network upon receipt. Ggool are activated through sharing and through spending - if left in an account and they will ultimately disappear. As a result, this is a form of currency that does not support accumulation of wealth, but is constantly circulated and utilized.
One of the key aspects of the Ggool is that it is designed with a negative interest rate of 7%, calculated based on the currency going down to zero within 30 days. This is a simple mechanism that supports the notion that Ggool are intended to be used, not stored. Ggool are for spending and for sharing and exist to act as a social good; this is in contrast to what we think of as ‘currency’, which hold their nominal value when held in your hand or in a bank account, often attracting a small amount of interest. Unlike the Ggool these currencies exist as capital and to serve as simple mechanisms of exchange. This money circulates like other elements in nature.
About Science Walden
Science Walden is a community of active scientist-artists who wish to propose a new concept to resolve issues such as the isolation of individuals, lack of communication, and financial difficulties that our society is faced with and implement the concept in the society by combining science, technology, humanities, and art. In a word, it is an aggregate of the efforts to combine science with art. Find out more: http://sciencewalden.org/en
Ruth Francis is a communications expert with more than 20 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.