Case Study

Project Sammaan

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Project Sammaan brought together a stellar group of designers, architects, and social science researchers to tackle one of the developing world's leading problems – open defecation in crowded urban settings. Initial planning and surveys began in 2011. With an official kickoff meeting in April 2012, the Sammaan team planned to begin work with city officials in two Indian cities, Bhubaneswar and Cuttack, to build 120 community toilets in city slums by February 2013. Furthermore, the project team hoped to develop research from the effort to create a model that could be used by other communities, completing the research in 2014.

However by the late fall of 2013, not a single community toilet had its plans approved, much less built. Various partners believed that the initial vision of the project had been compromised, and the Gates Foundation was refusing to give the project any more money. Observers wondered if the project was fatally stalled and what had gone wrong?

Project Sammaan had started promisingly enough. In 2011 and early 2012, the group had come together, to combine their disparate skills to create innovative approaches to the problem, focusing on India's urban poor. The project incorporated multiple unique approaches, hoping to create a model for facilities and community education that other locations could adapt for their communities. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Project Sammaan had brought together multiple levels of expertise.

But despite these best of intentions, the project faced setback after setback. There were unexpected delays and misunderstandings within the group. In late 2013, the project faced major concerns about how to move forward and whether the project could be brought to completion. Finding a path forward would require tough choices. Should the project add more funding, and if so where? Should the partners reframe project management, and if so, what should the new management structure be? Should the researchers and funders redefine research objectives, and if so, what alternatives could meet at least some of the project goals?

In the larger setting, many participants were also looking back at the project history to date to ask - Could these problems have been ameliorated? Could these insights be applied to construction of actual toilets? And what could this experience teach others about an overall solution to the problem?