Design that can save lives.

Stephan Augustin is an industrial designer and research engineer with the BMW Group in Munich, where he is responsible for specific projects dealing with the mobility topic “beyond the car and the motorcycle”. But as an inventor and unconventional thinker, he also develops affordable helpers designed for everyday life which, particularly in developing countries, provide for fresh water or food cooling without the need for electricity.

Sometimes it is the little things that lead to great inventions. In the case of Stephan Augustin, it was a glass of water that had just been drunk up, a saucer and the glimpse of the Atlantic, which he was enjoying during his holiday on the Canary Islands. “Why”, the BMW Group industrial designer and research engineer asked himself “can all this water not be used for people who are in urgent need of drinking water?” Experts from the UNICEF estimate that 5,000 children die every year of diarrhoeal diseases caused by polluted drinking water.

More by chance, he put his saucer on top of the glass the wrong way round and observed a simple effect: Because of the heat, the last drops of water in the glass rose upwards and condensed on the saucer.

An idea was born, from which Stephan Augustin developed the “Watercone” (following his studies of dozens of textbooks): The cone-shaped desalinator unit vaporizes salt water or brackish water through solar radiation. The steam condenses on the inside and runs into a collecting duct. In this way, it is possible to produce more than 1.5 litres of drinking water a day.  A pilot project implemented in a fishing village in Jemen by the relief organisation Care verifies the practicability of the system: The 100 cones distributed there produced not only flawless quality, the village dwellers even thought it tasted better than bottled water.

Stephan Augustin

Several years ago, Stephan Augustin was already honoured for his invention with the Energy Global Award, one of the most important prizes in the area of resource preservation and alternative energies. Well-wishers included Michael Gorbachev, José Manuel Barroso and Kofi Annan.

Today, several thousands of his Watercones are used for the production of clean water – from Australia to Brazil, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and to the Mormons in Salt Lake City. However, an extensive breakthrough is still awaited and is now to be made possible with the help of a German corporation in India. The company wishes to take up the idea and produce the affordable Watercones in large quantities.

The enterprise could perhaps also be interested in the “Terracooler”, which Stephan Augustin makes available as “Donatonware”, i.e. licence-free: With this cover made of  terracotta, it is possible to keep food cool even at outside temperatures of 40 degrees – without the need for electricity. “The ‘secret’ of this is be found in the gaps in the vessel,” explains Augustin. His Terracooler is a double-walled, bell-shaped clay cover that is filled with water. With the help of cooling by evaporation, it can lower the temperature inside by up to 40 percent. In this manner, not only the storage life of the food kept inside is extended. It is protected from dirt, sunlight and animals. Above all, however, the Terracooler is simple to produce: Potters all over the world possess the necessary skills to manufacture it locally and then market it.

During a visit to a slum in Mumbai, the 50-year-old explains, he became acquainted with potters who wish to recreate the unit for the benefit of dwellers. The Young Leaders Award of the BMW Foundation (now the Responsible Leaders Awards), with which he was honoured in Cape Town for his commitment, aims to help spread the word further. The prize, which is endowed with a total of 30,000 Euros, honours leaders who tread new paths and implement, develop further or support exemplary initiatives that serve the common good.

Stephan Augustin, who is responsible at the BMW Group in Garching near Munich for special projects designed to develop vehicle concepts beyond the BMW core portfolio car and motorcycle, takes a very pragmatic view on his commitment. “On the one hand I am an industrial designer. Developing products is my job,” he says. That’s why he also invented a unicycle or a self-regulating, extremely agile curfboard. The BMW StreetCaver and the BMW Z-Watch were made under his supervision. On the other hand, however, it finally became clear to him through a book on the general declaration of human responsibilities, which was released by the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and state leaders from all over the world, that societies can only function if everyone also assumes responsibilities as far as they possibly can. “Inventions such as the Watercone and the Terracooler can be a contribution to this,” he comments. And perhaps this will be complemented by a further idea in the foreseeable future.