CleanCube Project

A project focused on bringing human-scale solutions to the large-scale challenge of clean water.

  • The CleanCube Project is built on a holistic model designed to provide an accessible, affordable source of clean water to people who need it most.
  • Currently in the prototype stage, the CleanCube product is a dissolvable cube made of natural plant-based material that can be added to stored drinking water to kill 100% of E. coli bacteria.
  • This product is part of a larger system that includes small batch production, community-based education, alternative marketing and distribution strategies, and appropriate pricing that fit the realities of CleanCube’s target users.



Worldwide, 783 million people lack access to clean water. In India alone, approximately 600,000 children die annually due to diarrhea or pneumonia, often caused by unclean water and poor hygiene. The sad irony is that water-cleaning devices are available, particularly in India where cheap manufacturing abounds. With so many options available, why are millions of people still lacking access to clean water?

One simplified answer is that the fit, scale, and sustainability of the solutions are insufficient to meet the needs of millions of people lacking access to clean water.

Some water cleaning products are too expensive for the average Indian family. Even if sold at an affordable price, the technology for some products does not reflect the daily realities of those living at or near the poverty line. The requirements needed to make them work effectively do not align with the challenges faced by the people who could most benefit.

Perhaps the most significant reason why the problem of access to clean water persists in India is that the solutions offered are not designed to scale up to reach a large, diverse, primarily rural population. As such, they are not inherently sustainable. Without a sustainable model for production, distribution, maintenance, and local economic impact, products have little chance of making meaningful inroads to eradicating the problem.

So what is the answer?

The answer is that a sustainable solution, one that closely considers the environmental, cultural, social, and financial impacts, has the best chance for making measurable change over the long term. This is the mission behind the CleanCube Project.

It is CleanCube’s interconnected systems approach consisting of small batch production, engaged community education, and innovative distribution and promotion activities that can bring clean water to the people who need it most. And to do so sustainability over the long term by creating economic opportunity, local ownership and by empowering individuals, especially women, at the community level.

The next steps for the CleanCube Project are continued research testing in the lab and in the field. The goal is also to use this human-scale approach to create other powerful design interventions that can overcome the barriers of distribution, financing, and cultural adoption to reach scale in other communities and around other global challenges.



Project Website
OCAD InStudio Interview with Sarah Tranum
Relating Systems Thinking and Design 5 Conference presenation

Illustrated CleanCube banner featuring several families surrouding a water drop, medical symbol and
Infographic demonstrating stages of development in CleanCube project, from production to final impact in the community
Photograph of woman working at home on CleanCube production
Sarah Tranum discussing the CleanCube project with local women
CleanCube infographic illustrating the multiplicative positive effect of having clean water in the community
A photograph of group of women who participated in the project, standing together and smiling
Illustration showing 3 groups of 5 women standing around a grid of clean water droplets
Friday, October 6, 2017 - 11:00am
Lab Member: 
Sarah Tranum
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Clean-water design: Health, gender and sustainability

Many in the West take access to clean water for granted. Yet, according to the United Nations, 783 million people — approximately two-and-a-half times the population of the United States — around the world lack such access. Of those, 3.5 million perish every year, most often as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene.

Beyond these staggering morbidity and mortality rates, one of the most surprising and vexing aspects of this issue is that there exist thousands of solutions for cleaning water. They range from high-tech chemical processes to low-tech filters.

Local problems and solutions

According to Sarah Tranum, a professor of social innovation design at OCAD University, “a main reason for this disconnect lies in a lack of sustainable models for distribution and adoption.” Through her CleanCube Project, Tranum is attempting to design an easy-to-use, affordable water-purification method that can be deployed in any shape or sized household water-storage container to remove illness-causing pathogens.

The World Bank estimates that 21 per cent of communicable diseases across India are related to unsafe water.

With funding from Grand Challenges Canada, Tranum is leading her project in South Goa, India. Like thousands of other migrant slums in India and the Global South, that’s a community where human and other forms of waste frequently contaminate drinking water supplies. Coupled with this problem is the lack of economic and social opportunity, especially among women.

Waste and water are inextricably linked in this slum community


Holistic sustainability

“Clean Cube takes a holistic approach to designing a sustainable solution to South Goa’s water needs,” says Tranum. “By sustainability, I’m looking not only at the environment, but also at creating a means for people to continue to gain access to the solution over time.”

In India, Unicef reports that 600,000 children die from diarrhea or pneumonia, often stemming from toxic water and poor hygiene.

A participatory design process is central to Tranum’s approach. “By engaging the community and drawing on its knowledge, CleanCube can be a true reflection of its strengths, weaknesses, needs and desires.” In this regard, Tranum explains, “understanding the daily practices of women has been key.”

Washing clothes from stored water

Women’s work, women’s empowerment

By adapting the most innovative and relevant aspects of decentralized, cooperative Indian businesses such as Lijjad Papad and Amul, Tranum’s pilot project is using small-batch production carried out by women within their homes.

Participating women are able to fit their work around their usual daily responsibilities, while also generating income for their families. “In addition to the immediate benefit of manufacturing clean-water solutions for a population plagued by unsanitary water,” Tranum notes, “taking part in the CleanCube production process holds the potential of giving women a stronger voice within their households and broader community.” 

Video produced by Martin Iskander
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Waters of life and art

North America’s Great Lakes hold 21 per cent of the planet’s fresh water. These five massive bodies of water are vital to the health and wellbeing of 33 million people in Canada and the United States. It’s little wonder the Anishinaabe call them the “lifeblood of Mother Earth.”

Presented by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the exhibition Identity: Art Inspired by the Great Lakes offers glimpses of the lakes and their landscapes through painting, photography, sculpture and social media. Among the sundry artists gathered for this show are three with deep OCAD University roots:

  • George Agnew Reid: a student at the Ontario College of Art in 1879 and its principal from 1912 to 1918
  • Bonnie Devine: founding chair of OCAD U’s Indigenous Visual Culture Program
  • Meryl McMaster: graduate of OCAD U’s Photography program

In this InStudio feature, we are re-presenting the works by Reid, Devine and McMaster on display in Identity. And we shot a video that will give you a virtual tour of the exhibition, which is mounted in the Lieutenant Governor’s magnificent nineteenth-century suite at Queen’s Park.

The curators of the exhibition — Debi Perna and Lani Wilson — also kindly shared their professional insights on the show’s origins, guiding concept, landscape art and OCAD U’s participating artists. (Perna also designed the lush catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.)

INSTUDIO: What was the genesis of this exhibition?

Debi Perna: Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell’s key objective was to bring emphasis to the Great Lakes as a source of pride and identity for all Ontarians.

Lani Wilson: In order to accomplish that goal, Her Honour sought to showcase contemporary artworks, while at the same time acknowledging the traditional inspirations of historical paintings.

INSTUDIO: What is the significance of the title “Identity”?

Perna: Identity functions as the exhibition’s title on many levels. At its deepest, personal identification with these lakes was a sentiment expressed by almost all the participating artists, however diverse their approaches and experiences. Wanda Koop’s painting, for instance, reveals the powerful impression made on her by a voyage down the St. Lawrence Seaway. Tom Campbell says the shores of Georgian Bay hold a central place in his psyche, while Charles Meanwell returned to the region around Lake Superior where, as a young man, he had spent time planting trees.

Wilson: As we developed the show, we found that artists wanted to tell us about their own connections to the Great Lakes. They spoke of the lakes with awe at their vastness and of their importance to the province and its history. The sense of connection to and identification with the lakes is vivid, for example, in Laura Pedersen’s The Leuty Project, which combines photographs of the same Lake Ontario view she took each day for a year and shared on social media.

INSTUDIO: How do you explain artists’ ongoing engagement with landscape art?

Perna: Identity also speaks to the perennial fascination of landscape art, which itself, I believe, stems from the natural environment’s undeniable presence in our lives.

Wilson: Artists are forever pursuing new ways to depict their surroundings. They seek to re-experience the landscape through new and various media, and to use these outlets to create memories, moods and emotions at the same time as the landscape continues to change around us.

INSTUDIO: How do you interpret the works of George Reid, Bonnie Devine and Meryl McMaster within the context of the exhibition?

Wilson: The eight George Reid paintings that greet visitors as they step into Her Honour’s suite are part of a donation of over 400 paintings Reid made to the Government of Ontario in 1944. They are superb examples of traditional landscape art, and their specific connection to locations across southern and northern Ontario make them easy to relate to and enjoy.

But Reid’s canvases are more than historical illustrations of Ontario’s landscape in the early 20th century. They are high-quality examples of technique, line, form and colour. Each one is a deeply thoughtful composition.



Perna: Meryl McMaster’s series In-Between Worlds explores her bi-cultural heritage and self-identity. Here, McMaster incorporates imagery that I’m not sure can be confined to the landscape genre per se. That said, both landscape and identity factor significantly into her inspired art.

Bonnie Devine’s conceptual mixed media and cast glass sculpture bring a powerful contemporary connection to her Ojibwa heritage. Devine’s visual interpretations of cultural stories from her past and her strong link with the place where she grew up in Northern Ontario express the essence of the theme of landscape and identity this exhibition sought to illuminate.





Video by Martin Iskander

Research Rendezvous

Thursday, February 25, 2016 - 5:00pm to 6:30pm

On Thursday, February 25th 12:00 pm-1:30 pm the Research Office will be hosting a Research Rendezvous in the DF Salon (Room 701K, 205 Richmond) with the following faculty members who will be presenting their research:

Robert Diaz, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Anti-Japanese Nationalisms, Filipina Victimhood, and the Limits of Reparation

Sarah Tranum, Faculty of Design

Designing Sustainable Clean Water Solutions Using Women’s Livelihood Generation and Empowerment Strategies

Robert Diaz is an Assistant Professor in the Faculties of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Graduate Studies at OCAD University. His teaching and scholarship focus on the intersections of Sexuality, Filipino, Asian, and Postcolonial Studies. Diaz is currently co-editing Diasporic Intimacies: Queer Filipinos/as and Canadian Imaginaries (under contract with Northwestern University Press), which brings together artists, scholars, and community workers in order to examine the contributions of queer Filipinos/as to Canadian culture and society.

In this talk, Robert Diaz tracks the emergence of two important figures that have come to signify anti-Japanese nationalisms and calls for reparations in the Philippines from the 1990’s onwards, the comfort woman (or women systematically abducted during Japanese occupation) and the japayuki (or women bound for Japan as migrant laborers because of the economic relationship between the Philippines and Japan). By examining the representation of these figures in two provocative cinematic works—Nick DeOcampo’s The Sex Warriors and The Samurai and Gil Portes’ film Markova Comfort Gay—Diaz suggests that Filipino artists have queered the figure of the victimized Filipina in order to expose how anti-Japanese nationalisms reproduce patriarchal assumptions about female victimhood. By queering the comfort woman and the japayuki, these films instead challenge dominant notions of reparation by dramatizing how histories of Japanese colonialism and Japanese capitalist expansion intersect.

Sarah Tranum is an Assistant Professor, Tenure-Track, in Social Innovation Design. As part of TrickleUp Design, Sarah is leading a Canadian-government funding research project based in India. The goal of the project is to work in slum communities to develop a product that provides clean water and can be manufactured locally. Sarah is also working on a sustainably designed and produced consumer product targeting the North American market.

Sarah will use her research project based in South Goa, India, called CleanCube, as the backbone of this discussion to discuss how sustainable clean water solutions can be designed by leveraging income generation and women’s empowerment activities. CleanCube employs these strategies in pilot communities where the need for clean water and improved sanitation goes hand in hand with a lack of economic and social enfranchisement opportunities, especially among women.

Please join us for this exciting session!

Venue & Address: 
DF Salon (Room 701K, 205 Richmond)
Research rendezvous Poster with event info

Sarah Tranum presenting her paper at the 2015 Mumbai Conference

Thursday, December 3, 2015 - 2:00pm

Sarah Tranum, Assistant Professor of Social Innovation in the Faculty of Design, will be presenting her paper, "Designing sustainable clean water solutions using women’s livelihood generation and empowerment strategies", at the International Conference Cumulus Mumbai 2015 "A Vision of Sustainability with Focus on Water". This conference is being hosted by the Industrial Design Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay from December 3-5, 2015, in Mumbai, India.