By marrying local textile traditions to advanced portable light and clean energy technology, the nonprofit Portable Light Project is bringing artificial illumination to some of the darkest corners of the globe.
Earlier this month, I spoke with Sheila Kennedy, principal of Kennedy & Violich Architecture, the Boston firm that established the Portable Light Project, about how a dedicated group of designers, architects, engineers, NGOs and community leaders are shedding light in once-dark communities.
How does the portable light technology work?
The portable light is a very simple, economical solar textile kit. There’s a reflective element that can be shaped by hand that allows users to modify the type of light. There’s an electronic circuit that we developed with a cell phone battery that stores power. There are flexible solar panels that generate power. We also have a USB platform and high-brightness LED. It’s a very simple but adaptable idea. We’ve been trying to deliver a new way of light and power that can change its shape and change its form factor.
If you think about a textile, it’s basically a really important common denominator in many different cultures. Textiles are a way to connect with local inventiveness and skill bases. What we did was develop a solar textile kit that enables people to integrate some fairly advanced technology into available, local material using common skills, like sewing, weaving and local craft traditions. For the first time, the energy end users can be the co-creator of different textile forms that can be tailored — literally and figuratively — to meet local needs. Someone who uses energy can also become someone who produces energy. That creates local jobs and that benefits local economies.
Talk about the population who uses the portable light textiles. Who are these people and how does this technology affect their lives?
More than a quarter of the world population does not have access to electrical power. Many more don’t have access on a regular basis. Many more are displaced by wars or by climate-related problems. And many more are moving from rural to urban areas, crossing very large distances. You have a set of the world’s poorest people who have to move either seasonally, daily or on a permanent, life-changing basis. What we try to do is create a portable source of power and renewable light for people because in this population you must be mobile in order to survive. The idea of portable light is to ask, “What is the smallest, most useful increment of energy and what’s the best way to provide that to people so they can have that energy on demand.” We decided to combine two applications: a USB port which enables people to charge batteries, radios, cell phones, and a very bright source of light. The light, which extends the hours of the day and provides the ability to charge cell phones and have a USB port, that actually collapses some of the distances in space.
Which countries are you in?
Right now the Portable Light Project is working in Nicaragua, in several sites in Mexico, in India and in Haiti. We have pilot projects in South Africa, Madagascar, Kenya and Brazil. [Artificial light gives] a person time to build their human capacity. This means very fundamental things can happen: safety when you’re walking at night, which many indigenous people do, the ability to cook a healthy meal and to have light to see that, the ability to study or work at home, to provide medical care if there’s been an accident or if a woman is giving birth. The ability to provide people with a way of harnessing sunlight. Storing that power and being able to draw on it when they need it is really an important impact.
Talk about the different forms, such as the FLAP bag, that the portable light comes in.
You don’t need to have a product in the old-fashioned industrial and design sense of the word. Instead we have a kit that can change its shape and can be integrated into many form factors: bags, clothing, animal saddles, baby carriers, blankets. If you spread all of those out in a room, you’d be amazed because you wouldn’t think they were made from the same kit of parts. You can’t always imagine what the next form is going to take.
So the form depends on the needs of the user?
Absolutely. It depends on the community, what their needs are, what the specific local textile traditions may be or what resources are at hand, what the local tradition of ingenuity and inventiveness is, what the local skill set is. We really have developed the ability to provide some design research and make an assessment of what might be available in a culture and then provide training on how to integrate the technology into these local materials.
What challenges do you face in this project?
When we have solid-state materials like flexible solar materials, we have the opportunity to really ask ourselves questions and re-conceive of a form factor that’s appropriate for those technologies. It seems very valuable to have a solar panel that’s flexible, that you can’t break when you drop it, that produces 50 percent less solar emissions than making a glass solar panel. But we still have a cultural obstacle in our minds here at home. We cling as a culture to what we know, to the form factor of the previous technology. That’s a challenge to the imagination.
There is the challenge of bringing something to scale for a needs-based market. How can we conceive of a lighting source or a clean energy resource that might use the same components here at home and in a place that might be far away? What the Portable Light Project is trying to do is create one kit that can work here at home and also in the developing world.
One of the big problems is that in the United States we’ve forgotten how to make things. Manufacturers have literally forgotten how to rapidly prototype and iterate physical things. They do tremendous amounts of branded retailing, but all the production is out-sourced to different countries. That’s having a very bad effect on our own economy, just from a job creation point of view, but also on our ability to do the physical testing and making that is critical when you’re developing a new infrastructure.
Image: Sheila Kennedy