Sheila Kennedy and the Portable Light Project

boy with solar panel portable light project

Not your typical architecture firm, Sheila Kennedy and her cohorts at KVA MATx are stripping apart the built environment and reassembling it with an eye for flexibility. Her vision: a world of distributed power in which solar potential is woven into the fabric of daily life, from high design in Germany to African tailors and boda-bodas (bicycle taxis). Her malleable solar light technology, dubbed the Portable Light Project, is already out there, meshing with local need and know-how to bring renewable energy into diverse niches of the world. She spoke with TreeHugger Radio about FLAP (Flexible Light And Power--a collaboration with Timbuk2 that turned goers of the Pop!Tech conference into beta testers), her vision for the "Soft House," and the future of design.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text after the jump.
TreeHugger: Can you tell us a little bit about this project you call FLAP?

Sheila Kennedy: FLAP stands for Flexible Light and Power. The project started when the curator of Pop!Tech, Andrew Zolli, approached me and said that the legendary soft goods company Timbuk2 might be interested in working with the Portable Light Project to do a conference bag project that would be a little bit different. So we were intrigued.

The project started this summer and we created a number of different ways to take our existing portable light technology, our flex kits, and integrate them into a new type of messenger bag that Timbuk2 developed. It's called FLAP because a messenger bag has a flap on it. So the idea was to have a removable flap that could be a pop-up textile lantern disguised as a messenger bag.

At Pop!Tech we had the opportunity to share some of the early beta prototypes with conference goers, and this summer we put a number of different FLAP prototypes into field testing.

TreeHugger: The ultimate goal here is to roll these out into remote populations who may not have access to a reliable power grid, is that right?

Kennedy: Right. The ultimate goal is really three-fold. We want to make a really affordable, really accessible, solar charger that can be a part of everyday life. We also want to encourage local businesspeople, small and mid-size businesses, to be able to produce the FLAP bags, so we might think of them as kits instead of finished products.

And finally we want to be able to have the end user benefit from individual ownership of clean energy. Oftentimes, NGOs or corporate sponsors will go into a developing country and they'll set up a centralized village solar panel generator. And that can work well for a while, but when it breaks, because it's not really owned by anyone, it's difficult to know who's responsible for its maintenance and upkeep.

And so we're really trying to put down roots in the local communities where we work to make sure that--using local materials, local know-how, and really simple means, like craft traditions such as weaving, sewing, and braiding--we can connect the technology into everyday life.

TreeHugger: So you're hoping people will inject their own creativity into this and expand on these kits, molding them to fit their needs?

Kennedy: That's right. So in a way, this is really a shape-shifting technology. It's very different than the kind of classical modern product that we read about in modern product design, where form has to follow function.

In this case, because it's a textile, it's adaptable. It's literally bendable and can fit into many different use cases and can be adjusted to modulate light. In the Portable Light Project we use a reflective textile that can literally be picked up and touched. You can touch it with your hand and shape it, shape the light. This allows you to have diffuse or more focused light.

TreeHugger: Are these already out there in the field? Are people getting their hands on these things?

Kennedy: Yes, absolutely. For example, there's a fantastic set of field tests that are still under way that were initiated by my friend Eric Hersman of AfriGadget. He was kind enough to take some of our beta prototype FLAPs with him when he traveled to Maker Fair this summer in Ghana, and then also to Kenya. We are talking now about developing a portable light project that could help support the Center for African Innovation that Eric is thinking about creating in Kenya.

So Eric did took the kit components that we gave him and approached local businesspeople--tailors, motorcycle repairmen, a bicycle taxi driver--and asked them what they thought of it. He asked the tailors whether they thought they could use the basic components of the kit to create their own unique version of portable light, how they would like to see it, how it would fit their needs. And the results are absolutely amazing.

In fact today, we just got an incredible example of portable light in the mail, a portable light textile that was woven into some original kente cloth. Online, Eric has blogged about what the tailors did. They did some really neat-looking backpacks and other things that were really, really creative and smart.

TreeHugger: What are the implication of bringing technologies like this into the work or the household environment for these communities?

Kennedy: Well, you say implications like there might be adverse implications. And rightly so. Sometimes people do ask us that question. It's interesting because the benefits are really enormous. It sounds a little corny, but it really can be life-changing. In the United States we don't realize the difference that having light makes. But when you're in a place that doesn't have electricity, your life kind of ends at sundown.

For many people, especially for women and their families in poor communities, the ability to have light gives them a gift of extended hours during the day. So it really extends their time of day and they can use that to study in adult literacy, they can use that for household economics.

So for women, that can really extend the hours that are available during the day. It's really significant, because that extra time can be the difference between barely surviving and adding a little bit more money to the household income. Also we've seen that for adult education and community-based healthcare, having light can make a very big difference.

But we need to ask ourselves questions about new technologies. Are they beneficial? Do they have any harmful side effects? And so forth. But we tend not to scrutinize our own mainstream existing technologies quite as rigorously.

If you look at the impact, if we ask ourselves every day about the impact of using centralized electricity--in terms of carbon emissions and so forth--it can be quantified and is quite tangible. But usually the question isn't asked that way.

So we tend to scrutinize only those technologies that are new, not the existing mainstream technologies that we're already using. They've been acculturated and become a part of habituated daily life. And one of the interesting things about the Portable Light Project is that it is a way people can begin to make a change in their lives by seeing that clean energy can be integrated into everyday objects, whether that's a saddle bag, an article of clothing, a shawl, a bag.

That way the technology is not distant or remote or objectified, it's really seamlessly integrated into daily life. And it's because of that it can be adopted and the uptake on it can be much more thorough and profound for the user groups.

Sheila Kennedy and the Portable Light Project
Not your typical architecture firm, Sheila Kennedy and her cohorts at KVA MATx are stripping apart the built environment and reassembling it with an eye for flexibility. Her vision: a world of distributed power in which solar potential is woven into the

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