Inside PopTech’s Solar-Powered Bag FLAP: An Introduction

With a group of partners, PopTech reinvents a staple of conferences, the swag bag, as a tool for the developing world.

As Fast Company writers, we go to a lot of conferences. A lot of conferences. And the one thing that we can’t stand to see as we wait in line to pick up our namebadges is the leviathan of crumpled canvas rippling away from the registration desk for miles, its plastic and cardstock innards oozing onto the carpet.


You know what I’m talking about. The swag bags.

Ridding the conference world of the swag bag has been my personal vendetta (see section 6, Stop the In-Swag-ity). A few places have caught on, letting attendees pick only the items they want, or compressing sponsor information onto a flash drive. But then we caught wind of a new concept at PopTech, the mighty Camden, Maine conference focused on social impact. They were still going to make bags. But they were going to work on making a better bag. An incredible, intelligent, game-changing bag.

Last month, PopTech announced that it had been working with Sheila Kennedy of the Portable Light Project (we highlighted her work with smart textiles in our 2007 Masters of Design issue) and Timbuk2, the San Francisco manufacturer well known for its durable bags. Their collaboration is named the FLAP–Flexible Light And Power–and it takes the messenger bag to the next level by embedding a solar-powered light and energy source that makes it perfect for use in a developing nation.

We knew this was the kind of story we had to share here on Fast Company, and we knew it called for an interesting storytelling method to share it. So, over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing the stories from each of the partners involved, who can tell us exactly how they got from a throwaway canvas sack to a potentially revolutionary idea with worldwide impact. Here’s the lineup:

October 2: Kevin McSpadden, CMO of Timbuk2 Designs, the San Francisco-based designer and manufacturer of iconic bags known for their attention to sustainabilty and use of responsible and repurposed materials.


October 9: Sheila Kennedy, architecture professor at MIT, and principal of KVA, an interdisciplinary design practice that works at the intersection of architecture, clean energy technology and emerging public needs. Her work through the firm’s MATx research division pioneered the Portable Light Project.

October 16: Erik Hersman, of White African and Afrigadget and PopTech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008 who took 10 prototypes to Africa to find out if the FLAP is useful, usable and adaptable to everyday life.

And finally, the PopTech team will chime in themselves around October 21-24 with responses from the attendess of their 2009 conference, America Reimagined.

We’re looking forward to telling this story from so many perspectives. See you back here next week!

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.