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Inside PopTech’s Solar-Powered Bag FLAP: Joining Forces With the Portable Light Project

In the third installment of our story about a new product collaboration between PopTech, Timbuk2 Designs, and the Portable Light Project, Sheila Kennedy of KVA MATX discusses the importance of bringing clean, mobile energy to developing nations.

Mobility–on foot, by bicycle, bus, train or motor scooter–is a reality of life for one quarter of the world’s population who live without electricity, most in extreme poverty. The Portable Light Project provides people in the developing world with the freedom to access clean energy anytime, anywhere. The Portable Light Project is working with the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) to create portable solar textile kits that can be adapted by local communities–using local materials and building on the local craft and inventiveness of diverse cultures worldwide. The flexible solar kits provide renewable light for health care, education, and economic development. They also provide clean energy to charge a cell phone, enabling people to access information and SMS technology that are transforming banking, education and business in developing countries.

Portable Light Project

Nicaraguan girls use locally made Portable Light bags for conservation work with Paso Pacifico.

When Andrew Zolli of PopTech told me that Timbuk2 wanted to work with the Portable Light Project, I thought this could be a great chance to explore new ideas and increase our scale of impact. Timbuk2’s founder Rob Honeycutt established design principles that I respect: smart modular construction, enduring quality, and manufacturing for mass customization. I knew Timbuk2’s design director Tae Kim from our work with The North Face, and I thought I’d learn a lot about design for manufacturing.

Portable Light Project

Children in the Sierra Madre with a woven Portable Light bag

What I didn’t realize is that our FLAP project would encapsulate the challenges and possibilities of working with an iconic American manufacturing company to create, prototype, and field test an affordable new clean energy and lighting design–in the middle of a major recession. There was the challenge of rethinking the material build of a classic messenger bag, limiting costs, weight and material waste, and looking beyond typical market segmentation to imagine how an adaptable solar kit could be used in developing countries and made in a hybrid local/global fabrication process. All on a shoestring production budget–without the shoe!

The FLAP bag is a freeze-frame snapshot in our ongoing process of collaboration. It brings into focus the issue of how clean energy technology becomes part of a culture, and how to amplify demand by establishing markets–while lowering supply costs.

As architects, designers, and business leaders, we need to commit to the physical iteration of design ideas from products to architecture, and explore the unique physical forms and aesthetic presence that clean technology can have. I’m very glad that our studio at KVA MATx is set up with two workshops; one for digital/analog fabrication and one for opto-electronics! I’m excited that the FLAP project represents a different way of thinking about the relationship between design and technology; an evolution from the fixed ‘product’ form of modern industrial design to the idea of design as a set of strategic parameters that allow a given technology to be ‘soft,’ to shift its shape and adapt to the diverse needs of local cultures.

I’m inspired by the ideas received from Erik Hersman’s team of field testers such as Domiinc Wanjihia, who proposes to adapt Portable Light solar kits to provide mobile power for over 500,000 Boda Boda bike drivers and their families in Kenya’s Kisumu region.

Portable Light Project

Community based education in Bangladesh, Portable Light field test.

The question is not which source of clean energy the world needs but how a robust mixture of energy sources will co-exist together, independent of a central grid or contributing to one. For me, the impact of the FLAP project resides at the intersection of design, local/global fabrication, and Web linked and field-based knowledge networks to enable self-sustaining clean energy cultures in the developing world.

The work of RMI (whose motto is “small is profitable”) shows that 90% or more of the fuel used at an American power plant is wasted in heat and transmission losses before ever reaching end uses. Portable Light, with its system of load-based, distributed, direct power, puts the end-use first and optimizes the LED lighting and USB power to the energy generated by the solar thin film. This means that people in developing countries can leapfrog the compounding problems of transmission and conversion losses by distributing power directly, efficiently, effectively, and cleanly, when and where it is needed. Let’s build on the FLAP Project and accelerate the movement to widespread and affordable use of clean energy here in America–and worldwide.

FLAP launches at PopTech on October 22, but stay tuned for the
next installment of our story, from field-tester Erik Hersman, this Friday.

Related Stories:
PopTech’s Solar-Powered Bag FLAP

Sheila Kennedy is a principal at Kennedy & Violich Architecture, Ltd. and director of design and applied research at MATx.

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