Inside PopTech’s Solar-Powered Bag FLAP: Shining a Light Here at Home

In the final installment of our story about a new product collaboration between PopTech, Timbuk2 Designs, and the Portable Light Project, PopTech’s Cordelia Newlin de Rojas discusses how the FLAP solar-powered LED bag can and should be used right here in our own country.


The term “bottom of the pyramid” often conjures images of the poorest-of-the-poor in remote countries. But America has its own bottom of the pyramid, and with America Reimagined as our theme at this year’s PopTech conference, I set out to find a community in the States who might benefit from the FLAP initiative.


With the help of PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Emily Pilloton and Heather Fleming, we were able to connect with two communities, the Bodaway and Cameron chapters on the western edge of the Navajo Nation reservation. My colleague Beth Cohen and I set out to Arizona unsure of what to expect. On the whole, we were warmly welcomed into people’s homes, though some members of the community demonstrated a healthy measure of suspicion. We were told by our local guides Orlita Dohi and Dorothy Lee that people on the reservation are used to outsiders coming in to take what they want, be it photos or research, but that they seldom give anything in return. As they helped us explain the project to potential users, people began to open up and talk more freely about the hardships they face given the lack of basic amenities.


Clay Bigman from the Navajo Nation

Though one often hears of the disparity between rich and poor here at home, we were shocked by the living situations we encountered. One of our testers was Clay Bigman, a 96-year-old World War II veteran living 1,500 feet from a power line but without access to electricity. Suzie Curley, an 82-year-old grandmother takes care of her grandson alone in a house filled with light switches connected to nowhere.

With extremely limited economic opportunities, people–particularly elders–continue to live on their families’ lands, grazing sheep and horses in order to survive. Yet that choice is a critical one, because remaining on their properties in sparsely populated areas means they forgo access to electricity or indoor plumbing.

Pat Boone moved me to tears. His knees are shot, but he still looks after sheep and goats, and grows what he can in a small patch of ground outside his house, while also caring for his wheelchair-bound sister who lives in a nearby hogan. On top of that, he must travel 25 miles over unpaved roads just to buy kerosene and transport water to support himself and his animals.


When we set out on this journey, we expected people would use the FLAPs for many reasons–to extend working hours for craftsmanship and herding, to light the way to their outhouses, to cook dinner at night and breakfast during the short days. However, while listening to our interviewees, the full magnitude of the solitude amplified by darkness became apparent. The FLAP could not only bring light and power but also companionship to people who spend so much time alone–like Leena, whose son left the reservation for work after 35 years at home.

I’ve been hugely fortunate to have worked with PopTech speaker Sheila Kennedy and her team as well as with Timbuk2 on the FLAP project. It has been an incredible learning experience–exactly the sort of open innovation project that PopTech is putting at its core. The project has also been fundamental in helping us develop a set of insights on how to collaborate effectively and to better understand the paths to success. From the FLAP’s initiation late last year to our trip to Arizona this summer, we learned–and had reinforced–several key steps to ensuring effective collaboration:

Know where you’re coming from. Collaborations seem to occur most readily when various parties have a vested interest in addressing an issue and the desire to solve a given problem. Within that shared understanding, individuals and/or organizations have underlying motivations which play into their involvement and it is crucial for those to be expressed openly at the start of the process, while also defining the opportunities and risks at hand.

Identify neutral ground. No matter how well defined a project is, and how clearly stated the team’s motivations may be, there will be moments when working through complex issues lead to disagreements. There is a significant advantage to having someone involved who can view the situation from a distance and mediate when need be. All roads will be bumpy–shock absorbers ease the journey.


Let those in need drive the solutions. Involve the community of intended users early and often. We had a starting point advantage in that our partners at The Portable Light Project and Timbuk2 both have deep experience with user groups in their respective areas of expertise. Our initial prototypes have been and will be tested among a range of potential users in very different environments: from small business owners in Kenya and Ghana, to health care users in Haiti and Nigeria as well as on the Navajo reservation here in the U.S.

Keep continued communication. While it may seem obvious, communication is an essential factor for success. Kick-off and regular check-ins face to face certainly enhance the process. Embrace video-conferencing tools, and ensure that conversations and decisions are captured and reviewed by all team members.

Design for impact, not ego. Good design is like a good scientific experiment–you need to accept when all arrows point in a different direction than the one you had expected to take. For some groups, elements of the FLAP bag were highly effective, while others had little use for the bag in its current form. The FLAP was not the right solution for every test-user and we are learning from their feedback and freestyle integration how the units may be adapted and modified for optimum use in different areas.


Excited PopTech attendees ordering FLAP bags

The FLAP project is a work in progress. We have begun to place initial prototypes into the field and although these tests have yielded valuable feedback we have more units to deploy. The 70 units available for sale at PopTech last week were a huge success–selling out in moments–as conference participants purchased bags for testing with users in their own communities. We have engaged the PopTech community in scenario planning for future development, and are looking forward to the next phase of the adventure.


To get involved or to find out more, visit www.poptech/flap.

All stories in the PopTech’s Solar-Powered Bag FLAP series

Cordelia Newlin de Rojas is Senior Eco-Advisor to PopTech.