Flexible Technology

"A Better World By Design," a joint conference of Brown Univerisity and RISD, brought together a remarkable group of top design and socially-focused minds last week. Among the speakers were Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameenphone, and Architecture for Humanity's Cameron Sinclair. One particularly compelling presentation introduced the Portable Light Project. The Portable Light, a design which grew out of Kennedy & Violich Architecture Firm, is a photovoltaic textile that provides light and power through its generating strands. The project grew into a nonprofit dedicated to manufacturing the lights and introducing them to populations internationally.

This product seems to me incredibly innovative even compared to some other leading solar light products. (Acumen investee d.light comes to mind). Its strength derives from the following general characteristics:

1. Sustainability
2. Leapfrogging Technology
3. Adaptability
4. Open source design

The first two are the most obvious: the light functions off the grid, removing the need for electrical infrastructure and drastically reducing the product's carbon footprint. (Though they did take the leapfrogging technology idea to a whole new level. It's solar nanotechnology- I mean, how amazing is that? The separate units even digitally communicate with one another to improve efficiency.)

The third characteristic is often the hardest for social impact designs to achieve, but is crucial to products being sold in developing markets. According to the website,
"Each Portable Light unit is a simple, versatile textile with flexible photovoltaics and solid state lighting that can be adapted to local cultures and customized by people using traditional weaving and sewing technologies in an open source model. This creates the opportunity for greater levels of cultural acceptance and stewardship of this technology..."
Because the users are also responsible for creating the product, it can be designed locally as well as taught and shared within the community. This bottom up design approach removes artificially imposed restrictions by the manufacturer and allows for maximum flexibility in usage. Notably, the textile can be sewn into any shape and provides both power and light, depending on need.
While this is only one product, imagine what a city built upon technology with these characteristics could achieve. Instead of new technologies solely as a new advertising mediums, we would see new EveryBlocks and living buildings. In an era of increasing resource scarcity and interconnectivity, hopefully these technologies will become increasingly prevalent if only out of necessity.

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