The Portable Light Project is a non-profit initiative led by MIT professor and practising architect, Sheila Kennedy, which produces adaptable solar textile kits that enable some of the world’s poorest people to harvest renewable energy. The Global Journal spoke to her about new generation materials, embodied energy, and the role of designers in resolving the ‘innovator’s dilemma’.
As a trained architect, how did you end up working in product design?
I would say the Portable Light Project is first and foremost about materials. About how a relatively new generation of active or ‘performative’ materials first discovered in the 1970s – such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and solar photovoltaics – are now entering a more mainstream state. Those materials are creating a different definition of infrastructure. We used to think of infrastructure as a technology, or a physical object, but now materials can actually produce infrastructural effects – creating energy, creating light and storing power. I see this as a continuum of material exploration that’s fairly germane to the discipline of architecture because if architects don’t know how to work with materials, and if architects can’t imagine something that doesn’t exist and then figure out how to create a set of material fabrication techniques to produce it, then I don’t know what architects would be doing.
Did you have an interest in these kinds of materials early in your career, or did you gravitate towards them over time?
I’ve always been interested in materials. They say that some architects are more painterly, but I’m more three-dimensional or sculptural in my approach. As a teenager, I was quite interested in electronics. That aspect went into hiding as I progressed through my architecture studies, but really re-emerged when we founded MATx – the materials research unit within our firm – in 2000. That was very shortly after the blue LED was discovered. The blue LED meant that for the first time the world had the potential for white light, because red and green LEDs already existed. That was very exciting news. My partner and I – like many people – thought this would really transform architecture, having a super energy efficient source of white light. We then gravitated to the other side of the gate and looked at photovoltaics or solar energy effects. An LED takes a little bit of energy and very efficiently creates light. A solar panel takes light and very efficiently converts that into energy. They are two sides of the same coin.
How does the Portable Light Project technology actually work?
The Portable Light Project was really founded to explore a different character for technology – if infrastructure was now material, then how could it be adapted into local cultures and take a variety of different forms within those cultures? We’ve developed very simple techniques whereby local skillsets – sewing, weaving, braiding – can be used to integrate into any local textile a kit of parts that we provide: a flexible solar panel, a case with a battery and switch, and an LED. That means we have a shape-shifting technology that can take many different forms depending on the materials available locally, and the corresponding need for light. The shape-shifting idea is fundamentally different from the notion of product design. With design and digital fabrication today, we can have a much more customizable family of products.
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(Photo on Frontpage © Portable Light)