Waving your hands around and saying “I think all this shit is bullshit” isn’t the best way to meet lefty progressive girls. But while I was busy being too toothlessly punk as fuck, the first real horseshit presentation I’d seen at Pop!Tech was on stage, courtesy of Sheila Kennedy and her “Portable Light” project.
So…flashlight, right? But because some people have never seen a gadget they couldn’t turn into a beacon of social change, Kennedy is pushing her fancy LED flashlight project as a transformative landmark.
Here’s the pitch: A white LED hooked up to a flexible solar panel that charges a standard cell phone battery. In fact, all the parts are standard, “sourced” from parts that Kennedy says were chosen because they were easy to buy in bulk, inspired by other products like crosswalk signs, dishwasher switches, and “nanotechnology.”
By chance I sat next to Kennedy at a party Wednesday night as she explained her project to rapt admirers. Kennedy described the power generator of her project as a “special material” that used “nanotechnology to generate energy while [its] wearer moves.”
I was impressed. This sounded like a major breakthrough. It was sure to be the crux of her project presentation.
What she was describing turned out to be a stock-standard flexible solar panel, which she demonstrated to awkward effect on the Pop!Tech stage by walloping one with a hammer. It was dented but intact; a glass panel shattered under the same hammer.
The rest of the “portable light” is constructed simply, from cheap parts. The solar panel charges the battery. The battery powers the light. The light reflects off of a shiny fabric, which can be bought for “pennies per square meter.” There is certainly a switch.
There is also something inside the Portable Light that Kennedy described as “digital intelligence” which lets multiple units, when strung together, to equalize power. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of electronics knows that’s how all batteries wired in sequence behave. Nothing digital or intelligent about it.
Prototype Lights have been distributed to the Huichol people of the Mexican Sierras. Kennedy showed a short clip of Huichol women receiving the lights via lottery, interpreting a gesture from a woman—a hand modestly placed over her smile—as an exclamation of primal joy.
These lights change lives, we were told. Women will now be able to spot scorpions in the kitchen. They’ll be able to cook “more nutritious meals” by dint of more time spent in the kitchen. Huichol kids will be able to do their homework.
All this may be true, but none of these benefits are inherent to the Portable Light itself and would apply equally to any flashlight that could be powered by the sun or other off-grid sources. And with Portable Lights priced at forty to fifty dollars in lots of 500, the project hardly seems like a prudent use of money. Hand-cranked flashlights can be purchased at retail for $7 or less. Solar-powered flashlights, albeit with a shorter operation time than the Portable Light’s 8 hours or so, can be found online for $20. Those are retail prices; a concerted effort to develop a similar product from major suppliers could surely be built and sold for even less, especially since there appears to be no plastic housing mold needed. (The parts are woven into the fabric pieces, sometimes by the women who use the lights.)
Kennedy is an architect. Her firm, Kennedy & Violich Architecture, heavily promotes its “KVA MATx” team, a self-described “pioneering materials research unit.” As far as I can determine, MATx buys flexible from other sources and did not design, develop, or construct them themselves.
A heavily emphasized aspect of the Portable Light project is its use of a standard lithium-ion cell phone battery. We were told that the cell phone battery was selected because of its inexpensiveness, piggybacking on an economy of scale. Kennedy’s appeal to Nokia, one of the sponsors of Pop!Tech, to integrate the Portable Light into its products, may indicate another benefit of using a cellphone battery. (Nevermind that everyone with a cell phone already has a flashlight, however poor.)
I think it is safe to say that Kennedy and her team are well-intentioned. An inexpensive, durable solar-powered light would be fantastically useful in many scenarios. Yet this project is not inexpensive. The parts alone, as described by Kennedy, should be cheaper than $40, and if they are not, the team should consider if the intended recipients would benefit more from a $40 light or $40. When asked in the Q&A, the only financial infrastructure Kennedy suggested for distributing the lights was given as a Kiva.org-like donation system, or a “buy one, give one” program. The Pop!Tech crowd, programmed to respond to any reference to Kiva with applause, applauded. What they all seemed to miss was that Kiva, as a micro-finance organization, injects money into the economies of developing nations which is then returned to the lender. Buying expensive flashlights on a web site is not “Kiva-like.”
The Portable Light smacks of remedial design as pet project, an expensive solution in search of a problem. It’s exactly the sort of project I was afraid Pop!Tech would be soaking in. I’m happy to report that the Portable Light, if nothing else, has reinforced my positivity about the other projects that seemed legitimately innovative.