Turn on the Lightbulb: Design for Change

Illuminating a light bulb has become a symbol for a bright idea, and an emblem of “genius.”

Often the idea arrives as an out of the box click moment after years of development and testing brings it to the public eye. In the case of Thomas Edison, he became iconically synonymous with the invention of the light bulb, even though he perfected and effectively mass produced an invention that had already been in development.


We have reached a global moment where climate change, increases in technology use, rising tides and rising populations are calling for many solution-oriented eureka light bulbs, especially light bulbs that are sparked by renewable energy. The interesting thing about the design world is how some of the most breakthrough concepts can eclipse the originator to become replicable trends. And in many cases, where altruism eclipses commerce, these ideas are having viral impact.

The energy industries fueling the light bulbs of our homes and businesses has come to a crossroads, with increases in solar arrays, solar panel installations along with wind farms, geothermal plants and water power innovations. Yet the corporate giants of Big Oil have greased the wheels of the political machinery for so long, they have big influence on the spin about renewable energy. (BP, the company that brought us the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, was a proud sponsor of the 2014 Olympics…)

Yet innovation continues.


In November 2012 Little Sun was featured at COP18, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha. The UNCCC presented their “Little Sun Garden,” an interactive exhibition of multiples of this solar-powered light company founded by famed Icelandic artist, architect and designer Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen. Better known for art projects and installations, exploring spatial and light concepts, Eliasson discusses the project in depth with Co.Design’s Belinda Lanks: “Famed Artist Olafur Eliasson Creates LED Light For Developing World.”

The first production batch of Little Suns was brought to Ethiopia in May 2012 as part of the World Economic Forum on Africa, with a plan to create sustainability business distribution pods around the world. Five hours of charging in the sun produces ten hours of soft light or four hours of bright light. Their motto?

A work of art that works in life

At the Sustainia Award ceremony in Copenhagen in November 2013 Eliasson staged a performance for the well-heeled crowd:

Olafur Eliasson and Little Sun with Sustainia, 7th November 2013 from Little Sun on Vimeo.

This is an entrepreneurial example of a well-known artist tapping his fame and notoriety to produce an problem-solving object with potential for global energy and economic impact. Similar to successful companies with a “give-back” model, like Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker eyeglasses, the purchase of a Little Sun lamp provides funds for lamps to be delivered to areas of the world that are completely off the grid.

Check out Solar House 2.0, a pine cone-like structure designed by a team in Barcelona. The ingenious design captures the sun at all kinds of angles, allowing for maximum energy capture. The building runs its air conditioners on 100% renewable energy.

According to Kyle Vanhemert at FastCo., the design combines ingenuity with advanced software to create a building optimized for the sun’s path at the specific location:

To start, Rubio gathered data on how the sun traveled across the sky above the Olimpic Port throughout the year. That data was then plugged into a piece of software which used it to determine the optimal size and shape of each module on the Pavilion’s exterior. The result is a structure that’s intimately connected with its surroundings.

Gabriele Diamanti’s Eliodomestico is an open-sourced solar oven designed to transform salt water to fresh water, especially for those in developing countries. The project recently won a Core77 Design Award for Social Impact.


Diamanti’s goal is to transcend traditional business and charity models by offering plan that is replicable, with global distribution through NGOs who connect local craftspeople with micro-loans to set up production in their communities. As he sums it up in an interview with FastCo’s Jordan Kushins:

“So the NGO is the spark, micro-credit is the fuse, the local craftsmen are the bomb!”

Other innovative projects use even simpler materials to illuminate slums in some of the poorest areas of the world: plastic bottles, water, a few drops of bleach and glue.  Liter of Light, a project launched in the Phillippines, is one example of a simple idea with a clear DIY plan being replicated in areas of the world where illumination once seemed a luxury.

Liters of Light in San Pedro, Brazil

Liters of Light in San Pedro, Brazil

What are your thoughts on the power of light bulb ideas, solar power and shareware innovation?

There are 12 comments

Add yours
  1. Deisy

    I think all these are great. Often people think that being “green” is boring and/or just really annoying people harassing you to sign their petitions but these are all great ways to show that green doesn’t have to be boring.

    The Solar House 2.0 looks innovative and luxurious which might encourage people to built more solar friendly houses. Also, the Little Sun initiative is a great example of this. The flowers are beautiful and I think they would make great garden decor while being used as lights instead of the usual. They also look pretty portable (in the video) which could benefit other countries that don’t have the privilege of having electricity.

    Little Sun’s motto really touched me. I think if art is a reflection of life shouldn’t it also work for it? It’s cool that they were able t incorporate that into their designs.

  2. Evyenia Constantine

    I think these are all wonderful, innovative ideas. Particularly, Liters of Light, and Little Sun. They are taking a concept, and going one step further with it, making light available to many people for the first time, in a way that is sustainable and free.

    On a side note, I did find it interesting that BP was an Olympic sponsor this year. (Not to mention I found it curious that the American flag they showed in their commercials only featured 13 stars.)

  3. SeungMi Kim

    I really like those ideas. I think their ways of getting lights based on scientific research and methods are very creative. As the use and waste of energy have widely been so problematic and controversial around the globe, more and more people nowadays get interested in incorporating sustainability and art.

    I was amazed by the idea of the Little Sun and Solar House 2.0, which maximizes energy capture by different angles. I think this would be able to stimulate the society to get more interests in eco-friendly and sustainable designs so that we could reduce wastes of energy. Since those eco-friendly lighting models like both Solar House 2.0 and Little Sun, are not just sustainable and environmentally great but also aesthetically pleasing, those sorts of eco-friendly models work so well in attracting people’s needs as well as tastes while benefiting environment.

  4. Emily Spierer

    I really like all of the innovative ideas in this article and have always been an advocate for eco friendly alternatives and “green living” solutions. For example, I am a big fan of Tom’s shoes (noted above) and love what the company stands for – as they donate a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes that they sell. There should be more companies and organizations that donate more of their product to people in need – maybe not at a 1 to 1 ratio, like Tom’s, but they should give back in one way or another. I really like the Little Sun initiative and think it is doing a great job of raising awareness for people in need, who could truly benefit from something as simple as light/electricity, which I know that I, as well as most people, probably take for granted in this day and age.

  5. Jae Chan Pyo

    Going “green” is definitely a global trend among the broad range of industries. As human being destroyed the nature so much, the global society is feeling responsible for the and using their genius brains to invent many products and ideas that would help save the enviromment. The Solar house 2.0 and the Little sun is a very good example. By using the natural resources and transferring them into energy, it both benefits the nature and humanbeing at the same time which is extremely efficient for both.
    It is not only a current issue in the product and architecture design but also in fashion too. In the fashion industry, ‘Zero waste garmetm’ is being acknowledged my many people. It is a campaign that encourages the fashion industry to minimize the leftover scraps of fabric from making garments, which helps the environment to suffer from less waste. Living in the modern society, it is easy to see how the earth getting sick by looking at the abnormal weather. More inventions such as Little Sun and Sunhouse2.0 should be made that would help our earth heal.

  6. Ben Ruhland

    All these inventions represent a low-cost solution to the world’s energy needs, particularly those of developing countries and ones that have trouble paying for conventional energy sources. In addition, these newly invented energy sources are environmentally friendly and efficient, and can be implemented with relative ease.
    Olafur Eliasson’s use of his fame to raise awareness and money for distribution of Little Sun Lamps to developing countries is a great example of not only building awareness of alternative energy sources, but also leveraging a well-known name to help those in need. Much like the life straw was tested to make dirty water clean in Africa, I would like to see if the 5 hours of daylight charging can sufficiently supply light for business. The Life Straw, Power of light bulb ideas and the conversion of salt water to clean drinking water are all excellent innovations.

    More on The Life Straw
    The LifeStraw makes dirty water clean – Gizmag–108886041149783189446-,ppl_nps:Mike+Hanlon,ppl_aut:1

  7. Paloma Urquijo Zobel

    I was introduced to the Liter of light project a while back as I come from the Philippines and was aware of the problem most of the provinces faced due to the high prices of electricity in the Philippines. Even schools can’t even afford to keep their lights on due to this high expense. The project has been remarkably successful as the light fixture uses materials almost every family already owns and if there is something we have a lot of, its sun. Simple ideas like these really make a difference and change lives. Theres a lot of innovative ideas out there to bring down the cost of ightbulbs and light fixtures in already established homes and infrastructures, but what about ideas of those that cant even afford the basics?
    This is an interesting read addressing this issue:

  8. Juyeon Jung

    In terms of ‘Living Green’, I think these are amazing ideas to help poor countries and live in green environment. Using too much water and electricity does not really provoke people that they all need to be conscious about how precious having privileges of water and electricity is. I honestly have not seen many projects like this Light bulb idea; I might be either ignorant or there are not many people who actually move forward to make these project to be come true in the reality.

    As it was mentioned above, Tom’s shoes give away their love and concern about those countries and at the same time, they donate real shoes to people in need. These ideas might not work as they are planned to be, however, I really hope those efforts will provoke people to know the earth is getting sick, there are still many countries who are suffering from lack of water and electricity.

  9. Yoon Hee Song

    I think this idea is brilliant because it helps people to conserve energy. by spreading this idea, it could reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emission and help the environment to go “green”. in social perspective, it also promotes awareness about global issues such as climate changes and global warming. moreover, this kind of campaign could save a lot of people around the world who live without electricity and make their life even better.

  10. Priyanka Paul

    I find all these ideas like Little Sun, Liters of Light and the Solar House 2.0 extremely interesting and motivating. Its projects like these that make everyone want to take a step forward towards the wellness of others and the world as a whole. I have often wondered about many projects that businesses do to help diseases and unfortunate children around the world. I learned about cause-related marketing in one of my classes. Because of that I wonder whether a lot of these companies like Starbucks actually care about the causes they support or if it’s just another way to attract customers to buy their products and services? That is why projects like Little Sun and Liters of Light are inspiring as they are not in the money making business but are actually working towards helping others and the world.

  11. Kristin Ferrandino

    I just realized I never commented on this, though I thought I remembered that I did. Apologies.

    Regardless, I very much enjoy the idea of all of these innovations. It’s hard to imagine a drawback when they are so inherently positive for both the human population as well as our planet. By instilling these positive ideas in us, I believe it can completely change mindsets as well as perspectives and outlooks on the meaningfulness of conservation and life. On the other hand, clearly all of these innovations outwardly impact the environment in a very positive way.
    The Solar House 2.0 looks unlike any other solar construction I have ever seen. When we think of solar panels or any other technology that brings solar power, I at least immediately think of a clunky gadget that usually makes your house look worse — an idea that I’m sure is already archaic already. It’s amazing to see how far solar power has come and I can only imagine it will keep progressing even further.


    More and more over the pass of time we keep on hearing about the ‘renewable’ sources of electricity and power, that will help the world to continue to run the way it does however while keeping in mind the planet and our ecosystem.
    I think that over the years we have been clearly shown that global warming is an actual thing that it is happening, it is no longer something that it is still to be proven, and a move towards innovation to this way being able to help as well as to develop a better world, is a positive one and something that all countries should be involved in as well as developing and investing themselves on.
    It has also been an amazing source of power and resource for those countries which are developing and do not have the same resources as those so called ‘first world countries’.
    Overall the more we keep on using and innovating in this area the better it will be for our planet as well as for us human beings.

Post a new comment