Olafur Eliasson is one of the most famous and prolific contemporary artists in the world: he has exhibited in many of the best museums and galleries, including the Tate Modern in London and the MOMA in New York. He works with companies such as BMW and Louis Vuitton, has collaborated on numerous architectural projects (many of which have won awards), and is a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts. Over the past ten years, more than 45 books about him and his work have been published. However, the Danish-Icelandic artist, who divides his time between Copenhagen and Berlin, defines himself as a humanist committed to ecology, ethics and social responsibility, a person likes taking risks and involving himself in creative projects related to innovation, engineering and craftsmanship which contribute to improving our environment. This philosophy drove him to initiate the Little Sun project, which began in 2012, and which MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has now joined.
Little Sun: A Global Social Project
At present there are approximately 1.6 billion people in the world without electricity. According to Eliasson, what lies beneath this reality is not so much a question of energy poverty, but one of a lack of opportunities for development. Two years ago, this conviction led his studio to develop Little Sun: a lamp with an attractive design comprising a small solar panel, a battery to store the sun’s energy and an LED which emits this energy in the form of light. After charging it in sunlight for five hours, it provides light for ten hours (four if it is used at maximum power).
The light was developed by Eliasson and the engineer Frederik Ottesen with the aim of providing ‘clean’ light at an affordable price to the communities on our planet who do not have access to electricity. They also wanted to involve small distributors and local vendors in order to create jobs and generate profits in those countries. That is why Little Sun is also a global social project, which has changed the lives of many communities in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Senegal, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa. More than 210,000 Little Suns have been sold worldwide (93,000 in regions without an electricity supply), changing the lives of 500,000 people and, according to their calculations, reducing CO2 emissions by up to 6,300 tonnes and saving 2 million dollars on energy spending.
MIT: the Best Partner for ‘Little Sun’
To date, 200 African entrepreneurs have joined the project, but Eliasson is aiming for the Little Sun to be a truly global project which educates the entire world population about the benefits of solar energy and sustainable energy sources in general. In order to do this, he has sought out the best partners: the people at MIT. In his own words: “This project is the perfect example of the types of ideas MIT likes to promote: taking something abstract like energy and having the ability to turn it into something tangible in a simple way; uniting theory and action, which is crucial if we want to make a significant impact. In this sense, MIT’s capabilities exceed those of any company. They have experts in electric circuits, in new materials, in batteries and in business.”
When a community lives with electric light, all their basic structures are affected: children cannot study after dusk, thereby negatively impacting their performance at school; business activity is limited to natural daylight hours; health services cannot guarantee the necessary safety, and everyday activities such as cooking or socialising become complex activities.
As the engineer Frederik Ottesen states: “Having energy means having access to opportunities which would otherwise be vetoed. Little Sun is the first step of many we have to take on this issue on a global scale.” The project shares and supports the aim of the United Nations programme to achieve universal access to sustainable energy by 2030.
Companies and communities interested in participating in the project can contact the foundation by visiting the Little Sun website. Individuals can also purchase the lamp through the website and visitors can consult the map to see where it is available. Little Sun has a higher price in developed countries (22 euros) so that it can be sold at a lower price in poorer countries.