Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Little Sun Charge's Kickstarter Connects the Global Village: An Interview with Olafur Eliasson


Power to the people. That's the promise of Olafur Eliasson's Little Sun Charge Kickstarter campaign, which has already more than tripled its funding goal of €50,000, with weeks left to go. The renowned Danish-Icelandic artist is working with engineer Frederik Ottesen, aiming to empower 1.1 billion people who live off the grid, without access to electricity.

The Little Sun Charge is a high-performance phone charger that Eliasson aims to make affordable and convenient for those in the developing world, many of whom who struggle with daily blackouts or no power infrastructure at all. The charger will enable people on the fringes to conduct commerce, transfer funds, communicate with loved ones, and connect with their neighbors in the global village.

We asked the artist to illuminate us on the big ideas behind this campaign and how others can energize their own world-changing projects.

Tell us about the design inspiration behind the Little Sun Charge.

In the abstract, I wanted to evoke a feeling that you are holding hands with the sun. The design suggests that energy can be tangible. It's meant to be palpable, creating a feeling that you are harvesting energy and then energizing yourself with it.

I also wanted to put a positive spin on the response to climate change. The discussion we're having about what to do with the climate today is dominated by a doom-and-gloom attitude. I wanted this design to be associated with something positive and happy, about liberating yourself.

Powering up phones is a practical solution to an infamously longstanding problem in the developing world. What's your personal connection to this?

I've been traveling for 10 years, often in Ethiopia. I hold a teaching position at the University of Addis Ababa. My co-founder has traveled there as well, so we have experienced life in rural areas that live outside the power grid.

We saw how our prior venture, the Little Sun solar-powered lamp, could provide healthy and affordable light. Of course, people living in huts can still light up their home with a small fire, candles, or kerosene — using up fossil fuels — so there is competition.

But now that the penetration of mobile phones has gone up, the situation has changed. They can't charge their phones with a fire and there's a desperate need for power. People use their mobile phones for communication, banking, connecting to social networks, and more. The mobile phone is the key to creating change, on the ground.

It seems like the timing was right for this, just from advances in battery reliability, but why did you move forward with this now?

The quality of solar panels has been going up quite dramatically over the past few years, while the price has been going down. The batteries are getting cheaper and more sustainable. You can get a very strong charger that works for five hours instead of 20, which is essential because the phone is being used all the time.

The success in innovation also lies in bringing it out all the way to the end user, where otherwise there is no existing retail or ground infrastructure to bring them out. This gets them into the area where it really has an impact.

Tell me about your backers for the Kickstarter. What do they really care about? How did you engage them?

We've been monitoring that quite closely. They're not necessarily buying it because it's a work of art, but just because the charger is a very useful thing. They can bring it to the beach, on vacation, or wherever they go.

Beyond that, people are interested in how to be part of sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. We need to start with small solutions. The solar charger is not just about charging your phone, but developing that relationship to alternative energy solutions as a part of your life. Once you have become confident about solar power on a smaller scale, you can make a larger step later on.

Obviously, Kickstarter has worked for you and for other artists. Why do you think more artists haven't already adopted this model to pursue their projects?

One of the crowdfunding principles is that to be successful, what is being launched is useful for a lot of people. In Kickstarter, success is about hard metrics. But a work of art is hard to measure and put into scale.

A successful campaign also has to embrace more complexity and be connected to a big story, just like the Little Sun Charge is part of a story about the climate crisis.

To be honest, I was quite surprised at breaking past our funding goals so quickly — but that has just inspired us to be even more ambitious. We can try to achieve more.

How did DLD help with that first Little Sun launch?

DLD was one of the first venues where we talked about the Little Sun, with a prototype. The solar panel was just painted on it. It was just a 3D piece of plaster. A few months later, it was a reality.

Since then, we've brought several hundred thousand Little Suns to the world. We must not underestimate what DLD can do — but it does require people following through. It's not about providing consumer access, but producer access. We're not asking people to become consumers, but to become co-producers with us, taking a stand and being part of the future. There is a DLD spirit in that.

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Olafur Eliasson
Studio Olafur Eliasson
Studio Olafur Eliasson