Product designers play a significant part in shaping the world around them - socially, environmentally, economically and culturally.
Some products simply ought to exist. They ‘deserve’ to exist. These are the products that interest me.
GravityLight was designed for off-grid families living in energy poverty, who otherwise rely on dangerous and expensive kerosene for their home lighting. I co-founded GravityLight as a social venture, to deliver innovative solutions to off-grid, low income homes. The videos on this site give a picture of what GravityLight is, and what it set out to achieve.
If asked, I might have predicted that this work would demonstrate to me how incredibly privileged I am, and of course, it has.
I might also have predicted that it would make me feel depressed or despondent, but it hasn’t.
What I never would have anticipated, is that in spite of the enormous, pressing and complex challenges that we face as a species, I would come to view our shared future with such an elevated sense of hope and optimism.
I’m very proud of what we’ve managed to achieve, and there is still a great deal more to do, so my decision to step down as Technical Director, to play a less central role, was one of the hardest I’ve ever made. It led me to take stock, and to reflect. What I found when I did so is certainly not what I expected to find.
GravityLight was an incredible personal journey. It was sleeves-rolled-up product development, as is usual for me, but it ultimately extended so far beyond this in scope as to make my head spin. It fundamentally changed my world view.
Given the context, it feels almost perverse that my outlook could have shifted toward that of a cornucopian, but that’s certainly not to say that I’ve come to believe our material resources are infinite. I don’t believe that they are. Or that I believe technological progress will answer all of our future needs and wants. I’m not sure about that either. It’s that I’ve come to see that there are certain resources accessible to all of us, in almost limitless abundance: those of creativity, ingenuity, good will, and the desire to make our global society a fairer and better place. This has been demonstrated to me time and again.
I’ve had cause to meet world leaders, Nobel Laureates, pop stars and corporate heads, as well as people living in single room, off-grid homes, fabricated from salvage. I’ve come to know social entrepreneurs, investors, creative thinkers, talented designers and engineers, factory owners, production managers and assembly-line workers. Individuals who represent the most influential and the most powerful, the most disenfranchised and impoverished, accomplished and aspiring. Despite their diversity, they have all shared one common characteristic: they have all, given the opportunity, wanted to affect positive social change.
It’s not only the people that I’ve met and their values that have made me more hopeful. It’s also the enabling landscape in which they can now operate. One that includes features like crowdfunding and a growing commitment to genuinely impactful Corporate Social Responsibility.
We set out at a time coincident with the emergence of crowdfunding. The response to our first campaign was overwhelming: aside from bringing essential funds and an instant network of partners, it brought a tidal wave of personal messages. If you were one of those generous enough to post a message of encouragement, I would like to thank you again. It genuinely felt like thousands of pats on the back. I’m not sure we would have got any further without it: we’d already agreed it would be make-or-break for the venture.
It’s been a joy to learn that what we’ve been doing has, on occasion, inspired others. Providing inspiration was certainly not what I set out do. It wasn’t even on my radar as an objective, but with hindsight, the value of inspiring others should always have been evident to me. There were hugely significant turning points in my early career and studies that inspired me to pursue design with a different mentality, and renewed enthusiasm. Examples that changed my view of what design is for, and what it can be on its best days. When working in a start-up, buried in the engineering and delivery of a product, these things can feel like a huge distraction, but it's worth finding a balance. I’ve come to realise that the impact we can have if we take the time to share our experiences in the hope of inspiring others, can ultimately be of equal or greater value than any particular detail we might be wrestling with at the time.
It would be misleading to pretend that co-founding a social venture has been a bed of roses. Even with all of these positive changes to the landscape it has not made social entrepreneurship easy. As a start-up you’re still constantly dealing with the stress of making decisions without sufficient information. There are a great many obstacles and pitfalls, and navigating them is still extremely hard. Taking GravityLight from concept to where it now is has demanded total focus. It’s been all consuming, and while that mission continues, large amounts of what it required from me can now be better handled by those more able than I. I hope to continue to contribute to those aspects where I can add most value.
Ironically, it’s the sum of my positive experiences, rather than the challenges of the start-up, that have crystallised my decision to step down. I want to see GravityLight succeed, and will continue to be involved, but in a very different capacity.
I hope to continue to develop products, to share what I’ve learned with anyone who will listen, and to continue to learn some more. I hope to connect with new challenges that will inspire me as much as those that have consumed me thus far, so if you think I can help, feel free to get in touch. I have some long neglected research aspirations, which will be new territory if I can find the right setting, and I hope to continue to be challenged by the questioning minds that will build our future. A future about which I have come to be much more optimistic.
Crowdfunding is less than a decade old, and it’s proven to be a transformative phenomenon, providing a platform for numerous new and interesting ideas to gain support from a broader public, rather than from the bank, or the boardroom. It’s allowed early stage ideas to flourish that would otherwise have had to show a clear path to profitability or impact from the outset.
Planning a successful crowdfund is tricky. We created both of our campaigns with very limited resources, which is evidence of the fact that it’s the message that counts, rather than the production values. I hope that these platforms continue to foster early stage ideas, and continue to feature products. A number of product campaigns have infamously failed to deliver, either through poor planning or bad management. Underestimating what it will take, and setting a low funding target is sorely tempting, particularly if you picture how you might feel if you only just fall short, but this can be fatal. A realistic projection of costs is essential, which is hard, particularly if that projection includes any R&D, and when it inevitably runs late, a continuous and open relationship with supporters is the only way forward. We were really late, twice, and although we could, and should, have done more to update our supporters, they accepted the reasons when we explained them, openly.
CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY:
It wasn’t so long ago that I hadn’t heard of CSR. Over recent years, it has flourished, and a wide array of initiatives are constantly evolving as the public continue to interrogate their sincerity and worth. ‘Wasting less’ and ‘developing employees’ is no longer seen as good enough, as it’s seen for just what it is: sensible business. Mercifully, an increasingly informed public are not easily convinced. A certain amount of scepticism is healthy: it helps us ensure that our efforts, and the things we get behind are all pushing in the right direction. Cynicism is not, however, and will hopefully continue to be challenged on both sides of the conversation.
Some of the CSR out there is truly inspirational. D&AD’s White pencil award honours ‘creativity for good’, including CSR initiatives, physical products and advertising campaigns for charities and NGOs. I was invited to be a judge, and having viewed the first handful from the hundreds of entries, I was daunted. Each expertly brought to life one of a myriad social injustices and depictions of human suffering, and I feared I’d be an emotional wreck by the end. Again I was surprised. I was ultimately overwhelmed not by the misery and sadness, but by the creativity, sincerity and intelligence of the entries from my contemporary designers and the organisations behind them.
Awards with funding attached are another important feature of this enabling landscape that we have at our disposal.
I represented our venture in a number of them, and in so doing, rubbed shoulders with a lot of others. Although I was always delighted when we won, as that’s what we were there for, I was also somewhat saddened that others with evident potential did not. I’m aware of how that sounds. People have looked at me with incredulity when I’ve tentatively shared that sentiment before, but it’s true. Social entrepreneurship and cut throat competition don’t make comfortable bedfellows. These are ventures with aspirations for impact that may go no further.
The rounds of selection showed me over and again what a great many fantastic initiatives and ventures there are, tackling a wide array of important and worthwhile issues.
They also taught me a huge amount, not just about how to present what we were doing, but what it ultimately takes to succeed, and the breadth of considerations that need to be in evidence.
These competitions and the funds they provide are often step two on a journey and can be transformative. No-strings funding can be used to match development grants, and in combination, they are a huge enabler.
I hope that more of them come to the fore so a greater number of these brilliant ventures can succeed.
I’ve been buoyed by the next generation of creativity and talent. What we set out to achieve with GravityLight resonates strongly with students, which is gratifying. It is even used as source material on some university courses: Brown runs a module on it. I have three times had the surreal experience of beaming my giant face into a Brown lecture theatre via Skype, creating a scene reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. At the end we would run a bizarre Q&A, where students would approach the stage, on which was perched a mini version of me on a laptop screen, and pose their questions down the lens of a webcam.
I visited Warwick University to be part of their TedX, and was interviewed by an undergrad. To my huge relief, instead of topics like ‘invention’ or ‘how all this makes me feel’, I was posed a series of insightful, switched-on and pertinent questions: “Given endemic corruption is the single biggest barrier to economic development in many of the regions where you hope to affect change, how do you plan to navigate the inevitable challenges and risks this will pose?”. What a question. There is no way I could have penned that at twenty.
There are so many examples I could give of the inspiration I have taken from the next generation: the excellent work I’ve seen through the Creative Conscience awards, the bright and inspiring minds of the girls at the Deraja Academy in Kenya. The wealth of information accessible to those coming through is shaping their world view in a far more rounded and expansive way than was possible in the past.
Leading ‘all things product’ for GravityLight took me from the slums of Nairobi to the factories of Shenzhen, setting up and training assembly lines in both Africa and Asia. Defining QC procedures and working to optimise production.
Developing GravityLight over the last six years has meant value engineering a highly efficient energy harvesting system and proving its longevity, through the creation of bespoke accelerated life testing programmes, designed to yield quantitative data and validate the modelling techniques I developed to project the performance of a range of drivetrain polymers and design variants. My work included human factors, user interaction, concept generation, product safety, technical development and specification, prototyping, testing, industrial design, design for manufacture, selection of production partners, compliance, securing supplier agreements and production liaison.
In order to undertake our most recent round of development, we secured an R&D grant from Innovate UK, the technical aspects of which I managed and delivered. We matched this grant with funds from innovation awards, corporate sponsorship, capital investment and charitable donation …. a lot of pitches!
Designing and engineering GravityLight meant not only building a detailed understanding of the end-user: their needs, expectations, requirements and use patterns, but also finding out what could be done at the limits of component performance, and working out how to do more. The requirements for high efficiency and longevity at low cost were extreme, and posed the greatest challenges of my career. The innovations at the heart of GravityLight are among my proudest achievements.
I’m endlessly grateful for my experiences with GravityLight. Many things could have driven my enthusiasm for it: its potential impact on the environment, on health, or on poverty, but for me, it was about giving people options. Options to access information and opportunity by allowing them to socialise and study when they previously could not.
I firmly believe that a better informed and educated global society is the most effective route to a just and peaceful future, and I feel truly privileged to have been able to work on a product with such valid aspirations.
Before co-founding GravityLight in 2014, I was an Associate Director at Therefore Product Design Consultants in London. GravityLight originated at Therefore, and the product development remains there to this day, in the form of Deciwatt.
Across ten years with Therefore, I was involved in the breadth of the consultancy’s activities, from winning new clients and managing Therefore's work in the medical sector, to leading product development on some of it’s most significant in-house ventures. I worked on all stages of projects with Therefore, for multinational clients and for start-ups, from front end scoping through concept generation, engineering development, compliance, manufacture and launch.
Therefore is where I cut my teeth as a designer. It's where I learned most of what I know about how to design and develop commercially successful products. They continue to do innovative product design, that works, and they continue to push GravityLight forward with energy and zeal.