Innovation From Crisis Will Save the World

Children using XO computers (image: One Laptop per Child)

It’s sometimes hard to see it, but these are good times in the course of human history.

The economic crisis, climate change and the most rapid technological advancement since the Industrial Revolution are converging — and with that convergence comes the paradoxical potential of saving the world from itself and boosting the economic prospects of the developing world.

Why am I so optimistic? Because tough financial times and a world that takes climate change seriously means we have no choice but to address our economic and energy problems in ways that are smarter, cheaper, more efficient and more environmentally benign.

Fortunately, the current pace of global technological advancement makes it possible to do things better.

Need some proof?

First, read Alice Rawsthorn’s excellent “design preview” piece in The International Herald Tribune, in which she notes that the themes of “empowerment, sustainability, innovation and inclusion — will surface again and again in design (this) year.”

Second, discover the Lifelight (which Rawsthorn covers), a product designed by my new second-favorite non-profit, The Freeplay Foundation, whose mission is to enable “vulnerable people to transform their lives using sustainable, self-sufficient and environmentally friendly technologies.

The Lifelight is Freeplay’s latest invention and aims to provide a safe and sustainable light source to 100,000 families in Rwanda, replacing dangerous and polluting kerosene lamps.

Third, behold the XO laptop, simply the best designed most efficient laptop in existence – period. Sorry, Apple — you’re not even close on this one.

The XO (born out of the “One Laptop Per Child” program) is designed for children in developing countries living in harsh environments. It is small – about the size of a textbook and incredibly durable.

And efficient – it runs on four watts of power, as opposed to the usual 40 watts most laptops use, allowing it to be recharged through alternative sources.

The XO also comes equipped with wireless Internet access, a built-in web cam and a screen that is readable under direct sunlight. It runs on open-source software, meaning anyone can write programs for it. Oh, and it can be donated to a child in need for under $200.

Finally, in May the Conservancy and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum will present Design for a Living World — an exhibit of nine product designs that explore the intersection of sustainable materials, community need and economic development.

The products in the exhibit use sustainable materials from around the world, were designed with the help of local communities and either directly help the communities fulfill an existing economic need or provide a potential new product for the community to bring to market.

So there’s where my optimism lies – new products designed to improve communities most in need while being as environmentally benign as possible.

Innovation spurred by crisis provides wonderful results.

(Image: Children using XO Laptop. Image courtesy One Laptop Per Child.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Thanks for your link to the “Design for a Living World” Exhibit set for spring. Designers need to take the lead on sustainable development. We are, after all, the creators of goods that others use. A lot of responsibility, but it can be done!

Add a Comment