IKEA and Olafur Eliasson are developing solar-powered gadgets to help people live off the grid

Image: Gustavo Huber / Little Sun
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Olafur Eliasson made a surprise appearance at IKEA’s headquarters yesterday (June 7). With a sunflower-shaped LED light hanging from a lanyard around his neck, the celebrated Icelandic-Danish artist and environmental activist announced he’ll be collaborating with the world’s largest furniture company to expand the reach of his five-year-old solar-energy enterprise, Little Sun.

“We can amplify our message through the muscles of IKEA,” said Eliasson, who’s best known for stunning, large-scale experiments with light. “We’re excited about the robustness of the research, the talent, the material sourcing and the science that is inside of IKEA.”

Originally conceived as a solution for the 1 billion people without access to electricity in lower-income countries across the world, Little Sun lamps have been distributed in 10 sub-Saharan African countries including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Ghana. At IKEA’s annual press event, called Democratic Design Days, Eliasson showcased a Little Sun lamp model—the sunflower-shaped LED around his neck—co-designed with engineer Frederik Ottesen, that provides about 50 hours of light at the dimmest setting after five hours of charging. The Berlin-based enterprise has also developed a solar-powered phone charger and a pocket-sized light called Little Sun Diamond.

At the event, Eliasson proposed a new use for the solar-powered lamps in hyper-connected, wealthy countries: as a tool to help people retreat from a world overwhelmed by technology. “‘Off-grid’ doesn’t just apply to places that [the power] grid hasn’t reached,” he said. “It’s also about having a choice like ‘I’m going to take a break—no phones, no cameras—and have a little bit of solar energy in my pocket.'”

Beaming: Artist-environmentalist Olafur Eliasson.
Beaming: Artist-environmentalist Olafur Eliasson.
Image: AP Photo/Francois Mori

IKEA’s head of design Marcus Engman also spoke at the event. He said the company is raring to learn from Little Sun’s experience and develop a range of solar-powered products in the coming year. He added that IKEA is interested in designing for various aspects of “off-the-grid” living. “We’re going to focus on solar power from the very beginning, but what we aim to do in the future with ‘off-the-grid’ is to take on things like water and communication,” he said. Though he didn’t specify, it’s likely he meant IKEA will look into developing things like water pumps and off-grid satellite-communication devices in the near future.

The IKEA-Little Sun collaboration would conceivably interest occasional nature-trippers, hard-core members of the “off-grid movement,” and environmentalists researching mass-scale solutions to the disastrous global impact of fossil fuels. The range of sustainable, off-the-grid products is expected to be unveiled next year.

While there are an abundance of proposals addressing the world’s energy crisis, Eliasson argued that we still need inspiring objects for solutions to stick. “The challenge is really how to emotionalize that,” he said. “We need to give ‘energy’ shape…. It has to be amazing. It’s about activating people to take a more active step.”