Alec Appelbaum | Projects


FLAP bag prototype examined in Ghana last August at the time of Maker Faire. Photos: Erik Hersman, from Afrigadget

A shoulder bag conceived to help nomadic people in urbanizing places, by providing them with an integrated solar-powered light and the potential to charge electronic devices, shows how iteration can prepare a bold design for the market. It also shows how a powerful idea can be tripped up (though hardly vanquished) by obstacles on the path to mass production.

The bag, known as FLAP (for Flexible Light and Power), is a group effort. It brings together Timbuk2, the Bay Area maker of messenger bags from recycled fabric, and Sheila Kennedy, a Boston-based architect and materials researcher who has been working on delivering ready electricity in Africa. Kennedy’s Portable Light Project involving illuminated textiles elucidated the bag's form, Timbuk2 provided the canvas and the folks behind PopTech – a conference that makes Camden, Maine, a hub of idealistic design every October — paid for the electronics that make the bulb glow.

The collaboration drew design-blog buzz before PopTech convened last month, not least because Timbuk2 encouraged field-testing. “People are interested in hacking this bag,” Marie-Claire Meisels, PopTech’s spokesperson, said recently. And why shouldn’t they? Its virtues are intuitive and its weaknesses are knotty. It does many things yet costs too much to produce many copies. And it’s not clear how to reconcile its promise with its limits.

PopTech’s FLAP product manager, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas, said the conference gave the product its vital elements. “We discussed using 4-watt or 2-watt bags, and ended up doing a combination,” she explained. “We’re in discussion about how to make the 2-watt bag power cell phones at a faster rate.” The aim is a product that works as container, light source and communications vehicle for emergencies or start-up businesses while retaining a soft canvas shape.

FLAP bag's flap with flexible solar panel

Therein we find its genius and its constraint. The flexible solar panel is easy to rip out and wrap with Velcro around an arm, so that it shines at night while the user travels. “You can expose the LED so it's a tracking light when you're walking and biking,” de Rojas points out. But its power reflects its context: as de Rojas explains, the bag’s USB can only charge up in sunlight because the producers’ target markets don’t offer enough juice on the electric grid to make charging at home feasible in most places.

The bag’s sweet spot for marketing is its weak spot for scaling: the “flex panel” that makes it so versatile has never been produced in mass quantities. de Rojas says that her shop is working with Kennedy’s firm, Kennedy & Violich Architecture, to find fabricators who can make the panels in big runs. So far, FLAP bag’s production seems to proceed in herky-jerk steps. De Rojas said that team members assemble electronic boards at a Kennedy & Violich conference table and that the consortium has placed an order for 200 pieces from a German manufacturer with facilities in Texas and Mexico.

The bag's control unit

But costs dwarf revenues, even in tiny production runs with donated canvas. Though PopTech purchased the electronics and de Rojas says Kennedy’s Portable Light Project provided “enormous resources” — including knowledge about imminent mass manufacturers of the flex panels — each bag costs around $100 to produce.

That’s an unmanageable price for a developing-world product, as the partners know. Even so, they’re confident that a benefactor can help with distribution — Meisels mentions UNICEF or Stanford’s d.school as possible donors. And de Rojas says current testing of the 2-watt bags, in South Africa and Haiti among other places, will stir PopTech’s network to aid in refinement and distribution.

The size and shape will probably remain similar to what has emerged so far — or will be pared down ever further. “When it comes to the developing world, a simpler form is better,” de Rojas says.

Posted in: Product Design, Social Good, Technology

Comments [9]

This is a very cool bag, but I'm left in the dark (so to speak) as to why a solar-powered messenger bag is necessary to Ghanaians. It reminds me somewhat of the One Laptop Per Child campaign: well intentioned but so rooted in a first-world technological POV that it misses many more basic needs that could be served first, and more simply. Gizmos will not save the world.

Seems like a genius idea, poorly targeted. This bag, especially with such high production costs, would be better aimed at developing world entrepreneurs who need access to communication devices like cellphones and laptops to aid in their business planning.

Paired with Jacqueline Novogratz's Acumen fund, this product could be a great initiative.

Alec, thank you, great article. (I'm the Digital Content/Community Manager for PopTech.)

Neil, it's still a prototype, and we're still testing it in many places. Erik Hersman of Afrigadget wrote a great post with relevant feedback for bag tweaks during the PopTech conference a few weeks ago (about his experience testing it in Ghana and Kenya this summer):


DonalC, we're seeing exactly that, as PopTech attendees begin to take the FLAP all over the world--Linda Raftree used hers in Mozambique earlier this week to read at night. We think there are many applications and potential users.

Our strategy has been to continue to test, as every location has different needs, and to be really open about the process--even to contacting people who tweeted at us that they would like a bag to take and test!

There's a FLAP FAQ here: http://poptech.org/flapfaq
Kristen Taylor

I bought one of the FLAP bags at PopTech for $100. I tried it out yesterday, simply leaving the bag outdoors and then pushing the ON switch, and it worked.

We are taking the bag to Hong Kong, Vietnam, India and South Africa in the coming months. My two children are going to test it, and try to imagine new uses. We're not thinking of it as a messenger bag, but as a power-and-lighting factory that we can carry on our backs. (I'm meeting with Selco, the lighting innovator, at the Indian Institute of Management in January, and I am excited to share FLAP with them and a group of students from Yale School of Management working in India.)

The financial model for FLAP is hardly workable for extensive field use — or everyday use in the developing countries. This said, let's see what the concept is made of and how many uses we can envision. The cost structure can clearly be driven downwards in the coming months and years.
William Drenttel

As a designer living and working in India, I'd say that there are several ideas that can be incorporated which are better than a solar panel (in terms of both utility and cost) for a bag.

Taking an iterative approach (as claimed by FLAP) would mean:
- First doing user research to find out what the end-users actually want from a bag, how they use bags, what should these bags look like, etc.
- Designing a bag that works, all research considered.
- Setting up a sustainable model to produce these bags, rather than relying on grants or donations. How about training villagers in India to manufacture bags from recycled materials that can be exported to the USA (Timbuk2's home base) - the profits from which can be invested in producing bags locally...
- Just as an example, I'd also argue that electricity reaches more people in India than clean water, and working on a bag that maybe integrates a water filtration system and pouch (so one always has clean water) would have way more utility in India than a solar panel (while being more cost effective.) Maybe Camelbak would have been a better partner :)

While Timbuk2 makes excellent bags (I own a custom messenger, and my fiance owns a laptop messenger) this effort seems very misdirected.

And when Mr. Drenttel is in India, I also invite him to take a tour of the Dharavi slums with me to see how these bags can easily be produced locally.
Kunal Ghevaria

A great idea! I think a lot of commentators are missing the point. The bag is not exclusively for an impoverished community, rather it is just being tested there. Better than testing half proven vaccines and wonderdrugs on these unfortunate people!
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I suggest those involved in this project read Papanek's book, Design For The Real World. This product makes me think of someone like Marie Antoinette designing farming tools for the peasants.
Daniel Young

William, look forward to learning how the bag fares on your trips to Hong Kong, Vietnam, India and South Africa. (Would you blog about that for us on the PopTech blog? Or we can link to from another blog.)

Kunal, incorporating a water filtration system is a great idea. Would you email me (my first name @ our domain name.org) so we can talk further and have the benefit of your experience as we think about new uses for FLAP? Thanks--
Kristen Taylor

$100 production costs are certainly very high but I think there's real potential here. I have seen solar charging devices before but nothing as good as this. I certainly think that plenty of people would buy them once the price comes down.

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