Solar power to the people

The-next-big-thing-logoThis year the Next Big Thing competition, in partnership with Cluttons, sought to address a very real and growing problem. Slums, shanty towns, favelas, squatter cities – whatever you want to call them – are becoming more prevalent in number and size as the population booms and global urbanisation takes hold. Tearing them down is not the answer, but how can these settlements, with their own communities and economies, be made safer, more hygienic and play a more sustainable role in global society? EG’s panel of expert judges pored over piles of entries to find the answer.

Liter of Light is a Philippines-based social enterprise founded in 2011 by social entrepreneur and actor Illac Diaz. It is a simple concept that redesigns solar lighting for the developing world. The simple two-step technology it uses creates local jobs, teaches green skills, and empowers energy-poor communities.

Rather than depending on imported, patented and expensive technologies, its grass-roots green lighting movement embodies the principle that anyone can become a solar engineer.

More than one billion people around the world, including 20m Filipinos, do not have access to clean and sustainable energy. While the cost of solar power has decreased, most proposed solutions bring technologies to energy-poor communities through top-down approaches, importing consumer models without turning over skills or ways to repair the technology.

“People only see the part where off-the-shelf, brand-new lights are bought, but two to three years down the road, most of them end up in landfills,” says Diaz. “If a solar battery dies or even a simple part breaks, they are incredibly difficult and expensive to replace or repair, especially without microcredit or aid. The result is a continued dependence on imported solutions to solve local problems.”

He says that through producing easily repairable solar lights with locally available parts, Liter of Light can increase communities’ self-reliance by integrating a livelihood model with the capacity to quickly assemble lights rather than diverting almost 70% of production costs on logistics from overseas.

Waterfront houses on Rio Negro, Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil.

So, what exactly is it?

The Liter of Light is a community-built solar battery kit for solar candle lights, reading lanterns or street lights utilising plastic bottles, which cost from $5 (£3.78) to $75. Micro solar panels, solarettes and other electronic parts, which are widely available, are assembled by local communities and women’s cooperatives.

With a simple circuit panel, drill, and soldering, a solar LED night light can be built and installed. Diaz says this makes deployment in energy-poor or disaster areas quicker as solar products can be built from local parts, using local skills, creating a livelihood in the process.

By making this an open-source technology and sharing all the information on the internet, social media and travelling teaching caravans, Liter of Light has been able to expand to more than 15 countries, light up more than 350,000 households, help reduce carbon emissions through a bottom-up approach and spread the idea of green and sustainable technology.

This year, Liter of Light is embarking on a national road trip to teach and train communities in the 81 provinces of the Philippines how to build their own solar house lights and streetlights ( Its goal is to help bring light to 5,000 school children across the country and raise awareness about sustainable solutions to solve energy poverty, in line with United Nations sustainability goals.

“We want to reframe the way people think about solutions to climate change,” says Diaz, “not as a product of industrialised nations but as a gift that developing countries can share with the rest of the world.”

To find out more about Liter of Light or to get involved visit


Click here for the full list of EG Award winners

What the judges said

John WoodJohn Wood, managing partner, Cluttons

“Solving the problem of the world’s slums is a big issue and a difficult challenge to overcome.

“Liter of Light stood out for us because it didn’t try to solve the whole problem, instead it tackled something that is a basic human need and provided a simple, low-cost solution that will make a big difference to people’s lives.”

Jerry Llewellyn COLJerry Llewellyn, managing director, Sectorlight

“Liter of Light was the standout idea because it is so accessible to all across the globe. It helps solve a simple issue of being able to have light in the most simple dwellings, which in itself then helps solve issues such as crime, poor sanitation and also aids simple day-to-day tasks such as cooking and enabling children to do their school work. Due to the fact the primary component is a plastic bottle and that it is a proven, hugely accessible, low-cost concept as well as being ecologically sustainable, it was an excellent submission. Liter of Light also provides income for local people who install them – properly fitted, they can last up to five years.”

Amanda ClackAmanda Clack, president, RICS

“Liter of Light for me encapsulated the very essence of shedding light to help to bring people out of poverty – the simplicity of the ability to provide light to people who have no power provides the basics of a secure, lit environment at night but also the ability to work or study after dark.”

Michael WatersMichael Waters, director of studies (real estate), Heriot-Watt University

“The idea rethinks sustainability, whereby solutions are holistic, bridging all three pillars of sustainability.

“A key credit of the submission was the level of innovation and the potential to address the shortcomings of previous policy – the idea could certainly become a self-perpetuating solution.”

Cathering StanilandCatherine Staniland, programme director, New London Architecture

“Liter of Light is an inspiring and pragmatic solution, giving local people the tools they need to gain sustainable, low-cost access to lighting. Using locally available parts and solar energy, the proposal increases communities’ self-reliance, and is entirely scalable around the world.

“With a brief to come up with an idea that would improve thousands of shanty towns and slums, we felt Liter of Light had the potential to make a simple but transformative change to energy-poor communities around the world.”

EG PortraitsDamian Wild, editor, Estates Gazette

“The judges were blown away by the spread of the entries.

“They came from all over the world and showed thought, innovation and a hunger to deal with social and economic issues.

“Expect to see the best of them applied in real situations and for them to begin to make a real difference.

“In this crowded field, Liter of Light shone brightly.”

Runners up

 The Platform

the platform

Sam Ashburner, Miller Homes

Sam Ashburner, land buyer at Miller Homes, says typical policies of improving the physical conditions of slums are slow, costly and not necessarily long-term solutions. Instead, he proposes The Platform, which he describes as an innovative concept for informal settlement economic stimulation.

The Platform is a hybrid research hub/micro-enterprise incubator that requires no financial input and can be easily moved and modified.

As a physical entity, it is akin to a shipping container. Ashburner proposes that the average Platform consists of eight shipping containers, one of which should be dedicated for use as a public health facility. The ground floor should host two entrepreneurs, while the sponsor of The Platform would occupy the first floor, using the space as a research centre.

Ashburner put the cost of a 22,000 sq ft Platform at around £99,500. Not an insignificant price, but comparatively cost-effective. The UK government currently spends more than £12bn annually on foreign aid.

Once selected, a community business would move into the units and occupy them rent-free for up to 24 months. If trading successfully, graduating businesses would be given assistance in finding more permanent space. A new local business would then move into the vacant space, repeating the cycle.

“Over time, the local economy will grow, bringing legitimacy and productivity to areas that were once with little prospect,” says Ashburner. “Ultimately, the introduction of The Platform will not only improve community productivity, but will also lead to significant improvements in informal settlement health and sanitation globally through facilitating innovative, immersive research.”

Sharing is key

ipad connected

Ryan Bowden, Surgery & Redcow

Ryan Bowden, managing partner of Surgery & Redcow, hopes to see a global online hub to allow the work of existing partnerships, such as Cities Alliance plus various charities and NGOs, to be used collaboratively. This would become a guide for tackling the growing issues around urban settlements.

“Our plan,” says Bowden, “is to build a platform that connects our industry, its powerful know-how, funding and results focus, with other global partners to solve this challenge.”

To do this, Bowden says there are four opportunities that need to be acted upon.

1) Collaborative economy: connecting distributed groups of people using ubiquitous digital technologies to help provide access to knowledge, skills, goods and space.

2) Crowdsourcing data: helping communities use low-cost methods to measure and create crowdsourced maps of their environments, helping resolve infrastructure, basic amenities or broken local services. City governments will also crowdsource data from the portal as a supplement to planning projects.

3) Collective intelligence: Decision making and problem solving are traditionally left to experts, but it is local people who know what their area really needs. The pervasiveness of mobile technology and new digital tools facilitate people getting involved in policy making, planning and budgeting, helping communities make better decisions.

4) Crowdfunding: People will connect online to fund community projects. Similarly, city governments will use crowdfunding to make spending decisions that reflect the needs and wishes of the people.

How slums can save the world

Greg Lacey, Commercial Estates Group

Greg Lacey, investment manager at Commercial Estates Group, believes some of the world’s poorest makeshift cities have the greatest infrastructure and that a few tweaks could turn slums into sustainable conurbations from which developed cities could learn.

In his submission, Lacey comments on the natural entrepreneurship that is shown in “squatter cities”.

He says: “Alleyways in squatter cities in the likes of Rio, for example, are a dense interplay of retail and services – single-chair barbershops, three-seat bars combined with clothes racks and fruit stands. To boost productivity these areas should be used as shopping areas, allowing informal businesses to take over and inject life into communities.”

He also believes we can learn from the recycling activities of slums – the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, for example, has 400 recycling units and 30,000 pickers. Taking lessons from Scandinavia, would there be a way to turn this waste into energy to power squatter cities?

Installing waterless toilets, franchised to residents, could combat disease and also create income for residents, suggests Lacey, with the added benefit of waste being used as fertiliser for urban farms.

“Future squatter settlements could grow most of their own food inside city limits, in ultra-efficient greenhouses,” says Lacey.

“An urban farm could feed, say, 50,000 residents with vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat. Upper floors could grow hydroponic crops; lower floors could house chickens and fish that consume plant waste.”

John WoodWhy The Next Big Thing Matters

John Wood, managing partner, Cluttons

The Next Big Thing breaks down barriers and crosses borders. There is no exclusivity with The Next Big Thing – the competition is promoted globally through our own networks and those of our partner, RICS, and is free to enter.

This has meant we have had entries from the Africa, Asia, Middle East, Europe and North America, and from people as diverse as those with first-hand experience of real poverty, inventors, leading experts from the property industry, and from students from universities across the world.

The calibre of entries we had in the first year of The Next Big Thing was excellent, with Aqua Cities by JLL’s Neil Worrall a worthy winner.

This year, the standard of entries was even higher and from even more diverse markets. For 2016 the challenge was to address the issue of the world’s slums. It elicited entries that used smart technology, had grand strategic visions, learned from other markets or provided simple solutions to big issues.

The Next Big Thing has really done what it set out to achieve – giving people with bright ideas a platform to be heard and hopefully make a difference to some big issues.


Click here for the full list of EG Award winners