Design & Living

CHANGING THE WORLD: STARTING FROM BEING DOWN-TO-EARTH

t专题FEATURE

In recent years, a series of challenges such as environmental pollution and climate change have made people increasingly aware of how important and imperative it is to live a "sustainable" lifestyle. A variety of design researches, theories and practices have developed around "sustainability". However, when taking a closer look at life, we will find that tackling these problems might not have to be complex; it may even be simple. Many inspirations and solutions directly stem from our daily lives.

 
In Shenzhen, there is such a group of designers who strive to promote and practice sustainable values in their respective fields. With influence radiating from the city to the other side of the earth, from bustling city streets to remote African villages, they let us feel the vibrant energy and immense strength of “Shenzhen Design”.

 

图片Process for upcycling ©️REEMIXSTUDIO
 
REEMIXSTUDIO: From Street to Fashion
 
The Pearl River Delta is the place where China’s earliest foreign trade foundries were concentrated. Back then, all kinds of woven PP bags were used in both factories and daily life so widely that they became inextricably intertwined in the memory of a generation. In recent years, the element of woven PP bags started to win the favor of international fashion brands. Overnight, the creatively-redesigned PP bags became sought after by fashion icons all over the world. Influenced by the trend, Chinese people have also begun to re-appreciate this old item, which used to be regarded as a symbol of rusticity.
 
Azu and Lin Jia grew up on streets which bustled with activity. The energetic and vibrant daily elements and the experience of wandering along the high streets and back lanes have brought them unique inspirations for their design. In 2015, while taking a stroll around Maozi Village, Azu found some interesting patterns on the woven bags that were often discarded on the streets after only being used once or twice. This inspired them to create something new, using these woven bags as the raw materials.
 
图片Various woven bags become raw materials after processed ©️REEMIXSTUDIO
 
“Many woven PP bags, designed to contain cement, sand and stone, are quite solid and wear-resistant. So, we wanted to extend their life cycle through design, and also make this material more interesting.” With this idea in mind, Azu and Lin Jia set out to research the materials. There are many types of woven PP bags, which are made of varying materials and structures. Those, although good-looking, turn out to be fragile. So, they need additional processing to increase their durability. After scouring many cases available at home and abroad, Azu and Lin Jia realized that little work had been done in this area across China. So, the two of them had to rely on themselves and feel their way as they went. Owing to their responsible attitude towards customers, it was not until 2017 that the two designers officially unveiled their brand: "REEMIXSTUDIO".
 
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Popular items ©️REEMIXSTUDIO
 
Interesting stitched patterns in vibrant colors are the defining feature of REEMIXSTUDIO. Through creative splicing and tailoring, patterns such as “ducks” or Chinese words like “ 石化 ”(literally meaning “petrified”) appear ontheir bags. This design style represents the brand’s attempt to reveal a touch of unruliness and humor in its everyday elements. From the brand founders’ point-of-view, their products need to be made of durable and good-looking materials. Such a combination is rarely seen in ordinary industrial and agricultural woven PP bags. For this reason, it took the team a long time to screen tons of materials during the early design stage. “To find the patterns needed by our design, we traveled to many factories and shopping malls all over the country, and scoured piles of woven PP bags for the ones we wanted.” Now, the team has attained a relatively stable source of material supply in the Pearl River Delta. The local availability of raw materials thus enables the brand to further cut down on its costs.
 
The production of bags also gives full expression to the brand’s emphasis on humanistic care. REEMIXSTUDIO has stayed away from assembly line production since its foundation. Each of its products is hand-made by seasoned craftsmen with more than two decades of experience, most of whom come from the nearby urban villages.
 
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, these craftsmen produced samples for export orders at the foreign trade factories. Through this process, they not only accumulated an abundance of working experience, but also gained a certain level of aesthetic taste and design skills. In cooperation with REEMIXSTUDIO, they are paid on a piecework basis, thus becoming the beneficiary of fair trade. So far, two of these veteran craftsmen have joined the REEMIXSTUDIO team as full-time employees, developing new products together with young designers.

 

图片Experienced worker ©️REEMIXSTUDIO
 
Some of their customers put it jokingly that REEMIXSTUDIO is an affordable alternative to the Swiss eco-friendly street fashion brand “Freitag”. The latter uses truck tarpaulins as raw materials to make products which usually cost thousands of yuan. Despite the exorbitant prices, the brand has still become a darling of many hipsters and sports enthusiasts. “We don’t mind being called that,” Azu replied calmly. “For one thing, our prices are indeed more affordable, because we hope more people can access and experience our products and concepts. For another thing, our brand, with more energy and fun in its DNA, has a stronger connection with the local community. It is these two points that distinguishes us from Freitag.”

  

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©️REEMIXSTUDIO
 
Power Solution: Solar Power as A Solution to the BOP
 
Li Xia paid a visit to India in 2004 when she was in the process of founding her own trading company. She never expected that the trip would become a turning point for herself and her career. The tough living conditions of slum dwellers in New Delhi shocked Li, and reminded her of her early life in the countryside of China. In 2009, Li decided to make a U-turn, by transforming her business from a traditional foreign trade company into a social innovation-based enterprise, which is committed to equipping people at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) with practical, durable and affordable solar energy products.
 
Candles Killer: Lighting Life
In cities, water, electricity, coal, and the Internet have become so easily assessable that urban dwellers often take these things for granted. Beyond the imagination of most people like us, “lighting” remains a luxury out of reach for around 11% of the world’s population. According to the statistics, there are 840 million people still living in extreme poverty worldwide. Having neither electricity nor any lighting facilities, most of them rely on candles and oil lamps for lighting. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), 5.3 million people across the world lose their lives due to fires and respiratory infections caused by burning kerosene lamps every year.
 
图片The omnipresent solar energy provides access to electricity in remote areas ©️Power-Solution
 
After conducting field surveys and demand inspections in many poor countries and regions, Li Xia’s team developed their first solar energy product called “Candles Killer”. The product simply consists of a screw, an LED bulb, a lampshade, a stand, and a nail-sized solar panel. With such an ultra-simple design, the product easily works as well as a traditional solar lamp, yet at a greatly reduced material cost.
 
During their extensive visits to Africa, the discarded plastic water bottles, something that could be seen everywhere (even in the poorest and remotest areas), prompted Li’s team to think about whether it was possible to incorporate the ubiquitous item into their design framework. After rounds of optimization, the stand of the lamp was designed into an arc-shaped hook, which made it possible to be attached to a drinking water bottle. In the blink of an eye, the originally-simple bulb turned into a reading lamp! Li’s creative ideas managed to simplify the solar lamp design to the maximum, and also reduce the costs from the international transportation. Since its debut in 2016, Candles Killer has found its way to the no-electricity areas of 63 countries and regions around the world, benefiting over 4.4 million impoverished households.

 

“When designing products for BOP population, we tend to pursue another way of thinking which differs from designs for ordinary consumers. All of the designs made for BOP groups follow the principle of ‘Practicability, Durability, and Cost-efficiency’, so as to maximize the utility of each component used there,” Li Xia said. “Taking into account the harsh living conditions in the poor areas, we also conduct a variety of extreme tests on our products under different temperatures, humidity degrees, pressures, and transportation statuses, in an effort to make sure they can still work normally when finally delivered to the customer.”

 
Inspired and led by Li Xia, her team has overcome numerous difficulties to pay return visits to the remote areas of Africa every year. These trips have given them deeper understanding and empathy of BOP’s living situation. In addition to the access to the Internet and electricity, most of them also do not have the chance to receive education. They may have little basic health knowledge that is vital to their survival. “I hope what we provide for them is not just a lighting device,” Li Xia noted. “In my view, our product is something that users can count on to learn about what the outside world looks like, and then find a way to change their lives.” So, while helping them solve their immediate energy problems, the team’s follow-up product R&D prioritizes increasing education accessibility and disseminating knowledge, with a view to empowering local people to sustain themselves continuously.

 

Kids and their "new toy"©️Power-Solution
 
Solar Media: Lighting Brain
Solar Media, the latest product developed by Li Xia and her team, features a sustainable design that takes into account products, contents, services and social relations together.The product consists of a solar panel, a display, and three sets of energy-saving LED lamps. The video player itself can also be used as a mobile charger that powers light bulbs and small electronic devices. More importantly, the player also comes with teaching videos in many fields of science and technology, health, agriculture, and so forth. In addition to meeting poor people’s imperative needs for lighting, such aningenious design is well positioned to empower the impoverished population and improve their productivity andaccess to education. This is especially important at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping the world.
 
Solar Media is expected to bring much-needed pandemic prevention knowledge to the poor communities with little access to public health services, raise the hygiene awareness of local people, and hence reduce the cases of diseases to some extent. Another important feature of the product is that it supports updates. All kinds of materials – including basic education courses, manual skills, and agricultural knowledge – can be imported into it anytime anywhere, thus enhancing the education level ofthe poor population. With these design ideas, Li Xia and her team hope to teach people ways to sustain and empower themselves.
 
Each packaging box can be recycled. Simply disassembled and refolded, the packing materials will become a set of make shift wardrobes, drawers, and hangers. “We hope low-income people can spend every penny where it counts,” Li Xia insisted. “Therefore, one of our design ambitions is to maximize the value of every component used in our products.” The packaging boxes are made of durable materials, so that consumers in remote areas can use them to store dishes, food or clothes. As the team envisions, this packaging solution will help local people improve their living conditions and lead a more decent life without incurring any extra cost.
 

 

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New packaging for Solar Media ©️TigerPan Lab

 

In addition, the team has taken another step by considering how their products can bring poor people more skills or jobs, and continue creating an enabling environment for their communities. Unlike most consumer electronics that prefer the integrated, all-in-one design, Candle Killer and Solar Media are designed to make sure every single component is dismountable, maintainable, and replaceable. This design thinking, while reducing resource waste, can also extend the product life cycle to the maximum extent. Besides, Power-Solution (Li Xia’s company) has been planning to set up repair and recycling service stations in the places where their products are sold. Through the “Barefoot Engineer Training Program”, it intends to team up with local governments and schools to train some young natives as after-sales service personnel, so that they can provide their community with equipment maintenance and content update services, thus creating more job opportunities for these places.

 
“Many under-developed regions have missed out on both the Industrial Revolution and the Internet Revolution, two important periods in human history. However, it doesn’t mean that they have to follow the exact same path as we did. Instead, we hope that our products can give them access to affordable clean energy directly,” Li Xia added. “We are now building a terminal database to calculate carbon emissions. In the future, we also plan to dabble in the international carbon trading market. The resulting proceeds will be used to further reduce costs, give back to our users, and help more BOP people use clean energy products.”
 
By virtue of its insights into the BOP markets and its innovative business models and products, Power-Solution has endeared itself to major international organizations and NGOs, including the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Certified by the World Bank Group’s “Lighting Global” program, the Shenzhen-based enterprise has managed to step onto the world arena and cast a global influence. 

 

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©️Power-Solution
 
In essence, “sustainable design” represents a way of thinking. For designers, it means to take a broader perspective. In addition to the most basic appearance and functionality of a product, they also need to consider how this productwill influence the upstream and downstream parts of the industry throughout its life cycle. Apart from human beings, other forms of life on the earth and the entire ecology should be taken into account as well.

 

Besides, sustainable design awakens us to the fact that economic and social benefits, economic development and environmental protection, are things that can be attained simultaneously. Thus, to some extent, it helps us shake off the dualistic thinking pattern and take a more integrated, inclusive perspective in the search for solutions. With design added as oars to propel the boat of business, brands like REEMIXSTUDIO and Power-Solution are setting examples as sustainable and profitable brand, while helping solve social and environmental problems and bring positive changes to the world. 
 
 
Text / Wu Jialu