How an Artist and a Solar Engineer Are Lighting Up the World

Vivienne Flesher

Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen's Little Sun project is bringing light to those who need it.

As an artist, I’ve always been interested in the interaction between people and nature. Light, especially, can have a profound effect on our well-being. A fundamental part of quality of life is to have success and an education, but another is simply to be happy. Light enables both: As every child knows, you need light to do your homework. But you also need light to play, to have a good time.

A friend of mine, Frederik Ottesen, is a solar engineer. Together we have traveled in parts of the world where there is no access to energy, meaning that the only way you could get light to do your homework at night would be to sit next to a petroleum lantern or a candle, which is not just unhealthy—for you and for the climate—but also very expensive. So a few years ago, we came up with the idea for Little Sun, a portable solar-powered lamp in the shape of a sunflower. The sun constantly sends massive energy bundles down to the earth, and I love this idea that you can have your own little handheld device for harvesting sunlight. Even with a very small lantern, you can have a huge impact on your education, your safety, your prosperity, but also your self-esteem. You are enabled to change your situation. Light can become a guiding force.

In some impoverished areas, we sell Little Suns, though at very low prices (subsidized by higher prices in more affluent markets), because we want to leave a little profit for merchants at the point of need, to stimulate local economies. Through this model, we’ve delivered more than 280,000 lamps. With the most vulnerable populations, such as in refugee camps with no infrastructure, we give the lamps away through our foundation.

We’re still a young project. Our ambition is not to reach millions of people; it’s to reach hundreds of millions, because every seventh person on this planet doesn’t have access to energy, and they’re using polluting alternatives. This fall, we are releasing a new Little Sun. It’s a high-quality lantern that you simply put out in the sun for a day to harvest one night’s worth of light. I have designed a casing for it in the shape of a diamond. I wanted energy to be associated with value and with beauty. The idea to me was also that light is a practical resource, but it is also magic. littlesun.com —As told to Julian Sancton