Q&A: Beauty is key in sustainable innovation, says Samuel Cochran of SMIT

An aesthetic approach can help clean-energy entrepreneurs create "transformative" experiences, says Samuel Cochran, CEO and Co-Design Director of SMIT, the maker of leaf-like solar panels in MoMA's permanent collection.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

Ivy growing on the sides of mansions and university lecture halls is certainly beautiful--and has also served as a prototype for a new solar panel system that takes advantage of unused vertical space on the sides and facades of buildings.

The product, Solar Ivy, is a system of leaf-shaped photovoltaic panels that generates wind and solar power and take up much less space than traditional panels. While the concept is smart, it is also as lovely as the natural phenomenon that inspired it. Solar Ivy panels can be configured in various eye-pleasing ways and come in a variety of colors. A commercial product that will soon hit the market, it is also in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Brooklyn-based design firm SMIT (Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology), the makers of Solar Ivy, is just beginning to take orders for the panels. The four-year-old firm is also the team behind another inventive new clean-energy system, Tensile Solar, which consists of flexible, modular structures that look--and function--like sleek awnings or canopies, but also produce solar power. SMIT has filed patents for Tensile Solar and is working with manufacturers. Like Solar Ivy, Tensile Solar has been drawing rave reviews from the design community, including favorable articles on respected design blogs such as Core77.

Samuel Cochran, a co-founder of SMIT (with his sister Teresita and Benjamin Howes), believes that beauty is key in the field of sustainable innovation. Not only does it gain attention for a product and attract customers, but it also can help inspire design and engineering solutions. After all, eye-catching ivy and outdoor canopies helped inspire the inventive technologies behind Solar Ivy and Tensile Solar. So I asked Samuel Cochran, SMIT's CEO and co-design director (with Howes), to discuss the influence of beauty in clean-energy design--and beyond. Here's our exchange.

What role do aesthetics play in creating sustainable products?

Aesthetics have an amazing ability to transform the experience of a product from its basic function to a thing of beauty by speaking to both sides of our brain, the logical side and the emotional side.

Aesthetics in sustainable products have often been over looked because our logical side takes a foot hold on the design process. I have often heard critics in sustainable realms arguing from the perspective efficiency often losing sight of transformation that happens when more is considered and valued in the design of a product.

At SMIT we hold efficiency, sustainability, and engineering with equal value as we do design, aesthetics and form. We have brought them all into a holistic design process that at once addresses and refines them into SMIT’s product systems.

SMIT’s products are the results of this active pursuit for a transformative experience and neither have the aesthetics of a typical solar panel.

Clearly, SMIT looks to biomimicry as creative strategy. Do you believe, as a start-up co-founder, that nature has already done much "R & D," and start-ups would be wise to look to biomimicry for inexpensive technical or design solutions?

While we are practicing biomimetic design, we are not applying our innovation in solar at the chemistry level, instead we are innovating on the system integration and manufacturing level.

All R & D is costly as you are attempting to do something that has not been done before and with that any bit to reduce those cost will help a start up accomplish more with the limited time and resources they have.

We have found that the principles of biomimcry in action can be very useful as a tool in the R & D process. It can [spark] an "aha" moment to [answer] tough questions...in the case of Tensile Solar, we developed a genetic algorithm to breed the generation of limitless forms and solar configurations for any given site.

Are there design guidelines or principles that you can recommend to other designers and entrepreneurs in terms of where or how to research how nature interacts with architecture or other man-made objects?

The simplest answer for design guidelines or principles for designers and entrepreneurs would be to observe and listen, observe and question, then create, test, and fail (quickly).

Observe and listen to technology and nature. For Solar Ivy, for instance, we realized that solar panels wanted to find the sun just as leaves of a plant do. Then, test the ideas that surfaced from listening and observing. Nature has tested and failed with every generation. But we can do this much faster and with less finite consequences.

Images: SMIT

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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