Lighting Up the Commons

In 2017, Sweet Water Foundation transformed an old shipping container into the “Think-Do Pod”, a learning laboratory, which features a gallery on the lower level, and greenhouse on the top level. In late 2017, SWF was awarded a grant from the Illinois Science Energy and Innovation Foundation (ISEIF)  to convert the Think-Do Pod into the Smart Pod; integrating smart grid and renewable energy technologies into the structure and lessons learned across SWF’s education, art, agriculture, and design programming.

Read on to learn how an international team worked together in Summer 2018 to bring solar energy to The Commons...


From India to Chicago’s South Side
This summer, SWF was excited to welcome Yash Kumbhat to the 2018 summer internship program. Yash, who is now a sophomore at Harvard University studying Political Science and English, hails from Kolkata, India. When he was in high school, Yash started an organization called StopWatch, a youth-driven and environmentally-focused nonprofit seeking to be the catalyst that spurs the world into action to save the planet before it’s too late. StopWatch’s biggest project was the Piyali Solar Project. Piyali is an agrarian town where only a limited number of homes have access to the grid, and within those homes, most families cannot afford electricity. The Piyali Solar Project brought solar energy to 8 families who didn’t have access to electricity.

Given his experience with solar energy, SWF was excited to have Yash join the team to share his experience with SWF as we launched the effort to build the Smart Pod and introduce solar panels to spaces across The Commons.

Creating the Smart Pod
Plans to convert the Think-Do Pod into the Smart Pod were developed with the help of Dr. Stephen Ervin, the Assistant Dean of IT at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and head of the Future Home: House Zero initiative, and inspired by Ben Uyeda’s Solar-Powered Workshop, which transformed a shed into a solar powered workshop. The Smart Pod was designed to be an innovative learning laboratory that integrates smart grid and renewable energy technologies with education, art, agriculture, and design. The project engaged CPS high school students enrolled in both CPS Career and Technical Education programs in the design and build processes.

The Smart Pod now demonstrates the possibility of an affordable and replicable learning laboratory that not only showcases smart energy technologies, but also grows food and directly addresses a range of emerging environmental problems related to food, soil, water, and energy. The Smart Pod served as the focal point for a series of community workshops on the Smart Grid and an integral part of tours of The Commons.

Lighting Up The Commons
Throughout the summer, the SWF team performed a series of experiments with solar panels installed on the Smart Pod and on test kits around The Commons to better understand solar energy. The knowledge gained from those experiments is being translated to solar projects across The Commons, including those on a much larger scale. Thanks to Yash and the SWF team, The Commons is beginning to light up with solar energy one space at at time. Community garden beds are now lit by solar powered fairy lights and the pocket park has solar powered lights strung throughout. Soon, the Thought Barn will light up at night so that it may continue to serve as a community gathering space even as daytime grows shorter throughout the fall.

Bringing The Energy Back To Boston
Establishing relationships with like-minded people, communities, and organizations - like the connection created with Yash and his community and organization this summer - is a critical component of SWF’s work as the practice of Regenerative Neighborhood Development spreads beyond Chicago.

Beyond his contributions to SWF’s Smart Pod and solar projects, Yash spent the summer learning farming and carpentry from apprentices and mentors engaged in our Apprenticeship and Outreach Program. He quickly learned the basics of Fractal Seats and the multifunctional role they play in designating space. Yash also developed a greater understanding of the way marginalized communities can be transformed. As the summer ended, Yash returned to Boston for school and has already launched a project to connect Harvard’s campus to communities in Boston to share Sweet Water Foundation’s practice of Regenerative Neighborhood Development.  In mid-October, Yash will join SWF’s Executive Director, Emmanuel Pratt, to discuss their collective work at the “We The Public’s” Exhibition in Boston.  

Courtney Hug