Big ideas, smart innovations, real change

Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week is not simply a talking shop, it's a transformational international forum

Liter of light and Sunna Design scooped awards at the Zayed Future Energy Prize.
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Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week finished today. This year the prominent global forum hosted leaders of nations, science and business at a series of events – big and small – including the World Future Energy Summit, the International Renewable Energy Agency assembly and the International Water Summit. The Zayed Future Energy Prize awarded a total of $4 million to pioneers of sustainability, among them small companies, NGOs and high schools. ADSW demonstrates the UAE's continued commitment to sustainable development and renewable energy – core tenets of the country's ongoing transition away from oil dependence. Holding forums to discuss global environmental challenges is an important step.

Yet a key takeaway from this year's conference was the transformative power of smaller, cheaper innovations. Consider affordable lights. Last Monday, French company Sunna Design won a Zayed Prize for its solar streetlights, which illuminate communities across Sub-Saharan Africa. These lights can last for up to 15 years, even in harsh weather conditions. Another company, Litre of Light, which helps communities turn plastic bottles into a network of solar-powered lights, scooped a prize in 2015 and has gone on to transform villages in more than 30 countries. Elsewhere, a village in Malawi began construction on a solar energy academy after winning a prize in 2014. Four years later it trains local people, provides jobs and lights up the homes of hundreds of villagers. The impact of luminosity is profound. Night-time markets spring up, offering commercial opportunities. Road deaths decline. Educational attainment improves as children can study at night. When natural disasters hit, communities can respond more quickly. And when lit at night, streets are significantly more safe.

Every year, ADSW challenges the misconception that poor communities require primitive technology. In fact, with harsher conditions and crude infrastructure, innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa is often more ingenious than elsewhere. Global forums tend to attract criticism for the abstract nature of their discussions. But given its emphasis on the dramatic changes that smaller innovations can offer, ADSW offers a substantial rebuttal to such criticism. The forum has already helped bring hundreds of villages out of the dark. In the aftermath of its 10th session, the forum will continue to bring real material change to communities in Africa and beyond.