A soccer ball harnesses the energy of a fast kick

Rules of football – with the possible exception of an enclave in North America known as the United States. As Erik Distler wrote in a June 2012 TriplePundit article, soccer (“soccer”) goes far beyond sport and athletics. It is a unifying force that drives community and social change, two essential ingredients of sustainable development.

Stardom and sports stardom – of a Pele or a Beckham – hold the limelight for a time and sell products, but it is in the dry, dusty fields of the developing world that perhaps happens football’s greatest and most lasting impact – – where children learn the joy of playing, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Their daily life may seem to offer few solutions for a better life, but the simple love of a game and a joyful sense of play offer solutions in unexpected ways.

Take the Plug Ball. At first glance, it looks like any other football. To the extent that a child plays football with his friends in an empty field after school, he is like any other soccer ball. But Socket is different.

Socket, the flagship product of the New York startup uncharted game, harnesses the energy of play to literally light a child’s educational path in the developing world. In fact, 30 minutes of play translates to three hours of light thanks to the LED light associated with the Socket.

The idea is both surprisingly simple and eloquent; the kinetic energy is stored for later use as an electrical source to power a light. Critics can–and have— argue that poverty or energy crises cannot be solved by “kicking a ball”, and they would be right. They would also completely miss the point.

The conversation shouldn’t be about how Sockket solves energy crises, but rather what it can bring to a single village or even a single child. And this is where the idea of ​​Soccket goes beyond a product – to become a process, an approach, a first step among many that will solve real problems and have a real impact on people’s lives. . To really understand what all of this means, let’s start at the beginning.

class project

It all started as a Harvard class project for Uncharted Play co-founders Jessica Matthews and Julia Silverman. Harvard may seem far from the fields and wastelands of a developing world village, but it’s a familiar path to both Nigerian-born Matthews and Silverman, who has volunteered on various occasions in parts of Kenya and South Africa with a focus on sustainable development. As part of their design-focused Harvard course for non-engineers, the two social science majors were tasked with designing a multiplayer online game. The duo took their experience down a different path for the project, coming up with the initial idea that would become the Soccket.

Understanding the needs of these communities, “they quickly put two and two together,” says Victor Angel, vice president of product development for Uncharted Play. Play is universal, as is the need for education.

“We saw so many children playing with balls,” or whatever they could find. “Sometimes,” Angel said, “all they have to play with is garbage.” So Matthews and Silverman wondered “what if we could capture this movement and use it for something useful for these kids?”

“The common denominator between [all these kids] it’s that they go home and do their homework or chores with kerosene lamps,” Angel continues. And so the concept of the Soccket was born, and for Matthews and Silverman, the play was just beginning.

When the big boys say no

The idea is simple; stored kinetic energy generated in the motion of a ball to be used later as electricity. The execution was not so easy.

After securing seed money from Harvard, Matthews and Silverman pitched their idea to a large product development company in California. It took all that seed money for a working prototype, but a general consensus from the development company was that their idea was possible but not really feasible.

The first requirement of a soccer ball is that, within reason, it does no harm. But for Matthews, the idea was just too good to let go. There was a lot of work to do to make Soccket a reality, so in 2011 Matthews launched Uncharted Play and recruited a small team of inspired young professionals, including Angel.

The team was in place, all with the conviction to make the idea a reality. All they needed were the tools necessary to complete their mission.

“I remember playing with these prototypes,” Angel says, “they hurt your foot, they ended up cracking, and they were very expensive to produce. We started thinking ‘how can we move forward? We can’t distribute this to children, we have almost no money to develop anything, we can’t afford another round with a product development company. So we decided to do it ourselves.

As head of product development, Angel looked for the way forward. It was then that he met the Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program.

“I don’t know how I came across it,” says Angel, “but I came across the Clean Tech Partner Program and immediately realized it was a good investment. I think this is one of the best purchases we have ever made”

Once the team has had the Autodesk Inventor software to work with “we were able to launch the design.”

The end result became the Sockket: a durable, airless ball weighing the same as a standard soccer ball.

The technical obstacles were the first step. Next comes designing a program to make the most of the underlying concept. It’s not about throwing energy-generating soccer balls at villages, it’s about taking what Socket stood for and making a real difference in people’s lives; the joy of playing, the power of education and the connection between the two.

Education is key for Socket

“One thing we don’t want to do is just drop off goods in a foreign country and then leave. We actually want to monitor usage, we want to make sure the ball is used in an educational way first and foremost. .”

Working through businesses, individual funders and NGOs on the ground, Uncharted Play connects with local communities and schools in need. Soccket teams of five children each share a Soccket “station” that includes a soccket ball, five portable LED lights, and an interactive STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum. The soccer ball is kept at school and playing time is supervised by the teacher.

After the kids have played with Soccket, each team member can charge their lamp to take home. With the LED light, they can do their homework without the harmful and unhealthy fumes of a kerosene lamp. Every morning, they bring their light back to school for more playtime and charging – and more learning.

The socket is the tactic, health and education are the strategy, the goal is to improve the chances of a better life and a more sustainable community.

“It’s a way to keep students engaged in the educational program,” says Angel. “At the end of the day, education is really our model of sustainability. We’re not really interested in the energy we produce, but we’re more interested in educating people about creative thinking and innovation; Take the things over control. »

After all, it was by taking matters into their own hands that the Uncharted Play team made Soccket a reality.

Still disjointed after all these years

“So you want to be in show business”

What does show business have to do with all this? It sounds like a glamorous life – until you try it. Some succeed and most fail. It’s probably the same for social entrepreneurs. Talented young idealists want to dedicate their lives to changing the world. Then the world encroaches on their best intentions and tells them it’s not possible.

But with perseverance, a playful mindset, and the right tools, some succeed. It is an unexplored game. Inspired by an idea the established product development firm deemed unrealistic, they pushed on, maintained a positive attitude, and availed themselves of the tools they needed to sidestep the naysayers and make their vision a reality.

“We’re still pretty messy. Something we’ve learned along the way is that we can make really good prototypes and really take our ideas forward with very, very low expense. We work with anything that comes up. find in the office, we go to the hardware store, we go to the dollar store, we have a very playful, very organic [approach] it saved us a lot of money and allowed us to explore ideas.”

“I think that was definitely the way to go to design it ourselves.” said Angel. “I think it’s also the fact that many product development companies, although they have the framework and the tools, and the capacity obviously, I think when designing for developing countries in particular, there’s a big gap in understanding who your end user is.”

This is the key, says Angel, to the success of Uncharted Play. “Most of our team members have had significant exposure to these communities. It was much more natural for us to design for developing continents rather than trying to do it from the bubble that is New York or California.

Currently, Socket programs are active in Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil and Haiti. As Uncharted Play continues to grow, they have “a little more bandwidth to explore” around the world. It is intended to add some “intelligence” to the Socket. “A lot of people want to know how much power is being generated or to be able to track the location of the ball you’ve given away, so we’re adding some bells and whistles to the ball,” Angel explains.

Along with improvements to the Sockket and continued outreach to communities in Latin America and Africa, Uncharted Play plans to develop other “energy-recovery sports products”, including the Impulse, now in beta. Pulse is a jump rope that, like Sockket, stores kinetic energy and converts it into electricity.

Uncharted Play demonstrates that the power of change sometimes comes in small packages, that a playful perspective is often the path to success, and if you can light the path to learning for one child at a time, the world is a better place. place.

Stay rambling!

Image credit: Uncharted Play