The RCA's Service Design course partnered with CERN, the birthplace of the World Wide Web and the Large Hadron Collider for a collaborative project. We were tasked with helping CERN's knowledge transfer team Ideasquare dream up new applications for CERN's groundbreaking technologies and in doing so, address any or all of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Our team set out to address SDGs around climate change and environmental issues. Our impression was that CERN’s location in Geneva meant that knowledge transfer was mainly happening with local biomedical companies. Seeing as climate change is perhaps our generartion’s greatest challenge, and is crying out for multi-national collaborations of the kind exemplified by CERN, we set our sights on finding an environmental issue where intervention could have maximum impact.
After surveying the many areas of needed action in the fight against climate change, aided by the 2017 book Drawdown by Paul Hawken, we landed on the often overlooked yet incredibly important theme of refrigeration, and more specifically - the cold chain.
“Welcome to the coldscape: the unobtrusive architecture of man’s unending struggle against time, distance, and entropy itself.”
The coldscape is the name given to the vast array of temperature-controlled storage spaces that exist to maintain and extend the shelf life of perishable goods such as: meat, fruit, vegetables and pharmaceutical products. The cold chain is the supply chain between these spaces, requiring the uninterrupted handling - through harvest, collection, packing, processing, storage, transport and marketing - of the product within a low temperature.
This largely invisible global network and its steady operation underlies our economies and makes our fully stocked supermarkets possible.
But not everyone has access to this crucial infrastructure.
The cold chain is broken or does not yet exist in many rural areas in developing countries.
Without a cold chain the life span of perishable goods is cut down drastically which leads to unconscionable amounts of produce rotting before it can even get to market.
This heavy economic handicap has not escaped the notice of governments, which in recent years have shown an intention to rectify this gap through heavy investment in refrigeration infrastructure across africa, india and china.
We are in the midst of a refrigeration boom.
The catch is that traditional cooling technology is inherently unsustainable.
HFC’s are the chemicals most commonly used in modern cooling appliances. Although they do not destroy the ozone layer, like the chemicals used before them, they are catastrophic for the climate as they can be up to 9000 times more potent than CO2.
Therefore, ironically, the more we cool, the more we contribute to global warming, and the hotter it gets, the more cooling we will need
This kind of vicious cycle is something our ailing climate can scarcely afford. Action now, to install a sustainable cold chain before the traditional cold chain with its disastrous emissions can be layed out, can have immense impact.
It is then that we discovered CERN’s work on solar-thermal technology - a technology that converts heat from the sun directly into cooling power. Not only does it allow for cooling without electricity, it is a cooling technology that favours hot climates like those in developing countries. Counteracting the aforementioned vicious cycle, with this technology the more heat you have, the more cooling power you have.
How might we use CERN's solar thermal technology to help emerging economies leapfrog unsustainable refrigeration systems and provide sustainable cold storage where it does not yet exist?
ColdBox is a service that provides solar-powered, sustainable, and modular cold storage through affordable ownership models to farmers in areas to which the cold chain does not yet extend.
As ColdBox is designed for small scale farmers, who generally don’t have much disposable income, its affordability is key. To this end it is made cheaper through micro-leasing and collective purchasing power.
Microleasing’s power to make technology available to low income populations has proven its efficacy in models like those of M-KOPA Solar in Africa and Simpa Networks in India.
Access to a ColdBox is made available in two ways:
The first one uses rural markets as distribution nodes where farmers can pay a small fee to buy space for their harvest in a communal cold storage space.
The second option is for farmers to buy a personal Coldbox kit which they can then install in their village. The Coldbox eventually becomes their own if they keep up small monthly payments. There they can also rent out space in the ColdBox to other farmers, which increases their income while also extending the cold chain further into rural areas.
Coldbox is designed to be modular in order to fill the various gaps in the cold chain infrastructure. It is flat packed and lightweight so that it can be moved around easily. It can even perform as a mobile refrigeration unit when hitched behind a motorcycle. It can be used in all stages of the chain from cultivation to consumer.
A strong argument for the implementation of such a service are the potential knock-on effects it would have on food scarcity, access to cooling dependent medicine, economic opportunities, and so forth.
Explore the map:
With Anna Schlimm and Libby Landenberg