Adital Ela, founder of S-Sense Design sustainability design studio in Israel, believes in listening. She listens to indigenous philosophy, and incorporates it into sustainable design; when helping a community, she first listens closely to their needs; listening to her body’s inner voice inspires her dancing. Working from a foundation of listening, she bridges different worlds, finding beautiful, sustainable solutions.
You had a life-changing experience in India that deeply influenced your current work at S-Sense Design. Tell us about that time.
It was ten years ago, just after I’d finished my product design studies. I had an inner motivation to find how life habits in other parts of the world were created from a mindset that is closer to Earth. So I went for almost one year to do personal research in India. I was looking with open eyes at different life habits as expressed through products and other ways. It was so different than the Western mindset that I was accustomed to, and the experience affected me very strongly.
Later on, when I was studying for my Master’s degree in sustainable design, I felt there was a very big gap between what we were being taught, and what people’s life habits can be regarding sustainable design. The Western, analytical, calculative approach was feeling very unwholesome to me. I felt the Western lifestyle had lots of benefits and progress, but still lost something that felt so right, and precious, and deep. Of course, neither world is perfect, but I felt there was a need to explore a bridging way between these two mindsets.
I devoted my thesis to the question of “How can we learn from indigenous ways of living, to approach sustainable design in a deeper, more meaningful way?”
I started exploring the mindset, philosophy and habits behind what I was exposed to in India. Things like traditional approaches to equality in nature, Hindu philosophy and Buddhist philosophy. I tried to see how, when we come from these mindsets, we can approach sustainable design that is relevant for our daily lives in the West in a fresh way.
Surprisingly, a process emerged. I eventually named it the Bridge Methodology. It was not like I started out saying, “OK, let’s see how I design a methodology with five strategies.” At one point, I just started defining key words that depict the vast knowledge I explored. And when I started breaking down what these could mean to design, and started to translate them to design principles and design strategy, slowly, in a very dedicated process, the five strategies of the Bridge Methodology shined through.
Let’s hear about the five strategies in the Bridge methodology.
The first strategy is called “Dance to the chi.” It’s about a different relationship to how we fulfill our everyday needs. We find ways for a product or design to create a direct link between renewable resources and our daily basic needs. The second one is “Revive Objects.” The basic principle is that changeability is the essence of life, so why try to do things that stop, rather than doing things that grow, change and react to diverse phenomena? Then there is “Create Mediators,” which relates to design that supports people in producing their personal objects and adopting more sustainable life habits. The fourth strategy is called “Discover Abundance.” It’s about reconnecting to the abundance we tend to overlook. And the final one is “Design Sharing.” It touches on the reconnection of community and promotes the creation of platforms for people to collaborate for a shared common goal.
Through the use of the Bridge Methodology, what innovative products have emerged?
One of the most famous ones right now is WindyLight, which is a collection of street lights operated by wind energy. The wind collector was translated into a very small module that integrates wind collection and an LED light bulb. The combination enables WindyLight to operate on very soft gusts of wind, (it doesn’t try to be a huge collector) and tries to show how design products can become a direct link between renewable resources and everyday human needs. It dances to the chi — and the wind — through its structure.
Waterfull is a collector of dew and rainwater for the home environment. It shows how objects can become nourishing interfaces that support a harvest of the accessible natural abundance in our surroundings.
I also have a project that works with date wands here in Israel. We’re working with Arab women, trying to see how we can give new life to agricultural waste. Conventionally, the wands that hold the dates before they are picked are thrown away after the dates are harvested. Through weaving the date wands, we created a series of lights that on one hand create new life for this agricultural waste, and on the other hand also create a source of income for income-deprived women.
You helped a Bedouin community in the Negev Desert plan the development of their village. What was that experience like?
The whole issue of Bedouin communities are very, very complex here in Israel. A lot of villages are not recognized by the government. And many of them, once they are recognized, are being planned in a way that does not support the unique characteristics of the community. In the end, this results in villages that are very unhappy to live in. And then you have crime, and you have a lot of difficulties within the families and so on.
The process of supporting the community to understand and define their vision for the planning and development of the village took one year. It was a very interesting process of working with representatives of different families of the village. We tried to define together their needs, wishes, and then their realistic wishes according to what the government would allow. It was not only about a utopian vision that did not connect to reality.
We met with the men of the village and we met with the women, which was very unique for this kind of situation. But for us, it was one of our grounding rules. We wouldn’t do the project without involving the women as well as the children in the planning process. As you can imagine, it’s a very patriarchal society. In the end, we created a document that became a starting point for the real planners of the village.
All of our recommendations, which came completely from the people – and had our support — became the framework with which the planners from the government started working. This was revolutionary here in Israel. Of course there were many different political stories in between. But in general, it was a very successful process.
What’s a characteristic of the village plan that emerged because of your unique planning process?
One example is an idea that came from one of the women of the village. It was to put all the public facilities – such as the grocery store, Internet cafe, etc. — on the road entering the village. The idea was to put these public areas where women have to pass anyway. That way, the women don’t have to be allowed to go there specifically.
This sort of planning that reflects the communities’ unique characteristics, really comes from listening. I don’t think we could have come up with that idea. By sitting with the people and listening very closely, and eventually gaining their trust, the wishes of the people and the government eventually could be bridged.
There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.
Two weeks ago I spoke at the TEDxHolyLand event. It was a collaboration between Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab speakers. At the end, an interviewer said to me, “A lot of people criticize this conference because it’s not going to have a huge impact. So why even bother?” My answer was, “I don’t believe in huge actions.”
By that, I mean that you have to realize what you can do, and focus on doing what you can do, and allow it to grow. When you start from the mindset of “I want to change the world,” many times it’s too huge. By the time you have all the capabilities and capacity to do it, you’re already tired or frustrated. When you try to analyze what are your strengths, what are your abilities, what are the small steps that you can do, and allow them to grow, allow them to affect other people, allow them to naturally become bigger, I think it works much better.
Many times I find that social entrepreneurs and environmental entrepreneurs, etc. have aims that are very big. Of course it’s difficult to focus on just one thing with the world crying for attention. But I think if we are wise enough to analyze what we can actually really do, and then with that, find collaborations and action plans and so on — and grow from our positive experiences and from our positive impacts — we can have much more successful and empowering processes.
Besides your work, you’re passionate about belly dancing and improvisational dance. What do these types of dance mean to you?
I love dancing. Improvisational dance, especially, is really a form of listening to the inner voice of your body. And allowing it to be expressed through movement and dance. So it’s not about moving in a way that you’re “supposed” to. It’s about allowing the body the freedom to express.
And it’s just my theory, but I think belly dancing it’s very much about finding the connection to your own feminine power. Normally we would think of belly dancing as a way men would exploit women. But without getting into trouble — probably some feminists will want to throw a tomato at me — I think when it’s a private dance, it really is about finding the core of femininity and allowing it to express through the movement of the body. I think it’s a very freeing experience, and very creative.
What has the TED Fellowship meant to you?
The opportunity to give the four minute talk was a huge thing. I gave myself completely to it. It was about trying to really understand what is the essence of my message, and condensing it down to four minutes. And it was about really allowing myself to bring the different sides of me as a professional and as a person into one story.
Later on, when people were exposed to the talk through the website, it was a very positive experience. Many times it’s easier for people to listen to a message through a platform they look up to and that they trust. I found that I could reach people that normally would be more skeptical about my story. All of a sudden, they are really open and inspired and happy about it. So this was one very strengthening thing. And I hope it’s only the beginning.
Also, if it were not for the TED Fellowship, I probably would not have applied for the AOL grant that I received. Winning the grant has been a huge honor and will help advance the WindyLight prototype.
You’ve had a lot of successful projects, but as you said before, the Earth is crying for attention. What path do you think we’re headed on in the future?
I think many things are happening at the same time. On the one hand, we have the big wave of consumerism. My niece is only 8 years old, and she has all these things I didn’t have until I was 30. And developing countries are emulating developed countries in consumerism trends.
On the other hand, people are becoming much more aware of the meaning — to them — of using things. Like bottled water versus tap water, or chemicals that are in everything. So information becomes a very important tool, allowing people to rethink their ways.
Just yesterday, I was listening to a conference from Professor Michael Braungart who co-wrote Cradle to Cradle. Now some countries are working to become “cradle to cradle” countries. And you can see many grassroots community groups trying to see how they can answer their needs in new ways without the use of corporations or buying anything.
I think we need to start using the term “peak consumerism” to communicate the idea that consumerism is a finite path. Many shifts are happening now at the same time, in very different directions. I believe that a new balance will eventually shine through.
I think one needs to do what one believes she or he can do. As I said before, it is important to mark the field you are able operate in, and the path you are aiming at. Once you start walking you can amplify your strengths and abilities within a specific challenge, in the best way you can — in the end, you are only one person — and hope for the best.