'Living balls' to bring light in disasters

Bioluminescent balls could help light cities and villages affected by Typhoon Haiyan. Photo by: Artpack Netherlands

Imagine a huge glowing spherical object filled with bioluminescent plankton glowing in the middle of the street — sounds like science fiction, right?

But this fusion of design, science, innovation, and development work could very soon become a reality in the Philippines, where as a group of renowned architects and scientists plans to create and install these glowing “living balls” in cities and villages affected by Typhoon Haiyan.

The concept embraces sustainability, environmental awareness, local resourcefulness, and a sense of going back to basics by bringing nature-induced lighting — a much-needed respite for the victims especially for women and children who are considered the most vulnerable in post-disaster situations, according to Lira Luis, head of the Leapfrog Project.

“Typhoon Haiyan decimated entire cities and villages in the Philippines, so most of these places have no infrastructure for power or lighting. Dimly lit or dark places have become dangerous situations for women and children at night,” she told Devex. “[The project will hopefully] provide a vision of hope and protection particularly for women that are left vulnerable as a result of the natural disaster.”

Self-generated light from plankton

Luis explained that the balls or spheres will be built as an enclosure using some of the debris found on the site, and serve as the container where the bioluminescent plankton — marine microorganisms that generate their own lights and are the main source of food for many fish and sea mammals like whales, abundant in many parts of the archipelago — will be housed.

“[The balls] provide light through the incorporation of microorganisms like the plankton … that can produce light when disturbed,” she said

The Leapfrog Project wants to install at least 10 of these 3-meter-wide spheres with the help of the local community in Tacloban and other populations ravaged by the storm, among the strongest to ever hit the Philippines.

“The ultimate objective of the [project] is to transfer the attention received from this unique architecture installation into a fundraising effort … [to] rebuild Tacloban,” Luis said.

Impact, challenges

Although seemingly bold and ambitious in its design and objective, the “living balls” project, according to its chief architect, is a “real opportunity to leapfrog into innovation for sustainable development by skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones.”

These, then, are the main impacts of the project: environmental preservation and climate change prevention — all increasingly crucial to mitigate the effects of climate-related events in one of the most vulnerable countries in the world.

“It would produce negligible carbon footprint since it’s based on the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach” by bringing back the microorganisms to their natural habitats once the next phase of the installation commences, Luis explained. Despite this optimism, however, the head of the project and her team acknowledge they must still overcome many challenges, particularly after a calamity the scale of Haiyan.

“Rebuilding after a catastrophic event is a complex task. This is simply not a territory of limited disciplines. Various sectors in this field, together with those from other disciplines, shall help one another in strategizing the rebuilding program on the ground,” she said quoting Disaster Accountability Project Executive Director Ben Smilowitz.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.