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Tom Schueneman headshot

Soccer Ball Harnesses Energy of a Swift Kick


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

The stardom and celebrity of sport--of a Pelé or Beckham--grabs the spotlight for a time and sells product, but it is in the dry, dusty fields of the developing world where perhaps the biggest and most lasting impact of soccer happens--where kids learn the joy of play, even in the harshest of circumstances. Their daily lives may seem to offer few solutions for a better life, but the simple love of a game and a joyous sense of play offers solutions in unexpected ways.

Take the Soccket ball. At first glance it looks pretty much like any other soccer ball. As far as a kid playing soccer with his or her friends in an empty field after school, it is like any other soccer ball. But Soccket is different.

Soccket, the flagship product of New York City-based startup Uncharted Play, harnesses the energy of play to literally light the path of a child’s education in the developing world. In fact, 30 minutes of play translates into three hours of light from the Soccket's companion LED light.

The idea is at once startlingly simple and eloquent; kinetic energy is stored for later use as an electrical source to power a light. Critics may--and have--assert that poverty or the energy crises can’t possibly be solved by “kicking a ball around,” and they’d be right. They’d also be entirely missing the point.

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

Class project

It all began as a Harvard class project for Uncharted Play cofounders Jessica Matthews and Julia Silverman. Harvard may seem a long way from the fields and empty lots of a village in the developing world, but it is a path familiar to both Matthews, born in Nigeria, and Silverman, who volunteered on various occasions in regions of Kenya and South Africa with a focus on sustainable development. As part of their Harvard course focusing on design for non-engineers, the two social science majors were tasked with devising a multiplayer online game. The pair took their experience on a different path for the project, inventing the initial idea that would eventually become the Soccket.

Understanding the needs of these communities “they quickly put two-and-two together,” says Uncharted Play’s VP for Product Development Victor Angel. Play is universal, and so is the need for education.

“We have seen so many kids play with balls,” or whatever they could find. “Sometimes,” says Angel, “all they have to play with is trash.” So Matthews and Silverman asked themselves “what if we could capture this motion and use it for something useful for these kids?”

“The common denominator among [all these kids] is that they go home and do their homework or their tasks with kerosene lights,” Angel continues. And so the concept of the Soccket was born, and for Matthews and Silverman the play had just begun.

When the big boys say no

The idea is simple; stored kinetic energy generated in the motion of a ball to use later as electricity. Execution wasn’t so easy.

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

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

The team was in place, all with a conviction to bring the idea to fruition. All they needed were the tools necessary to carry out their mission.

“I remember playing with those prototypes,” says Angel, “they would hurt your foot, they would eventually crack and they were very expensive to produce. We started to think ‘how can we move forward? We can’t distribute this to kids, we have almost no money to develop anything, we can't afford another round with a product development firm.’ So we decided to do it ourselves.”

As the guy in charge of product development, Angel searched for the path forward. That’s when he came across the Autodesk Clean Tech Partner program.
“I have no idea how I came across it,” says Angel, “but I came across the Clean Tech Partner program and I realized right away that it was a good investment. I think it’s one of the best purchases we ever made”

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

The eventual result became the Soccket: A durable, airless ball weighing the same as a standard soccer ball.

The engineering hurdles were the first step. Next came devising a program to bring greatest impact from the underlying concept. It isn’t about dumping nifty power-generating soccer balls on villages, but taking what Soccket represented and making a real difference in people's lives; the joy of play, the power of education, and the connection between the two.

Education is key for Soccket

"One thing we don’t want to do is simply drop off merchandise in a foreign country and then leave. We actually want to monitor the usage, we want to make sure the ball is being used in a way that’s educational above anything.”

Working through corporate backers, individual funders and on-the-ground NGOs, Uncharted Play connects with local communities and schools in need. Soccket teams of five children each share one Soccket “station” that include one Soccket ball, five portable LED lamps and an interactive STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The Soccket ball is kept at school and play time is supervised by the teacher.

After the kids play with Soccket, each team member can charge their light to take home. With the LED light they can do their homework without the noxious and unhealthy fumes from a kerosene lamp. Every morning they bring their lamp back to school for more play and charge time--and more learning.

Soccket is the tactic, health and education is the strategy, improved odds for a better life and more sustainable community is the goal.

“It’s a way to keep the students engaged with the educational program,” says Angel. “At the end of the day education is really our sustainability model. We’re not really about the energy we produce, but we’re more about educating people about creative thinking and innovation; taking matters into their own hands.”

After all, it’s by taking matters into their own hands that the Uncharted Play team made Soccket a reality in the first place.

Still scrappy after all these years

“So you want to be in show business”

What does show business have to do with  any of this? It seems like a glamorous life--until you try it. Some succeed and most fail. It’s arguably the same thing for social entrepreneurs. Young, talented idealists want to devote their lives to changing the world. Then the world intrudes on their best intentions and tells them it isn’t possible.

But with perseverance, a playful mindset and the right tools, some actually succeed. That’s Uncharted Play. Inspired by an idea that the established product development firm said wasn’t realistic they carried on, maintained a positive outlook and availed themselves of the tools they needed to bypass the naysayers and make their vision a reality.

"We're still pretty scrappy. Something we've learned along the way is that we can make really great prototypes and really advance our ideas with very, very low expenses. We work with anything that's around the office, we go to the hardware store, we go to the dollar store. We have a very playful, very organic [approach] that has saved us a lot of money and allowed us to explore ideas."

“I think it was definitely the way to go to design it ourselves.” says Angel. “I think it’s also the fact that a lot of product development firms, although they do have the framework and tools, and the capability obviously, I think when designing for developing countries specifically there’s a big gap in understanding who your end user is.”

This is key, Angel says, to the success of the Uncharted Play. “Most of our team has had significant exposure to these communities. It’s been a lot more organic for us to design for developing continents rather than trying to do it from the bubble that is New York City or California.”

Currently Soccket programs are active in Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil and Haiti. As Uncharted Play continues to grow, they have “a little more bandwidth to explore” worldwide. There are plans for adding some “smartness” to the Soccket. “A lot of people are keen on knowing how much energy is being generated or being able to track the location of the ball you donated is at, so we’re adding a few bells and whistles to the ball,” says Angel.

Along with improvements in the Soccket and continued outreach in communities in Latin American and Africa, Uncharted Play has plans for developing other "energy harvesting sports products," including the Pulse, now in Beta release. Pulse is a jumprope that, like Soccket, stores kinetic energy and converts it into electricity.

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

Stay scrappy!

Image credit: Uncharted Play

Thomas Schueneman headshotThomas Schueneman

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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