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Worldchanging Interview: Emily Cummins
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By Spring Greeney

Innovator. Entrepreneur. Advocate. All this, and only 22 years old. But when I asked British university student and designer Emily Cummins where she draws her inspiration, her answer was surprisingly humble.

"I had a really inspirational granddad who gave me a hammer when I was four years old," she told me. "We used to spend hours together in his shed at the bottom of the garden, taking things apart and putting them back together again."

Childhood tinkering and an encouraging family pushed Cummins to produce her own unique solutions to everyday problems. At age 15, faced with the challenges of her grandfather’s arthritic hands, she created a toothpaste dispenser to help eliminate the need for dexterous fingers. A water carrier inspired by a trip to South Africa and Namibia soon followed. And Cummins’s latest innovation, a refrigerator that cools completely without electricity, shows her continued to commitment to putting her ingenuitive effort to work for the social good.

Her commitment has not gone unnoticed. She was named Female Innovator of the Year in 2007 by the British Female Inventors and Innovators Network, and has been shortlisted for Cosmopolitan Magazine's Ultimate Women of The Year Awards. And between the tinkering and accolades, she still manages to keep up with her studies at Leeds University, where she was named at 2008 Enterprise Scholar. How does she juggle so much and what does it mean to be an innovator at such a young age? I sat down with this inspiring young woman to find out.

Spring Greeney: Your latest invention is what you've called a “sustainable refrigerator.” Tell us a bit more about the design process and inspiration behind the technology.

Emily Cummins: My sustainable refrigerator operates without using any electricity. Instead, it keeps its contents cool and dry by harnessing the evaporation method of keeping cool – in fact, it works in exactly the same way as humans cool down by sweating!

The fridge, for me, is important in two ways. Firstly, it’s a genuine working model which people in Africa are now using after I gave away the design there for free. Secondly, it makes a statement to people in the UK and US – it proves we don’t need to rely on electricity as much as we do.

To give you some detail on the product itself, between the outer cylinder and the inner cylinder is an open compartment where any medium capable of holding water can be placed. The medium would usually be sand, wool or soil and is packed into the gap and then water is added.

When the fridge is placed in a warm environment, the sun’s energy causes the water to evaporate from the medium. As the water/medium mix is held against the inner cylinder, heat is removed in the form of energy. Due to heat transfer the inner cylinder becomes cooler. The reduced temperature and completely dry environment of the inner chamber makes it perfect for the storage of perishables, as it will allow items to be kept fresh for longer.

SG: What does the term ‘sustainability’ mean to you?

EC: Sustainability, to me, means living our lives in such a way that doesn’t damage the environment or use up resources unnecessarily, for example by using renewable energy.

Global warming is a very real threat and it’s important we all do our bit to sustain the planet for future generations. No matter what, people will carry on using luxury items which make their lives easier and more enjoyable – therefore, it’s the responsibility of individual designers like me to produce new products which are green but importantly still fulfill people’s expectations. Just like Trevor Baylis’s wind-up radio, the key is to create quality green alternatives to the items which people have come to rely on.

SG: You are both a young student and an innovator. Are there challenges associated with playing both roles simultaneously? Benefits?

EC: It can be difficult being both a student and an inventor, but I’m studying at the University of Leeds who have been incredibly supportive. I study two days a week, with the rest of the time dedicated to inventing and in particular inspiring young people to have a go at it. That said, I do believe it’s important to find time to relax, too. People often come up with their most creative ideas when they’re truly relaxed, so I make sure I factor in some downtime each week.

SG: What is one piece of advice you’d offer to other young people with ideas they want to put into action?

EC: Right now, I’d recommend any young British inventors check out npower’s Bright Ideas competition. The website is full of tips on how to get started and how to protect your ideas.

To people in other parts of the world, I’d urge them to simply have a go. Inventors are rarely rocket scientists, they’re just efficient problem solvers. Look around you for problems you would like to solve and then do some research into existing methods that could be used for this. That’s exactly how I got started -- by simply using a lever system to create a toothpaste dispenser for people who have trouble with their hands.

SG: What comes next for you? Are you working on other new gadgets?

EC: I’m currently working on a second generation version of my sustainable fridge. The first fridge uses the evaporation process to keep food and drinks cool but dry and is ideal for use in developing countries in Africa. I actually gave away that invention for use by people there. However, this fridge will be based on a different theory and will be for commercial use.

SG: Parting shot: what is one indispensable innovation in your own life?

EC: I’m constantly on the go -- either studying, inventing or working with young people, so I suppose I’m most reliant on my iPhone. Or more importantly, I couldn’t live without the internet, which I access through my phone. When I’m inventing I always go online to do preliminary research, as do many other inventors, so in that sense the internet is invaluable because it has contributed to so many other great innovations.

**Read about another take on non-electric refrigeration, Mohammed Bah Abba's Pot-in-Pot design, in the Worldchanging archives.

Spring Greeney is a recent Harvard College graduate contributing from Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to her love for creative non-fiction writing, she spends her time exploring New England Yankee culture and taking advantage of the wealth of public arts opportunities in the greater Boston area. You can find more of her musings about American environmentalism, consumerism, and the burgeoning DIY movement at Legion.

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Excellent! That is really inspiring to see... keep it up Emily :)

Posted by: Craig on 1 Jul 09

This is fantastic. We blogged about Emily very recently. She is a true inspiration, not just to young people and kids, but to all of us.

Well done!

Posted by: Gordon Simmons on 1 Jul 09

Wonderful. You are a source of inspiration. I will pass the word & work personally in the same direction.

Posted by: Nanda Kumar on 4 Jul 09

Wow, way to go Emily. Keep it coming.

Posted by: Craig Neilson on 4 Jul 09

Evapoartive cooling systems like this were used by my father's and grandfather's generations here in Australia.

What we need is detailed performance data e.g starting and final temperatures, mass and volume details etc to establish whether she has improved on the old designs or not.

This what real-world engineers do. Find BETTER solutions, not same old, same old.

Come on. Give us the full facts, not spin.

Posted by: Chris on 30 Aug 09

Evaporative cooling systems like this were used by my father's and grandfather's generations here in Australia.

What we need is detailed performance data e.g starting and final temperatures, mass and volume details etc to establish whether she has improved on the old designs or not.

This what real-world engineers do. Find BETTER solutions, not same old, same old.

Come on. Give us the full facts, not spin.

Posted by: Chris on 30 Aug 09

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