There is a big, big problem in this world,” sighs Daan Roosegaarde, solemnly. “And it’s not a lack of money, or a lack of technology.” A pause. “It’s a lack of imagination!”
You certainly could not accuse the ebullient Dutch designer of lacking this particular quality. He has made it his mission to transform the world into a more sustainable and liveable place – with a series of ideas that are bold, brilliant and just a little bit bonkers.
From a nightclub dance floor that generates electricity through the act of dancing, to a smog-consuming bicycle, to a huge outdoor air purifier which turns toxic waste into jewellery, Roosegaarde and his Rotterdam-based team of engineers and designers work at many scales and in many locations. What unites the projects, he says, is a sense of ‘schoonheid’.
“It’s this Dutch word, which is almost unpronounceable and doesn’t really translate into English,” he explains. “It has two meanings. One is a type of beauty that comes from inspirational creativity. It can trigger people to engage with the world around us. The other meaning is ‘clean’ – clean water, clean air, clean energy and clean technology.
“These are the values of our future society, so when we design something it should have these things in its DNA. Otherwise it’s just short-term thinking.”
Roosegaarde’s projects can appear mystical and otherworldly, more science-fiction than real world. Take, for example, Waterlicht – a touring light display that creates an ethereal virtual flood to digitally demonstrate the prospective impact of rising sea levels. Or Gates of Light, which uses retro reflection from car headlights to illuminate 60 buildings along a highway. To Roosegaarde, though, his ideas are rooted in reality, designed to be “practical and pragmatic, in a very Dutch way.”
“I want to demonstrate that creativity is our true human capital, because we need to find a new harmony between economic progress and humanity,” he argues. “The way we’re doing things now is not sustainable. Instead of embracing the future, we’re too busy being scared of it. We’re scared of robots, we’re scared of China. The question I ask myself is, ‘How do we change that?’”
The answer, he believes, is engagement.
“The fact that the problems the world faces are so big and so disconnected from who we are is part of the problem. Who cares about a polar bear in Antarctica, or loads of plastic waste they’ve never seen? These days, we’re becoming more isolated. Maybe I have 5,000 Facebook friends, but I’m at the airport drinking my cocktail alone. It’s a depressing thought. My job is to create connections, to bring people together and make them care.”
This mission is the inspiration behind ‘Presence’, the first museum exhibition of Roosegaarde’s career.
Designed for the Groninger Museum in the Dutch city of Groningen, ‘Presence’ is an 800sq m installation that builds on the studio’s fascination with innovative material and technical research. Different galleries allow visitors to experience various changes in perspective. One room seems filled with luminous stardust, calling to mind a vast city seen from an aeroplane. Other spaces appear to scan visitors by recording their presence in silhouettes and patterns.
“What you find is one big light-emitting landscape that shows the impact you have on the world around you,” says Roosegaarde. “The room scans you, and shows your imprint as you move along it in a way that becomes more organic and playful. There are no ‘do not touch’ signs, because they isolate from reality.
“The project scared the shit out of me when we first started, and I was afraid it was too abstract, but people have immediately engaged with it in a beautiful way. There’s no hierarchy. From CEOs and ministers to students, the moment they’re inside, everyone interacts, explains and shares together. And they’re more weird, obsessive and crazy than I could ever imagine, which is great!
“Two weeks into the show, some people found out that if you use the light of your phone as a flashlight, it triggers a response. Soon others started following. People learn from each other, and how they are using the space keeps evolving. Art is a unifier and a really powerful way of creating a collective experience where people are not scared of the future but curious.”
The exhibition, which runs until January 2020, has been a hit. At the same time, Phaidon has released a book about Roosegaarde, his work has featured widely online and in the architectural press, and his well-received 2017 TED Talk has continued to pick up views (over one million and counting). Now, it seems, is his moment. You might expect him to consolidate this by just doing more of the same: another version of the smog-eating tower series, perhaps. Instead, though, his current focus is on the most ambitious project of his career. Not content with cleaning up our planet, he is turning his attention to our solar system.
The Space Waste Lab
The idea was born in his studio. “I was walking round one day when I saw this image on the desktop of one of my designers,” he recalls. “It was a huge black image with little white dots and a big central dot in the middle. I was curious.
“He told me it showed the earth surrounded by space junk. I said: ‘Holy shit I’ve never seen that before in my life!’ It had an obscene beauty for me. On one hand it looks like a Jackson Pollock. On the other, it represents this crazy attitude where somehow we’re not satisfied with just polluting planet Earth, we’re now also dumping old satellites and rockets and missiles outside our atmosphere and nobody knows how to clean it. That was the beginning of the Space Waste Lab.”
Over the years to come, Roosegaarde will be working alongside the European Space Agency (ESA) to draw attention to the problem, and to capture and upcycle space waste into sustainable products. Students, politicians and business and tech leaders are on board.
“We became obsessed with the question of what we can do with 1.8 million kilos of harvested space junk,” says Roosegaarde. “Can we turn it all into a giant solar reflector to mitigate climate change? Can we use it to 3D print houses on the moon? Can we engineer a controlled re-entry to bring it back to earth so it burns up in the atmosphere without polluting?
“Well apparently, with that last idea, yes we can! And the result looks like fireworks! We can create beauty out of junk. It’s not waste, it’s a shooting star!”
The idea has quickly gained traction, and ESA engineers are developing the idea. A potential demonstration has been earmarked for the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.
Developing an idea
At their best, Roosegaarde’s projects appear effortlessly simple; neat but spectacular solutions to big issues that can inspire the public, but are also taken seriously by scientists, academics and engineers. But, exclaims Rossegaarde, “a project only looks easy after millions of mini decisions.
“Every idea starts with about 80 per cent bullshit to 20 per cent beauty, and that’s on a good day! I have learnt to recognise the seed of a good idea though. In the way that Michelangelo looked at a piece of marble and saw what it could become, it is our job to look at things in a certain way that open up new doors of potential.”
Perhaps the most elegant example of this approach can be found with the Smog-Free Tower.
“We had buckets of smog in our studio collected by our prototypes. On a Monday morning, our studio manager asked, ‘Who should I call to throw away all this toxic waste?’ I had no idea. So we discussed this very practical question at an 8am meeting. And one of the designers walked in and said, ‘You always say that waste should not exist. Waste for one person, is useful to another.’ He was right.
So we looked under a microscope, and found that the waste was 48 per cent carbon. And if you put carbon under high pressure, you get diamonds! So inspired by that, we made a smog-free ring. We now make these from the waste collected by the towers, and if you buy a ring, you donate a 1,000m3 clean air to the city.
“That changed the whole project. Couples getting engaged wear them now! Waste is creating emotional connections! It’s a perfect mix of technology, hope, love and beauty.”
Roosegaarde is quick to acknowledge he doesn’t have all the answers. What he does have though, is a fierce belief that design can make things better.
“If I didn’t work like this, I’d go crazy because it’s very confusing how the world is behaving right now,” he says.
“We can hide, cry, blame somebody else and sit in a corner waiting for our leaders to fix things, or we can say we’ve created this situation so let’s design a way out of it. prefer to spend my time and energy on the second scenario. It’s less about being optimistic, and more about seeing that there’s no alternative.
“If we can’t imagine how want the world to look, how can we get there?”