Hope for the smart cities of tomorrow

Interview by Nerys d'Esclercs
Photos by Studio Roosegaarde

At this year’s London Design Festival, the Airbnb Innovation medal was awarded to Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde. Ever since founding Studio Roosegaarde in 2007, Daan has been pushing the boundaries of design and innovation, mixing clever technology to concrete projects and creating what he calls the Landscapes of the Future. With high hopes and optimism for a new, smarter world, Daan has been working with clean technology to design spaces such as the Sustainable Dance Floor, where dancing creates energy, and glow-in-the-dark highways. Here, Daan Roosegaarde talks to Nerys from Superior Magazine about his latest Smog Free Project, the world’s biggest air purifier that turns pollution particles into beautiful jewellery.

Smog Free Tower Beijing | Photo © Studio Roosegaarde
Daan, before coming to your exciting projects, could you tell us about your journey to the position you are in today?
I have always been fascinated with the world around me, from the moment I started diving underwater in tropical Asia, seeing light-emitting jellyfish, seeing algae which give offlight when you move your hand through the water at night. It’s been a very important element for me. Bachelor in Art, Master in Architecture, son of a mathsteacher. A lot of people tellingme that what I want cannot be done,and it’s my job to prove them wrong. I am a maker; I am a consumer but mostly a maker. I make proposals, I make inventions, I make new dreams. That is what has been pushing me over the past years.
When did you establish Studio Roosegaarde?
Around 8 years ago, when I realized that the ideas I had in my brain, nobody was really able to build them for me. I was always hanging out with the whiz kids at university, playing with new materials and new technology. On one hand, it made sense to push it to the next level, more professional and longerterm. That was the beginning of the studio, a couple of guys in a space with a pizza hotline taped on the door. And now we have an old glass factory which we renovated in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, with a big team. It grew through the years but I think the mentality stays the same, the notion of making the Landscapes of the Future, combining technology and the poetic side and building it, testing it, learning from it. Making mistakes and then upgrading again.

Smog Free Tower Beijing | Photo © Studio Roosegaarde

Your use of technology to change people’s lives is really interesting. How does one think of such projects and carry them out?
For me technology is a second language, it’s not something abstract or distant, it is the way we communicate, we share, we learn. But at the same time it is something people see as distant from themselves. That’s weird because we are feeding these computer screens all day with our Facebook and our Twitter, our ideas and our opinions. What happens when technology jumps out of the computer screen? Can we make places which are better for people using creative thinking and using new technology? A project like the Smog Free Project started from there, in a way, after thinking, “We have created machines that are killing us, we make sure that we live two years shorter when we live in a city such as Beijing, our children cannot play outside until they are 8 years old.” We should do more, not less, and invent things to improve the world around us. It starts there. Questioning our dissatisfaction of the way things are now.
Could you explain your views on innovation and how we need it to upgrade the old world?
It starts with the question “Why?” Why do we accept pollution? How does a jellyfish emit light without solar panels or battery? What can we learn from that? Of course, not everything has to change; some things are great and will remain great. But at the same time, you see a lot of systems crashing in terms of economy and in terms of how we produce things, in terms of the waste we generate every day. It is normal that we learn and we try to test it and we try to put it into practice. This kind of learning mentality and then actually building it, that is for me the definition of innovation. It is asking a question and then trying to answer it.
And you answer it quite well with your latest project. Could you describe this "Smog Free Project"?
We have been working on a series of Landscapes of the Future: we made dance floors which produce electricity when you dance on them, we made garments which change in transparency when you become more intimate with someone, bicycle pathswhich charge at daytime and glow at nighttime. At one point, it made sense working in China. In a weird way, I became inspired by the Beijing smog. Looking at how I couldn’t even see the other side of the street on one day because of the pollution, and the impact it has on people’s lives. This is not progress, this is not innovation, this is not the future we imagined. What can we do with that? China’s government invests millions on their self-declared war on smog, but it will take 10-15 years before the clean tech and electrical cars start to be fully operational. I wanted to operate within the now.

Smog Free Tower Beijing | Photo © Studio Roosegaarde
It is a very basic principle. Do you remember when you had children’s parties and you had these plastic balloons, when you start to polish it with your hand, it becomes? Electrostatic. It attracts your hair. Since I was a young boy, I have been incredibly fascinated by that. I thought, “What if we use that principle and literally build the largest smog vacuum cleaner in the word, to suck up polluted air, clean it and then release the clean air?” On a park level, we could make areas which are 75% cleanerthan the rest of the city. And so we did. Building the first one in Rotterdamwith the support of a Kickstartercampaign we launched. With the captured particles, instead of throwing them away, we compress them by hand for 30 minutes and create Smog Free rings. By sharing a ring, you donate 1,000 cubic metres of clean air. On Kickstarter, people picked it up, they wanted to be a part of it. It was a super experience, a bit scary but it worked. And now, since the 29thSeptember 2016, it’s open in Beijing, finally. We are working with the creative universities there to do a Smog Free tour to promote the beauty of clean air.

What would it take to have Beijing completely clean?
The real solution to have a city like Beijing clean, we all know the answer: clean technology, more bicycles, electric cars. The government is doing that; we’re more bottom-up, we are infiltrating the system. I don’t think the towers in themselves are Tthe final solution. But by creating a place where people can smell the difference, where they can feel the difference, that would stimulatethem to say,“What can we do to work together to make the whole city smog free?” You need these two movements, bottom-up and top-down; I’m sort of a happy infiltrator there. I don’t want to wait for numbers or politicians, I am so tired of that. I want to do something now. This is something now.
Are you planning on bringing the Tower to other cities?
Yes, absolutely! Pollution is definitely not only a problem in China; in India, Mexico City, even Paris or London. If you live next to a highway, it is like smoking 20 cigarettes per day – without the pleasure of the nicotine! Even my home town, Rotterdam, has its own issues.

The Tower will tour through different cities in China, but we are definitely looking at other cities around the world. For me the project is really about showing the beauty of clean air. Design and beauty are not a Ferrari or an expensive watch, but the notion of clean air for everyone. That is what pushes and drives the project.
How did the idea of turning smog into jewellery come to mind?
I’m a maker;the mind is a weird thing! Once we finally captured the particles and saw how incredibly disgusting it actually was, we said, “We should do something with this.” We could create machines, but more machines would make people lazier, they would just pollute more and let the machines take care of it. We want to create a mentality change. 42% of the stuff we are capturing isfilled with carbon, and carbon under high pressure gives diamonds. The inspiration came from there, putting it under pressure for 30 minutes and making a cubic shape from it. That’s the amount of particles we have captured from a thousand cubic metres: by sharing a ring you donate 1,000 cubic metres of clean air. That became a powerful activator, wedding couples purchasing it for their weddings. That actually happened a lot – more than I imagined. We also had mayors wearing it as cufflinks. It was making a very complicated and sensitive topic into something more personal and sharable. The project is both, the Tower and the rings. You need the hard technology to fix it and you need the social engagement to connect with people, and you need both to create impact.

Smog Free Project Roosegaarde | Photo © Studio Roosegaarde

Smog Free Ring | Photo © Studio Roosegaarde
How does the Smog Free Project relate to your previous ones?
They are connecting future thinking with down-to-earth, hands-on solutions. They combine pragmatism and poetry. They are engaged with public spaces, it is for everyone. They are proposals for the new world we want to live in. I don’t see them as one-off designs, trying to be beautiful, they are prototypes for the smart city of tomorrow. I am so tired of these chairs, lamps and tables at design fairs. Design is much much more in the world of today. Design is about improving life.
You talk about Landscapes of the Future a lot. What are your hopes for the future?
Cities are growing bigger, there are more and more people, so we have to be creative in order to survive, in order to make liveable spaces. I would love to have places which are energy harvesting, or where waste does not exist, or, on an emotional level, where I feel connected to technology as something that takes care of me instead of frightens me or potentially damages me.
Places are also the space where people meet, where they exchange. We live in this screen era and I hate that. I would love to connect more the virtual and physical worlds together. When I look at my life, the moment I change is because of physical experiences, something I encountered, something dramatic or beautiful. Something like the public domain is a great way to experiment. For the rest I don’t know, we are going to figure it out together.
With the Smog Free Project, will one Tower be enough for one city? Of course not. But by showing that there is hope, people become part of the solution rather than just feeling part of the problem. That is as important as good design or good technology. Maybe it is the essence of design, you create new links between people and the world around them. There is this famous quote by Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian author, “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.” I like this quote, it defines me.
What are your next steps?
We are working on a 32-kilometre Dam Project in the Netherlands, the Afsluitdijk. It is the famous dyke infrastructure that protects the Netherlands from drowning but it is 100 years old and in desperate need of renovation. We were asked by the ministry of infrastructure to add a layer of light and interaction on top of it. It’s complex but exciting.
I am also curious to see what the Smog Free Project will bring in terms of new ideas and proposals. We have to keep on triggering our curiosity.
Thank you for the interview!

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