Published: 10 March 2018
Guests: Daan Roosegaarde
It was a man named Albert Einstein who said that logic will get you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere.
At a time when the planet faces its biggest environmental challenge and humans struggle to redefine work in the face of automation, there has never been a better time to imagine a different reality.
Daan Roosegaarde is a Dutch designer who is addressing some of the most pressing issues we face. We travelled to his studio in Rotterdam to talk about the importance of making the necessary leap to a brave new world. We began by asking him that if we have hit ‘peak stuff’. What does he see as the new modern luxuries?
“It’s funny because there used to be a time where it was about owning things, possessing things,” Roosegaarde tells Renegade Inc. “But the weird part is if you go to these big Asian cities like Shanghai or Beijing or Shenzhen, there’s a whole new generation who have more focus on clean air, clean water, clean energy. Having places which are good for people.
“The city has somehow become a machine that is killing us with pollution, CO2 etc, so we live five to six year shorter.
“Children have lung cancer when they’re six years old. That’s crazy.
“So how can we use technology to improve the world around us? For me that is the true luxury. To have places which are good for you and that you somehow feel connected to as well.”
When Roosegaarde cycled around Shanghai three years ago, he said it was a bit of a cultural anomaly compared to his Dutch hometown where bicycles are a common form of transport.
“My Chinese friends were like, ‘are you poor? Can you not pay for a taxi?’,” he said. “I’m like, ‘I like cycling, I’m Dutch’. Our Prime Minister cycles to the Houses of Parliament.”
The rarity of cycling in China changed around 10 months ago with the introduction of bike sharing companies like Mobike and Ofo.
“Now it’s everywhere,” he says. “There are almost too many.
“I think the change came when two or three companies began investing in it. The WeChat, the digitisation of society… They were like, ‘how can we make the city more human?’ We don’t want traffic jams. We want to be fast. We want to be cheap. So the city is coming back to Beijing and Shanghai and that’s beautiful.”
Roosegaarde says his job as a designer is to come up with new proposals for how to look at the world, with the ambition of opening people’s hearts and minds, helping them to think differently.
“Sometimes this has a more practical agenda,” he says. “I could say, ‘hey look, we can make a bicycle which sucks up polluted air, cleans and releases it so we have clean air’. Sometimes it’s more poetic to sort of show ‘here, we can make light emitting bicycle paths to show where Van Gogh lived.’ Or to sparkle the notion of wonder.”
Roosegaarde says he wants to move away from computer screens and pushing buttons.
“I think it’s weird that we’re feeding our hopes, our dreams, our desires, our money to the robots,” he says.
“We’re robot food. And what do we get back? Nothing.
“We’re just feeding our Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, WeChat, with our ideas, our dreams. And what do we get back? A like. That’s a bad deal. When is technology helping us?
“It’s weird that we’re sort of feeding the cloud, the virtual world, while our physical world is crashing: rising sea levels, CO2, smog, noise pollution.”
Roosegaarde says this is bad design.
“Unconsciously we are designing our world with our CO2 emissions,” he says. “So we can do one of two things: We can say, ‘oh we’re sad, depressed. Let’s blame government, hide in a corner and cry’, blah blah blah. Or we can say: ‘Well, in a way we created the situation we are in. Let’s design. Let’s engineer our way out of it.'”
The designer says it’s not for lack of money or technology that these things aren’t already occurring. It’s a lack of imagination.
“We’re sort of stuck a bit because we live in an old economical system which is about money and time and ownership,” he says. “But we also want new economic values which are about clean air, clean water and clean energy.
“How do we validate it? What is the price of clean air? You tell me. Who decides that anyway? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
“So somehow what we are doing here in the studio with the team of designers and engineers is sort of showing the beauty, the ‘schoonheid’ of this new world, hopefully to speed up the process.
“‘Schoonheid’ is a very beautiful word that we use a lot here in the studio. It sort of has two meanings because it’s not beauty. It’s the sort of beauty that you look at a painting like a Rotkol, and you’re like, ‘Ahhh’. It’s awe. It inspires you but it also means ‘clarity’ or ‘cleanliness’: Clean air, clean water, clean energy. So I think our desire for ‘schoonheid’ is the thing that drives us. There’s always a desire for harmony, or a balance, so to speak.”
Roosegaarde says that all design suffers when money is its only object and that the desire for progress often brings unwanted side-effects.
“If I only focus on money, I start making bad art,” he says. “If I don’t focus on the practical things in life, I don’t have the engine to make it happen. You see the same in Asia: the desire for progress creates side effects that we never imagined like pollution and it’s hitting us in the face. So this is the struggle we are in. The struggle for and in progress.”
This presents a new way to think about natural law, and the inevitable impact the forces of nature have on our environment.
He says the Dutch, perhaps by nature of their geography, tend to find a harmony between nature and technology.
“It’s funny because where we are right now in the Netherlands, 80-85% is below sea level,” he says. “Without technology, without creative thinking we would literally die. We would drown. Right here. So in a landscape where I grew up, where I build my tree hut, I’m surrounded by a landscape which is sort of artificial.
“We try to find a harmony between nature and technology. That says something about the Dutch because if we would have just been practical, and purely pragmatic, we would have just moved to Germany.
But we stayed, and we sort of used creative thinking – the technology, the dykes, the dams, government, management – to make a place which we call home. We created our own habitat so in a way, design and innovation is in the DNA of this landscape.”
The designer works on a lot of projects in Asia and China and says they are doing in 50 years what Europe took 500 years to complete.
“It’s funny because when I present projects in Europe, usually they ask in the first meeting ‘are you sure you’ve done it before?’,” he says. “They’re risk avoiding, checking the grounds. In Asia, in the first meeting I always ask: ‘Are you sure it is the first time?’. That is sort of fascinating, just by asking that type of question and of course I’m generalising and there are different kinds of people…”
The notion of curiosity is a “dream scenario” for a maker like Roosegaarde, who is interested in creating a different world.
“Of course, there’s always 80% BS to get 20% beauty,” he says. “There are different struggles there, but I think curiosity is important and that is my job. To make proposals.
“For example, we worked on energy harvesting kites which fly high up in the air, connected with the ground via cable. It’s a smart kite. It can stay up in the air for weeks – maybe months – and because of the pushing and pulling of the wind like a dynamo on the bicycle, it generates power, between 20 to 100 kilowatts per hour. That’s enough for 150-200 households. That’s a lot. We started to make these kites light emitting, made out of a very strong, flexible glass fibre. We showed the beauty of green energy.
“Look, energy is everywhere,” he says. “We just have to harvest it. We don’t need these big windmills, these chunks of steel or aluminium. The playfulness of the kite – which by the way is a Chinese invention – and then we sort of upgraded it and brought it back. The technology is functional, but it’s also culturally iconic: This is our our symbol. It’s our tradition, but in a new way. Then they get really excited about that.”
The designer described the ‘three ungrateful phases of innovation:’
“Phase one: You present something new and then what do people say? They say it’s not possible,” says Roosegaarde.
“And then you spend a lot of love, time, energy, engineers, designers, prototypes. You show them: ‘look, it’s possible.’ And then they say ‘ok, ok so it’s possible’. But then we go to phase two: It’s not legal, or it’s not within the legislation. It’s not allowed.
“The first time we worked on our light emitting highways, our smart highway, two months before the opening, the minister would come. That’s a big thing. We received a letter from the government saying the permit to build was cancelled, denied. So we go there like, ‘what’s going on? We have a big opening we’re working on’ and they say: ‘yeah, there’s a Dutch law which says that every line on the road has to be white and you want to make it light emitting.’ Nobody slept for two nights and in the middle of the second night I got a call from the infrastructure company. I pick up the phone. He’s like:’I got it!’ So what we did is put a sign in front of the road which says, it’s a Dutch word called ‘proefok’ which means like, ‘testing ground’. And then suddenly after placing that sign, anything is possible. So we made it a laboratory, a testing ground.
“Then we go to phase three: That’s the most annoying. So it’s not possible, it’s not allowed. We’ve conquered that. We sort of fixed that. What’s the worst that can happen when you have something and you spent two years, your love, your energy on, and it’s there and you’ve proven it? What’s the worst thing that somebody can say to you then?
“Four months ago, a top official from the Chinese government. Perfect suit. Perfect English. Smoke free project. We launched it in Beijing. We’d proven it worked and it was growing. A top official guy came to me, he patted me on the back and he said: ‘That’s a good idea. Why didn’t you do it before?’ And I was like: ‘where were you three years ago when we tried to contact you?’ I’m saying it with a smile, because you realise you have changed their perception. We went from ‘it’s not possible’ to, ‘why is it not everywhere?’. That’s a way of change.
“It’s my job to make things, to facilitate that change. Also for myself, it ensures that I question reality. What is normal? What is not normal? I question my reality every day.”
Roosegaarde says for projects like this to be successful, you have to be ‘a volunteer prisoner of your own imagination’.
“Ideas come to you,” he says. “Nobody owns an idea. Ideas take you somewhere…it’s a sort of a taste in your mouth. You don’t know the ingredients. You make your little shopping list. You start cooking. The first pancake always fails. I don’t know why, but it always fails. And you start to interact. And you make a mistake, that’s always part of it. In the end, you have your top Michelin 1-star dessert and voila! It’s for everyone and it becomes shareable. But it’s way more process and it’s way more facilitating than one could imagine because people think: ‘Oh I have an idea!’ Daan has an idea and then he does it, which is sort of the summary. But it’s way more fluid and way more interactive.
“When you start something new, you always start as an amateur. Now I’m an expert in smog. I can say that. I’ve fought for three years on it, I’ve met smart people, I was reading. I was obsessed by it.”
He started as an amateur and now Roosegaarde says he is an amateur again, this time for Spaceways, a program to reduce space smog by removing the debris left by almost half a century of human space exploration.
“More than 29,000 objects, floating in space caused by us: A broken piece of satellite,” he says.
“It’s the smog of the universe and when a tiny little particle hits an existing satellite, because of the speed, it goes through the Kevlar.
“The satellite goes down. No more Facebook. No more banking. And nobody knows how to fix it. We need to design a way out of it. It’s the only way.”
To become a good designer, Roosegaarde says you have to be curious and have a desire to understand why or how things can be different.
“A lot of things you can learn, but attitude or curiosity you cannot learn,” he says. “You need to own it.
“There is such an amazing energy in making stuff that you have an idea and then you put it out there. And it triggers people. It becomes part of their their mental map. It becomes part of their default of what is and what is not possible.
“You’re sort of questioning reality: Why do we accept pollution? Why do we have street lights burning the whole night when nobody is there consuming electricity? You question the world. You come up with new proposals and then in that way you’re setting a new default, step by step. That’s the power of design. Yes, you need governments investing in it from the top down, but you need makers who work bottom-up. They meet in the middle, that’s what creates impact.”
On their own, the designer says technology will make us lazy, and social innovation is just a symbol.
“You need science and conscious, social awareness,” he says. “That’s the change we are in right now. That’s how I feel about it.”
Tune in to the rest of the episode to find out to design your way to a better world.