We’ve built cities that do us harm, according to groundbreaking Netherlands designer Daan Roosegaarde. Along with his team at Studio Roosegaarde, he’s tackling the pollution we’ve generated in our metropolises, through the power of design. Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Project is currently touring China—their most recent stop is Tianjin—and Inhabitat spoke with Roosegaarde about the project and how design can help us shape a cleaner, more beautiful urban future. Check out our interview after the break…
INHABITAT: What inspired you to tackle the problem of city pollution with design?
ROOSEGAARDE: I’ve been working on landscapes of the future in the last five years, making dance floors which produce electricity when you dance on them, or bicycle paths which are charged by the sun and glow at night. I love to make public spaces which trigger people in a poetical or pragmatic way. Three and a half years ago, I was being triggered by Asia and its curiosity towards the future. On Saturday, I could see the world around me in Beijing on my 32rd floor room, but on Wednesday and Thursday it was completely covered in smog. It was a wake-up moment. I knew it was bad but it’s something different when it’s visual. Governments all around the world are investing in clean technology, electric cars, or more bicycle sharing programs, but that takes quite a long time, like 10 to 15 years, to make an impact. I wanted to make something that has an impact now.
Delhi is actually worse, in India. You’re sort of trapped in a bubble which is pushing on you, which is suppressing you. You feel nauseous at the end of the day. It’s weird that we created cities which do harm to us, which are almost like machines. And again it’s not just Beijing. Every big city has its problems with pollution. It’s a global issue.
INHABITAT: When did you start to realize that design could offer an answer?
ROOSEGAARDE: Two days later, I remembered when I was a boy, a long time ago, I always had to go to these boring children’s parties. I was playing with plastic balloons, and when you polish a plastic balloon with your hand, it becomes static: static electricity, and it attracts your hair. I can remember when I was like eight years old I was mesmerized by that. It’s like an invisible force. It is a gift from nature. So that memory pops up out of the blue, and then the idea came: what if we could use that kind of principle to build the largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world, which sucks up polluted air, cleans it, and releases clean air. So at least we have local parks where people can experience clean air. We made a very, very simple animation the day after, and then we started to talk with the indoor air purifying experts who’ve been working on this for 20 or 30 years. We made a lot of prototypes and tests and a year and half after that moment we built the first one in Rotterdam.
This project is self-commissioned. We spend our own time, money, and energy at the studio. No client is going to call me and ask, “Can you make a Smog Free Tower?” So that’s also part of innovation: you launch your own projects, and now people all around the world are coming and calling, they want to be part of it. We’ve proven that it works. It’s really important to keep investing in your own ideas.
INHABITAT: As you’re traveling through China, what do you hope people take away from the tour of the Smog Free Project? First the local people, and then also the government officials that see the towers?
ROOSEGAARDE: What we want to achieve is two things. One, it’s a local solution on a park level: to create these bubbles of clean air in the city. And that has been proven quite effective: 55 to 70 percent cleaner than the rest of the city. This week is very, very important for us because we’re launching independent scientific research done by the Eindhoven University of Technology with Professor Bert Blocken, a renowned expert in fine particles. They have done extended measurements and research, and this week we’re launching a report which proves the impact and effect of the tower on the local scale: it collects 70 percent PM 10 and 50 percent PM 2.5 on the park scale level. So that’s very positive. And that’s an independent study from a university, you can’t buy them. And it’s being validated now, being peer-reviewed and will be published in the coming months. So the idea was to create local places where people can feel the difference, where they can smell the difference, and where they can experience the future.
The second goal is to start a conversation. To say, “hey guys, students, makers, scientists, whomever, what do we need to do to make a whole city smog-free?” So we did Smog Free Workshops and the response has been great. We had a girl who made fashion which changes in color when the smog level is too high. We had a Beijing designer who made a sort of wearable greenhouse, like a backpack, so you can breathe in clean air from the plants you’re carrying with you. This has been really great to activate the discussion. The final solution in that way is government with a focus on clean air, electrical cars, green technology, etc.; that’s top down, but we want to move bottom-up and tackle all of that, and we meet in the middle and that creates impact, that creates change.
From these sessions, from one at Tsinghua University in Beijing, new ideas popped up like the Smog Free Bicycle. The bicycle sucks up polluted air, cleans it, and releases it as clean air. The technology is similar to the Smog Free Tower. Beijing was a cycling city 10 or 12 years ago, and that completely disappeared because everybody wanted a car, and everybody now is in a traffic jam and it’s polluted. But the bicycle is a powerful cultural icon. So we want to bring back the bicycle and upgrade it in the celebration of the bicycle in the fight against car pollution. This is also part of the Smog Free Project; it’s the next big idea we’re spending time and energy on. It’s been intense, it’s a politically-centered topic, it’s something new, people have to get used to it. Everybody has opinions about it. Very few have proposals. But step by step we’re creating impact.
INHABITAT: I heard about the Smog Free Bicycles and I wanted to ask about those: how the idea came about and the also a little bit more about how they work.
ROOSEGAARDE: The idea of enhancing bicycles has been around for a while. For example, Matt Hope, a Beijing artist, worked on it years ago, and before that some other artists as well. So we did the workshop with him in Beijing, and with students from Tsinghua University. They have a lot of bicycle sharing programs like Mobike, and so that’s where we got the idea and thought what if we could take it and push it further.
The bicycle releases clean air in the area around the face. We don’t want to work with masks or anything; it should be a kind of plug-in to the existing bicycle.
Why not, right? We came so far with making crazy ideas happen, this should be doable as well. What is fascinating with innovation, with new ideas, is that in the beginning, there are always some people—most of them are enthusiastic but there are always some people who say, “It’s not allowed,” or “You cannot do it.” But you know what happens now with the Smog Free Project, I have top officials from the government coming to me, and saying, “Oh that’s a good idea, why didn’t you do it before?” I’m saying this with a smile; it’s one of the things about innovation, and you have to go through it, but that’s good, that means you are changing something. You are changing a mentality. But you have to fight for it.
INHABITAT: Last year the China Forum of Environmental Journalists suggested that the Smog Free Tower in Beijing wasn’t doing its job effectively. What do you think of their findings?
ROOSEGAARDE: I read that. It’s quite difficult, because I’ve never met the people, and I’m curious what they based on findings on. I think it’s really good people are engaged with the project, and are thinking about it, and are discussing it: what should be, what shouldn’t it be; so I think that’s positive. We knew the tower worked, and we now have the scientific data to back us up. And yeah, let’s keep on pushing what is possible. But basically, the idea is very simple: build the largest vacuum cleaner in the world, so of course, it works. I find it hard to grasp how it could not work. What I think is, everybody has opinions, but let’s work at proposals.
INHABITAT: Based on discussions around the tower, do you think you’ll change the design of the tower at all or do you think it’s working well for the goal you have for it?
ROOSEGAARDE: We’re not changing the design of the tower. Why would I? No, we’re going to keep it like this. The name and design are going to stay like this. I think maybe in the future, I’ll have some new ideas. We want to make it run on solar panels, that’s an important one. And we’re designing bigger versions for larger public spaces. There will be new versions, but this one that we have is perfectly fine. The design is based on Chinese pagodas, Chinese temples. So there’s also this history element in it, and the Chinese love it. When they visit here they lovingly call it the Clean Air Temple.
But I think your question is valid. One tower will of course not the solve the whole problem of a city, that is very clear. I think the goal is to create these local clean air parks and at the same time educate people, to say hey, what do we need to do to make the whole city smog-free? There’s a lot of work to be done. We shouldn’t wait for government. We shouldn’t wait for anyone.
INHABITAT: You’ve devoted a lot of creative energy to smog and pollution in the last few years. But recently you’ve turned your attention to space trash. Why do you think this is a serious issue, and how can design help solve the problem?
ROOSEGAARDE: When you start something new, you always start as an amateur. You start to read, to learn, to talk with the experts. Now I can say I’m an expert in smog after three years, which is great, but it’s always nice to be an amateur again. So now I’m an amateur in space waste. There are millions of particles floating caused by satellites crashing. And it’s a big problem, because if particles like these hit an existing satellite, the satellite goes down, and no more Facebook, no more Inhabitat, no more mobile banking, and nobody really knows how to clean it. And it’s going to get worse. If we continue like this for the coming five to 10 years there will be so much pollution we won’t even be able to launch missiles anymore because they’ll be damaged by particles. Space is endless, and then we have planet Earth floating here, and somehow we were able to trap ourselves in a layer of space pollution. How are we going to explain that to our grandchildren? That’s insane. So what the Smog Free Ring is for Beijing, and what the Smog Free Tower is for China, can we apply that thinking to space waste? I don’t know how and what or when. I’ve had several sessions with space scientists. It is a problem, and somebody needs to fix it. And that’s been fascinating. So that’s the next adventure.
For me, a project like this not just about technology or ideology. I’m a trained artist, so for me it’s about the notion of beauty, or of schoonheid. “Schoonheid” is a very typical Dutch word that has two meanings. One is like the beauty of a painting that you look at and then get inspired. But it also means cleanness, like clean energy, clean water, clean air. That element of schoonheid is what I’m striving for. When we design cities or a product or a car or a landscape, schoonheid should be part of the DNA, and we should really start making places which are good for people. This is the big idea we’re aiming for, and in a way all the projects we’ve been talking about are sort of prototypes or examples.
INHABITAT: Your work often explores relationships between humans and technology, but you have also been critical of all the time we spend in front of screens. How would you describe a healthy relationship with technology?
ROOSEGAARDE: I think it’s bizarre that we’re feeding into our emotions, our hopes, and dreams into these computer screens. We’re feeding this virtual cloud: Facebook, Twitter. And somehow our physical world is almost disconnected from creative or innovative thinking. Most of the physical places are suffering from pollution, floods, you name it. And that’s sort of weird. Our ideas, our money, our focus is online. I would love to connect these worlds again, the virtual and the analog and really say, “Hey, how can we use technology—and design, and creative thinking—to improve life and make places which are good for people again?” Is it George Orwell, are we reducing human activity, or is it Leonardo Da Vinci, where we enhance ourselves as human beings via technology? If you read like Bruce Sterling or Kevin Kelly, they have been talking about that for many years, which I really, really like. And I hope that the prototypes or projects I’ve made somehow contribute to that way of thinking, of enhancing yourself and exploring yourself.
At the World Economic Forum, they had Top 10 Skills research about the future skills you and I need to become successful. Number three is creativity, number two critical thinking, and number one is complex problem-solving. What I think will happen is that as we live in a hyper-technological world, our human skills: our desire for knowledge, our desire for beauty, our desire for empathy, and our desire for interaction, will become even more important because that is something robots and computers cannot copy or do for us. I believe we will have a renaissance of the arts and sciences. I hope again that the things I do contribute to that trajectory.
INHABITAT What are three major things you’d change in today’s cities to make them more sustainable?
ROOSEGAARDE: I think I mentioned it with schoonheid: clean energy, clean water, clean air. And maybe the notion of circular: food should not be wasted but become food for the other. Most of all I hope it’s a city which triggers me, where I feel like a citizen and not just a taxpayer.
I’ve been thinking of Marshall McLuhan in the past few weeks. In Vancouver, I gave a TED talk, and quoted McLuhan who said: “On spacecraft Earth, here are no passengers; we are all crew.” We’re makers; we’re not just consumers. And so how can we make landscapes which trigger that kind of mentality? That’s what wakes me up every day at 6:30. And again, my designs are in that way not just designs or art installations but really very concrete proposals of how I want the future to look like. It’s been great to work with designers, experts, and engineers to make it happen. I think that’s good to mention because sometimes the focus is a bit too much on me, but we have a great studio in Rotterdam where 16 people are working really, really hard every day, and without them I could never make it happen.
INHABITAT: What’s next? Do you have any plans for future projects in the works?
ROOSEGAARDE: We’re working on the redesign of Afsluitdijk Dike, it’s a famous 32-kilometer dam in the Netherlands that protects us from drowning and dying. What you should know is dikes in the Netherlands are as holy as cows are in India. Now after almost 80 years the dike is in need of renovation, and the minister of infrastructure, Melanie Schultz, commissioned my studio to enhance the iconic value of that dike. And that’s going to be great. We’re going to make kites in the air, which connected with a cable generate electricity. We’re working with light-emitting algae. We’re launching three more new projects in September, October, and November of this year.
Images courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde