By: Claudia Repsold Photos: Courtesy of Roosegaarde Studio
Many people are creative, but few are innovators. Creativity, as the word suggests, is the ability to create new ideas, while innovation is the capacity to implement those ideas. We all have awesome ideas, but most of us will not have the drive or the knowledge to harness our creativity and turn it into innovation.
Do you think pollution can be turned into fake diamonds, or that a jellyfish could inspire the lane paint on “smart” highways? Those ideas may sound too futuristic for some people, but Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde is making the improbable happen as I type this article.
Roosegaarde regards himself as a hippie with a business plan. It’s very humble of him, since his accomplishments could awe the most creative minds.
He has become well-known in the Netherlands for sustainable projects that promote the interaction of people with the landscape, using technology as a bridge. He calls it “tech poetry”.
The designer spends most of his time traveling between Amsterdam and Shanghai, where he keeps his design studio, but we caught up with him for this interview in Miami before his lecture at eMerge America.
Brazil & U.S. Biz: Most design projects are expensive and aim for an elite market. How is technology making design more affordable and enjoyable for everyone? How important is social design?
Roosegaarde: I think that we should use technology and creativity to change the landscape around us. That is why I always focus on the public domain, such as a sustainable dance floor that generates electricity through the act of dancing, or glowing lanes on the highway — the lanes are charged [during] the daytime and glow at night. This is one notion of making a design to improve everyone’s life. But why are you asking me about social design?
Brazil & U.S. Biz: Well, because you work designing inexpensive and self-sustainable solutions to improve the landscape so people can live better lives. The world needs more simple solutions, rather than sophisticated ones with high price tags attached. The genius lies in simplicity.
Roosegaarde: This is true. However, to make a project happen, you need to put together a team of smart people, and this isn’t inexpensive. We decided that we do not want to focus on a few people. Instead, we like to work on a large scale, thinking about how we can affect many different people at once. I’m the kind of guy that gets inspired by it. I would say that 40 percent of the design projects that our office does are self-commissioned. This means that we do not sit and expect customers to knock on our door. We have an idea and we go after the client.
Brazil & U.S. Biz: How easy is it to find that client?
Roosegaarde: Nothing is easy. First, they will say it cannot be done — and then they will say, “Yes, but…” That is the nature of the business. You cannot let that bring you down; you need [to] just keep moving on and do your thing. You should, quietly and with love, ignore them.
Brazil & U.S. Biz: Cities around the world are changing. Miami has changed a lot in the last 10 years, as has São Paulo. Are cities changing in the right direction?
Roosegaarde: Miami used to be a boring resort city, but new events such as Miami Art Basel and seminars like eMerge America [have] triggered and pushed people to act, to change the city. New ideas have inspired people not just to consume but also to make their own city. There is a lot of discussion about “smart cities,” and most of the time, it’s just based on technology, but I think this is the wrong angle. We should focus on people. Technology is just the tool that can be used to make a city more gentle, livable, and sustainable for its people.
Brazil & U.S. Biz: Do you think designers should focus more on their responsibility to design a better society?
Roosegaarde: I hate to tell someone what to do. I think [that] people in general, not just designers, must understand their own roles as actors in building a better future. As Marshall McLuhan said, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” As we live in a society, everyone has its role. We are learning and evolving. The future has infinite possibilities. The more we innovate, the cheaper it becomes [to innovate].
There is no magic answer or solution. Nothing will come easy, but you must keep doing your best anyway. When Heijmans [a construction/manufacturing company] proposed to our studio to rethink their [road-marking] product, the first building permit we tried to get to paint the glowing lanes was denied by the city. We found out that the authorization was withheld because of an old Dutch law which states that all lanes on the roads should be painted white. We had to ask the Minister of Infrastructure to intervene. We had to argue that this law was no longer meaningful.
Anyway, this is an example of what you have to do to transform an idea into something real. It is also an example of how a company, a design studio, and a government can work together toward innovating.
Brazil & U.S. Biz: How do you come up with new ideas? What inspires you?
Roosegaarde: Everything starts with an obsession. I look around and start to ask myself: Why this? Why that? Why are the roads black? A jellyfish doesn’t have a battery or solar panel; how do they live underwater and create their own light? What can we learn from their bioluminescence? We have to learn from nature, from observing the environment.
You have a clear vision of what you want to achieve. You have the taste in your mouth, but you do not know the ingredients yet. Then you start to write, to read, to travel, to talk, to work together to get other experts, and begin to figure out how to make it happen. You make things, but the making also makes you.
Brazil & U.S. Biz: Is part of human nature resisting innovation? How do you work that out?
Roosegaarde: There is this movie, made two years ago, about people in Uzbekistan who are using an escalator for the first time in their lives. They cling so hard to the handrail that they fall off. Most of the time, they stop in front of the escalator, not knowing how to deal with the new device. We can have all the technology in the world, but if it’s disconnected from people’s usage, it’s [useless]. I see my role as a reformist. I like to customize and personalize the world.
We have this project in Beijing called Smog-Free Park. We used a patented ion technology to make the largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world.
Obviously, it does not solve the pollution problem, but it reminds people of how nice it is to have clean air. If people can feel the clean air inside the park, maybe that feeling will engage them in making different choices to improve the quality of the air in the whole city.
The whole question is: How [do we] engage people? Certainly, it is not about technology. It is more about how we trigger new social interactions to involve people, making them part of the solution instead of the problem.
I always had someone telling me that what I want to do cannot be done. I consider it my personal job to prove that they are wrong.
Brazil & U.S. Biz: Well, you know what they say: If nobody is calling you crazy, it’s because you are doing something wrong.
Roosegaarde: Yeah, you are right [laughs]. You need to be a voluntary prisoner of your own imagination. I am a place person; I’m not a people person. It may sound weird, but I fall in love with a place before I fall in love with a girl.
Brazil & U.S. Biz: How do you envision the world in 10 years?
Roosegaarde: The technology will jump out of the screen and connect to people as their second skin. There is this George Orwell scenario where the technology takes over. But there is also the Da Vinci scenario, where we learn to cure ourselves and become more human. We have two scenarios to choose from. We need to rethink what we want from [tech].
Brazil & U.S. Biz: This year, you will be visiting Brazil as a key speaker at the Bienal da Arquitetura in São Paulo. Do you have any ideas for humanizing the landscape of the Brazilian favelas [slums]?
Roosegaarde: I never thought about it, but I will. It’s a challenge. In the Netherlands, we are more rational, while in Brazil, people are more emotional, but we have creativity as the common ground. In the Netherlands, where we live under sea level, we need to manage our water with dikes to survive. The whole landscape is manmade; without creativity, we would not be able to overcome our natural challenges. In Brazil, it’s the same thing. People have to use creativity to overcome the lack of resources. I will think about the favelas. Now you’ve given me a new obsession.
Brazil & U.S. Biz: Fantastic. You said that all your great ideas started with an obsession.
Claudia Repsold is the Editor-in-Chief of Brazil & USA Biz. She is a Brazilian international award-winning journalist with twenty years of experience in editing, research, coordination, production and reporting news on Brazil and U.S.