Daan Roosegaarde finds beauty in possibility. He’s not afraid to ask bold, borderline-absurd questions, like: “What if you could create usable energy by grinding on a dance floor?” Or: “What if roads charged in the sun during the day and then glowed at night?” Or: “What if clothing could change color, based on the rhythm of a heartbeat, revealing the wearer’s inner desires?” Or: “What if we could clean the smog out of the air and reverse climate change?”
He sees these possibilities everywhere — opportunities to blend design with environment-saving technologies.
“It’s all about showing what’s already possible today,” the artist/designer explains. “A lot of the technology we work with was already there. Hidden in drawers in universities or at companies. It’s about showing the beauty of a potential new world focused on clean air, clean water, clean energy, and creative thinking.”
Thinking outside of the box has always been Roosegaarde’s specialty. It’s the kind of thinking that got him kicked out of fine arts school…twice. He had a few too many crazy ideas, he says with a laugh, and he didn’t know how to translate them into action. Now, he’s a bit better at taking his wild ideas and making them into wild realities. Because the environmental crisis has pushed Roosegaarde to try to create a future where art, clean energy, and a new way of responsible urban planning becomes the gold standard.
“There’s not a lack of money or technology,” he says of the quest to reverse our climate problems, “but maybe a lack of imagination. For me, the role of art and design needs to show how the future world can look like.”
By demonstrating how beautiful the art-technology intersection can be, Roosegaarde hopes to inspire people to do more and think deeper. That’s why his designs for green energy and innovative air and water purification projects are so whimsical. He wants to generate excitement and curiosity… and maybe just save the world along the way.
Four years ago, Roosegaarde looked out of the window of a Beijing hotel room and saw a film of smog in the air, obscuring his view. Suddenly, gazing upon the massive city, he was struck with how people had created all of this mess. These glittering, towering buildings, these feats of modern engineering and design, were representative of the power we had. But also, the responsibility to protect the world around us. It was clear to him at that moment that we had created the machine that would kill us, and he knew he had to do something about it.
“And at the same time, I realized, ‘I am not a minister,'” he says. “I cannot write a law which says, ‘Green energy, everyone, today’ But I can engineer solutions. So what if we created sort of an oasis, a clean air park, where at least you can enjoy clean air for free. That’s where this started.”
Roosegaarde threw his energy and skills into creating a smog-free tower to install in a public park in the city. The result is a structure that uses positive ionization technology to actually pull the smog out of the air around it, like a giant vacuum cleaner. The tower then cleans the air and pumps good air back out. Afterward, he takes that air-debris and turns it into jewelry.
It’s those little extra elements that make Roosegaarde’s work so delightful.
The sheer number of projects Roosegaarde has in the pipeline all at once is overwhelming. In mid-May, his first smog-free bicycle was launched in conjunction with Ofo, one of the largest bike sharing companies in China. The bike is like a miniature version of the tower, sucking up and cleaning polluted air while you ride. But there’s so much more. The Windvogel project is a series of energy harvesting kites that double as an art installation (a farm of kites glowing in the night air), but also a source of green energy created without contributing to pollution. The kites produce enough energy to power 200 households on their own. He’s also working on a symbiotic street lamp that uses light-emitting algae (which live and grow in the lamps) to light the streets without using any electricity. It’s like something out of a children’s book, a drawing of a futuristic city that couldn’t possibly exist. Only– that’s Roosegaarde’s point: It can exist.
We only need to think bigger and nurture our crazy ideas into fruition.
“I become a voluntary prisoner of an idea,” he says of his creative process. “I wake up in the morning and I’m like, ‘Oh, shit I have an idea.’ And it needs to get out of my head.”
It doesn’t happen alone, of course. Roosegaarde has a team of designers, engineers, and external experts working at his studio who are tasked with helping him make dreams reality. And there’s no idea too far out.
“If you can imagine it,” he says, “you can also build it.”
Recently, Roosegaarde has become obsessed with the idea of preventing space waste — after seeing a picture of the earth with gray particles obscuring it. Space may seem endless to us now, but that’s what people used to think of the ocean too. That it was a boundless entity in which trash could have no impact. We were wrong. So Roosegaarde wants to clean up the current debris in space and stop the degradation of the rest of the universe before we repeat our mistakes. He’s launching a ten-year long program to address it.
Roosegaarde doesn’t just want a world that’s cleaner, he wants to shift our priorities toward valuing the environment on a deeper level. His projects are ambitious, but perhaps the most ambitious part of his work is the outcome he imagines for it. He wants a world in which we redefine what we consider success and reimagine our aesthetic sense of what’s beautiful.
For example, in the Netherlands, bicycling is a source of pride, he says, but in other countries, people ask him if he’s cycling because he can’t afford a taxi. It’s all perspective. Perhaps, instead of buying a diamond ring couples could buy a smog-free ring made from the tower that represents a 1000 cubic feet of clean air with every purchase. It’s another strange, off-kilter, whimsy-filled idea that’s actually in process.
“There is great potential for social effect,” he says. “But it’s not just technology and imagination. It’s about setting new values as human beings. It’s about setting new standards, in a way, for life.”