“Designing is never about creating another chair or lamp. For me, it’s about improving life. When designing cities, products or a landscape, ‘schoonheid’ should be the guideline – a Dutch word meaning both beauty and cleanliness – to create things that are wonderful to look at and use but at the same time improve the world we live in”. Thus began my conversation with Daan Roosegaarde (b. Netherlands, 1979) who we can define as designer, inventor, visionary, creative, architect or simply: artist.
Each of his projects are aimed at the future and the sustainability of the individual, a kind of challenge in society that is so different and complicated from place to place. Thanks to technology, every work such as Touch, Urban Sun, Smog Free Project and latest works Seeing Star and Spark, Roosegaarde creates a visual and immersive poetry. He invites the viewer to reflect on their own condition and on their own possibilities to improve the quality of life and, therefore, themselves.
After attending schools in the south of Holland, Nieuwkoop, Daan Roosegaarde moved to Arnhem to study at the Institute for the Arts. He continued his training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Enschede and finally attained his Master’s degree at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. This long training path the artist has developed over time is an approach to art between science and innovation, mostly inspired by nature and everything surrounding us. A member of the NASA Innovation team, Roseengaarde has been recognised by the World Design Awards (2021), Global Future Design Awards (2021), Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Award, People’s Lovie Winner, Architecture Master Prize (2021), MANA Global New Media Art, World USA Technology Award, Design for Asia Award, ADC Annual Awards, among others.
FRONTRUNNER is proud to present a conversation with the visionary Roosegaarde.
WIRED and Forbes listed you as one of the global leaders at the World Economic Forum, but when and where did you begin?
In 2007, I founded Studio Roosegaarde: the Dream Factory, where I work with a team of designers and engineers towards a better future and turning dreams into reality. Together, we develop “Landscapes of the Future” and build smart, sustainable prototypes for the cities of tomorrow which include art, technology and innovation. We don’t live in a static world, but a fluid one. The things we are doing today, in terms of the economy and energy, are no longer effective. We first have to imagine the future to be able to create. For me, designing starts with an obsession. Either I am fascinated by something, or I am annoyed or irritated by something. I’m a voluntary prisoner of my own imagination. I’m pretty determined, once I come up with an idea, I team up with people who make it happen. We start with an idea, make a prototype, and make it work. I think it’s also very important to mention that creative thinking and creativity is our true capital, and designers are really good at that. So, I think we have a very good future-proof occupation, discipline, but let’s do more!
Between architecture and design, where do you find inspiration for your projects?
From an early age, I have been driven by nature’s gifts like luminous fireflies or jellyfish. There’s this notion of enjoying nature, while also trying to upgrade and improve it and to create more liveable places in urban environments for everyday life. That is something that inspires me. A lot of things in my life are driven by inspiration, but also by frustration; you look at the world and you don’t get it, you don’t understand it, you’re confused, wondering why we are doing it like this. I look outside my window and I do not understand society anymore, it’s very confusing: traffic jams, air pollution, rising water levels, CO2 emissions. So I can do 2 things: complain, hide in a room and blame somebody else, or I can say, “Well, we’ve created this situation, let’s design, let’s engineer our way out of it”. In that way, I feel like an activist. Not with signs shouting on the streets, but as an activator showing the beauty and the potential of a sustainable society. There’s also a small piece of me which is not work-related, but most of the time it’s just spending an incredible amount of time, love and energy on making these kinds of projects happen. It’s a little bit of a full package. Not much of a social life, no Cava in the garden every night. But who knows, maybe I will learn one day.
How was the Seeing Stars performance conceived in collaboration with UNESCO?
One night, I was looking up at the stars and noticed their amazing light performance. More than 80% of the world’s population live under light-polluted skies. Light pollution disrupts ecosystems and interferes with biorhythms. The dome of light created by artificial lighting, also named Skyglow, obscures our view of the stars. What if we change our priorities and restore the darkness? So to bring back the stars, I switched off all the lights in the city of Franeker. Free from light pollution, we could enjoy the starlit sky from our own street, together. Seeing Stars celebrates the natural darkness and light of the stars in a sensational way by creating a new feeling of togetherness. In 2007 the Declaration in defence of the Night Sky and Right to Starlight was adopted during the Starlight Conference held in La Palma (Canary Islands), and was promoted by UNESCO. For Seeing Stars, we connected with UNESCO Netherlands, and they recognised that observing stars can bind people, a heritage that is universal. Kathleen Ferrier, Chairperson of the Netherlands Commission for UNESCO, said, “Everybody should have the right to see the stars through an unpolluted night sky. Looking at the stars makes you feel connected to each other. We are all part of the immense cosmos.” This is the communal and universal heritage I strive for. Seeing Stars is an important step forward.
In your practice, in addition to a poetic aspect, I notice a very deep spiritual side complimenting each of your works. Is there spirituality in what you do and what does it mean for you to be spiritual?
Spiritual, perhaps, yes. But most of all it’s about feeling connected to yourself, each other, and the world around you. My goal is to create landscapes of the future, to make smart designs by using light. “Techno-poetry”, as we call it, is the dynamic relation between people and technology. It is about imagination, innovation and recognising that emotions are connected to the digital world. My work connects the natural to the digital, shows how dreams can become reality, and encourages an interaction between the visitor and the artwork. Technology supports our change in behaviour, but imagination brings out the poetry. This is also one of the reasons why I created the DreamScapes series, a collection of groundbreaking projects showing the beauty of a sustainable society. A DreamScape is a dream turned into reality to improve the world. The first four DreamScapes are GROW, Urban Sun, Seeing Stars and SPARK. GROW is an homage to the beauty of agriculture, Urban Sun cleans public spaces of the coronavirus. Seeing Stars, our UNESCO-partnered project, brings the stars back to your street by switching off all the city lights. We’ve just launched an organic fireworks project SPARK! SPARK is a new sustainable celebration, as an alternative for polluting, traditional fireworks.
Post-COVID-19, what are the values to keep in mind for the future of the society?
There is this Dutch word “Schoonheid”, which has 2 meanings: beauty and creativity, but also clarity or cleanness as in clean air, clean water, clean energy. For me, these are the future values of our society. Only if we make this part of our new standard, we can evolve. I think we live in a world where there’s not a lack of technology, but of imagination of how we want the future to look like. If we can’t imagine the future, we won’t get there. That is why we are stuck right now, because we’re afraid of the unknown. That’s why projects such as Urban Sun, GROW, WATERLICHT and Smog Free Project are there: to visualise and activate people about our changing world and become part of the solution, not just feeling like part of the problem. The projects are prototypes for the city of tomorrow: bicycles paths which are solar charged at daytime and glow at night, air cleaning towers, light-emitting algae, and smog-free rings purchased by newlyweds. All projects are proposals for how I would like to see the world. Not as utopia, but as a protopia (a term by Kevin Kelly), to show, to learn, to fail, to upgrade the world around us.
What do you think of Elon Musk and his approach to technological progress? Among his ideas, he’d like to implant an artificial intelligence microchip in the human brain.
It is good to be curious, and to bravely invest in new proposals. I do think we need to have a broader conversation about the role of technology, especially regarding space. Use of satellites is cluttering our view of the universe, of the view of the stars which have been there for millions of years. Who owns the sky, and who decides what we perceive? A view which has been the same for millions of years is suddenly changing. That is concerning and exciting at the same time.
What are your next projects?
In the next five years, I would like to see creativity as our new capital, something I believe in strongly. Eventually, we will live in a hyper-technological world where robots take over some of our roles, meaning that our human skills will become more important. I want to see everybody collaborate, investing in new ideas to survive, redefine our goals and our values to become future proof. And in the Studio, we focus on the doing and dreaming of today.