Turning Smog Into Diamonds

An interview with Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde about social design and the power of community.

What if a gyrating crowd on a dance floor could produce more energy than it consumed? What if viruses could be removed from the air with the help of the sun and the process was also aesthetically pleasing? Or if by bestowing diamonds to those dear to us, we not only helped neutralize untold cubic meters of city smog but also financed the air purification technology through the purchase of this jewelry? All these scenarios sound fantastic, but they are already within the realm of the possible. And this is thanks to the Dutch artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde and his idea of social design.

What is social design?

Of course, it is always a matter of personal interpretation. But design is not about envisaging new tables, chairs, and lamps. We have enough of these. Instead, it has to do with the attempt to improve life in the face of growing challenges like rising sea levels and climate change. In this respect, we have developed bad designs and have thereby created our problems. We now have to design our way out. That is the agenda of social design: to find concrete solutions for the future.

Your work has always been characterized by great beauty. Does social design have to be beautiful?

That’s a good question (laughter). When you design something with the goal of keeping it simple, are driven by an idea, and attempt to realize it, something beautiful automatically results. But you are right. People change as a consequence of love or fear, which also means we accept change based on love or fear. To show the beauty of a sustainable world helps people to accept change. I am not a government energy minister or a CEO of a multi-million-dollar company, so I employ beauty to help people accept change. Beauty is a very powerful tool.

Daan Roosegaarde’s latest artwork GROW is an homage to the beauty of agriculture.
Daan Roosegaarde’s latest artwork GROW is an homage to the beauty of agriculture.

Can social design be broken down into concrete principles, like the ten rules for good design that Dieter Rams formulated in the 1960s?

Design is all about improving life. It is a hybrid activity that involves combining various fields and disciplines. As such, it is collaborative. It is not about introducing more new things but rather about knowledge, experience, and community. Even consciousness. These are big ideas, but we usually offer very tangible, tactile solutions and insights. And all of our efforts are driven by curiosity and not by fear. This is especially important, as design embraces the naïve idea of upgrading the world. If you want to construct a definition of design, then this is part of its DNA.

Are you where you are today as an artist and designer because of curiosity?

Absolutely! You have to work through 80 percent bullshit to realize 20 percent innovation. There are many barriers, but I think one of the main problems we have is linear thinking. We are not proficient in being creative or finding new connections. However, even seen from an economic perspective, we live in a world where we don’t directly pay for environmental pollution. But what is the price for clean air? In 10 to 15 years, we will have an inclusive economy that will take into account the damage we cause within the cost of an airline ticket, clothing, cars, etc. We are just not there yet. The only way to recognize and implement this policy at the present moment is to be driven by curiosity and by demonstrating beauty. You, therefore, have to be a bit crazy and overly optimistic to face these mundane challenges.

So it is a matter of starting at the place where beauty and functionality converge and then develop projects that are as concrete as possible?

I like bold and radical ideas, and although they might initially appear futuristic, if they are embraced, they become a part of our daily lives. This is the kind of feedback I get on every project. First, people ask how it could even be possible. Then we get many calls – such as with the GROW and Urban Sun projects – asking why this isn’t being done everywhere? It is the same thing with fashion – an item first appears as haute couture and then ends up in prêt-à-porter. People have to get used to an idea, and maybe this is also a part of the design process. An example of this is Urban Sun, a project designed to remove viruses from the air. The project was first published in 2018. You can google it, find it, and read it, but why isn’t anyone writing about it, and why doesn’t anyone use it? If we package the idea in a story and tell it, then we can all at once reach millions of people, as we did with the Urban Sun movie. The power of design is its ability to interpret abstract ideas. The aim of my work is to become part of the new normal, of the new standard.

Urban Sun can safely clean up to 99.9% of the coronavirus in public spaces
Urban Sun can safely clean up to 99.9% of the coronavirus in public spaces

Why has the Netherlands produced so many innovative ideas and good design work? Is it because you live and, in a way, struggle with nature in such proximity?

Yes, exactly. For the most part, we live below sea level. Without technology and creative thinking, we would simply drown. My Chinese friends tell me to move to Germany, move to the mountains. Who lives below sea level anyway? It’s not very safe, they say. But, of course, we have lived here for more than a thousand years. The country is designed; it is technically developed. We build tree houses, play with nature, and learn from it. This is part of my mentality, and I see myself not only as a consumer but also as a maker, a creator. I make suggestions, and I create my reality. I believe that this life in proximity to and in struggle with nature is one reason why the Dutch are so good in architecture, design, and fashion. Our total population is no greater than the city of Shanghai, but we show up everywhere with this ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’ mentality.

Light is a material that plays a role in many of your works. Is this your preferred material as a designer?

Light is a language. There are things that we can do that we don’t yet know about. Of course, my work is about using the power of light, but, first and foremost, it is about beauty: clean air, clean energy, and clean water. When you look up at the stars, you are not seeing decoration. They are history – information from the past that has reached us. Maybe they are some kind of Morse code from far away that we haven’t yet deciphered. Maybe 30 years from now, we will realize that someone out there wanted to tell us something. I find it all so fascinating, and light is definitely one of my personal obsessions.

Daan Roosegarde's GATES OF LIGHTS are 60 reflective buildings illuminated by the headlamps of passing cars
GATES OF LIGHTS are 60 reflective buildings illuminated by the headlamps of passing cars

Light seems so palpably present that we don’t even perceive it anymore.

Exactly. I am presently working on a project that will be celebrating Darkness. Without giving too much away, broadly speaking, it is about turning off all the lights in a city. All the signs and billboards, all the shops go dark. You would still be able to see the stars. It is all about celebrating something within the community at a time in which we are unable to travel. Darkness makes visible the light which we do not see. We tend to use light in a very crude, ornamental, and brutal fashion.

In many places, especially urban centers, we hardly experience any real darkness. At times, light almost seems to be a kind of pollution.

A few years ago, when there was a power blackout in Los Angeles, and the lights went out, many people called 911 and said, “The aliens have come to attack us!” The police had to explain, “No, those are only the stars.” Numbers and abstract knowledge do not alter our behavior. We know that smoking is hazardous, that sea levels are rising, and so on, but only real-life experiences make a difference. Our project WATERLICHT will also be exhibited in Oberhausen, Germany, in November, it shows spectators how high the water can and will rise. You stand there among hundreds of other people and experience it for yourself. It acts as a trigger. Experiences can be bad or good. What intrigues me, however, is how they can help one to accept change. My dream would be to create a place where people can share a common experience—something like going to Church. Please don’t get me wrong – I am not at all religious or pro-church, but the Catholic Church is definitely good at creating experiences with light (laughter).

Much of your work has since been documented and celebrated in prestigious international platforms such as the NYT, and they are all beautifully presented on your website. But tell us, did you really make diamonds out of smog?

We built the world’s largest small vacuum cleaner. It sucks in and cleans polluted air and can make the air in parks up to 27 percent cleaner. We’ve employed it in China, Korea, Poland, and the Netherlands. We wanted to do something with the residue, and this is in the context of what I said at the beginning of our interview: What is the price of clean air? It became clear to us that when we compress the residue particles, we get an interesting cube made of brown powder consisting of 42 to 48 percent carbon. If you apply a great deal of pressure, these cubes are transformed into diamonds. This was our inspiration. So, we designed small rings that you can purchase through a donation to our Kickstarter project. Each jewelry item corresponds to 1000 cubic meters of clean city air – each ring contains 1000 cubic meters of air pollution.

Initially, everyone thought that no one would want to wear pollution on their finger. But now, there is a waiting list of thousands of people wanting one as a wedding ring. When people become part of the solution instead of just being part of the problem, then that’s the power of community.

The world's first air pollution vacuum cleaner, the SMOG FREE TOWER.
The world’s first air pollution vacuum cleaner, the SMOG FREE TOWER.

All photo credits belong to the artist Daan Roosegaarde.