'Let's Be Curious.' Artist Daan Roosegaarde says design must be inspired by Nature

Mar 12, 2018

Daan Roosegaarde speaks at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Mar. 8, 2018. 

Daan Roosegaarde speaks at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Mar. 8, 2018.

Photography by Stefen Chow for Fortune


By TF CHAN March 8, 2018


Virtual floods, smart highways and smog-sucking towers – these are but three of the futuristic visions that have been brought to life by artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde, who delivered a keynote presentation at Brainstorm Design in Singapore Thursday on how designers come up with solutions to improve daily life in urban environments.


Whether in his native Netherlands or China, where he maintains a second studio, Roosegaarde’s work has always responded to urban environments. He has created light installations around the world to portray rising sea levels, giving tangible form to the horrors of global warming; a cycle path in Eindhoven, laid with thousands of fluorescent stones in a Swirling Pattern as though the twinkling skyscape in Van Gogh’s starry night had come to life; and Smog Free Towers, 7m tall structures to suck up air pollution in public spaces using no more electricity than a water boiler.


His more recent work inhabits the Afsluitdijk, a 32km causeway in the Netherlands that keeps the waters of the North Sea at bay. The causeway is lined with a series of floodgates designed in 1932 by Dirk Roosenburg – monumental structures that have since fallen into disrepair. Infrastructure officials commissioned Roosegaarde to breath new life into them. “We had the goal of not adding more objects to it,” he explained, “sometimes design can be removing things instead of adding.” In lieu of new lighting, which would have been costly to install and maintain, Roosegaarde simply used the most retro-reflective material to outline the gates – borrowing the headlights of passing cars to illuminate their iconic forms, without expending more energy.


Here, as with many of Roosegaarde’s previous projects, the inspiration was nature. “I look at the wings of butterflies. Artificial pigments tend to fade, but the coloring on these wings does not. On a nano-level, the wings manipulate their source light, which is why the color always remains very vivid.”


Nearby, Roosegaarde launched a series of energy-generating kites based on designs by the Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels. Floating in the air, the kites push and pull on dynamos, supplying enough power for 100 to 150 households. “Energy is everywhere, all we have to do is start to harvest it,” he said. He also laid luminescent cables to add an element of poetry and added cameras at the top – “you could log in and watch from the heavens.”


A final component to his Afsluitdijk project saw Roosegaarde flood a historic bunker with bioluminescent algae. “They’re some of the oldest microorganisms in the world. As you walk along the space, on top of the algae, they wake up and give light. This is pure nature. There’s no battery required, no electricity bill.”


Design, in Roosegaarde’s view, is not just about technology, but rather about harnessing the principles of nature to give our lives an upgrade. “This needs to be the new standard. We need to have the courage and the curiosity,” he said.


In concluding, he showed a video of people about to dive from a 10m tall platform. Most of them appear fearful and reluctant. “We know what we want, but we’re struggling, we’re hesitating,” said Roosegaarde as the clip played on, until it finally showed someone making a graceful jump, set to exuberant music. “Let’s not be afraid. Let’s be curious.”


The first edition of this article was published on Fortune on 8 Mar 2018. All rights reserved.