“We are lacking
imagination.”

The Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde talks to us about the interplay
 of technology and imagination.

How do you prefer to move from A to B within a city?

I sold my car a while ago. It has always just been standing there catching bird poop or I accidentally parked it on spots that weren’t meant for parking. But we still use electric cars within our studio. I enjoy the flexibility that comes with it. I use Uber frequently and since I travel every two to three days, I often use the train or go by plane. I personally don’t consider the bike as the most convenient way of transport, because I can’t use this time to continue working, which I tend and like to do.

The Smog Free Bicycle is one of your very famous projects when it comes to mobility. It is a very good example of how you use technology in creating solutions. Do you think technology is always the solution?

No. The answer is imagination. Technology though is a tool to create a reality out of this imagination and make it tangible. The Smog Free Bicycle we designed is a great example of how to upgrade a simple object such as a bike giving it a new purpose. In this particular case: cleaning the air.

Back in the day when the first cars were designed, clean air wasn’t even a topic. Nowadays, and in the future, we realize this becomes more and more important. The industry is obviously changing and we should use technology to make these new values tangible.

A bicycle or a tower that inhales polluted air and gives clean air to the citizens is a very innovative design with almost a childlike way of seeing the world. Reducing the effects of pollution is one approach, but wouldn’t it be even more sustainable if we focused more on changing the behavior that causes the pollution?

Simplicity is an essential value to the work in our studio. The way to get to a certain design is obviously a difficult one. However, I believe that a combination of imagination and having a gamification element is essential in creating awareness. People are often afraid of new ideas and you need to give them time to accept change and to get used to it.

When you, for example, talk about fresh and breathable air, there are two important aspects to solving this problem. Of course, there is the long-term solution, like electric cars or the use of solar panels. It takes years to implement this within the majority of people, and me as an artist and designer, I can’t have any influence or impact on this development. This raises the question: What can I do? And can I start with it directly? An example for this is creating a Smog Free Tower that cleans the air in city parks and creates air that is up to 70% cleaner than its surroundings. The combination of long and short term solutions is very essential. Everyone should do what they are potentially able to do.

How can technology, from your perspective, cause or support change in human behavior?

In my eyes, there is no lack of technology. There is a lack of imagination. So, technology obviously supports change in behavior, but the process starts with imagining how things could be different. How do we want the world we live in to look like?

If software is being developed to change the outcome and make it more profitable, this means we got ourselves into a situation that isn’t sustainable at all. This leads people to look for short cuts. That means we have a misleading image of what we want, or what we are capable of. We need to change this image. For example, by starting to say that pollution can’t be free of charge anymore. The impact pollution has on human health, nature and quality of life is being neglected. We need to aim for a society where the damage caused by unsustainable processes is being calculated in the price. Only when we stop playing poker with Mother Earth, can we start having a more circular and sustainable society.

Within mobility and infrastructure, technology is an enabler when it comes to creating solutions. Where do you see technological developments today that could foster a more sustainable development of urban mobility? What do you think is our biggest lever for change?

Look at Singapore: a city in the garden. Their new airport terminal, Jewel, is amazing. It’s almost like entering Jurassic Park. Technology and nature come together so smoothly in this design, it’s astonishing. If you are, for example, taking a taxi in the morning rush hour, you’re being charged an extra euro automatically. This is a good way of changing human behavior and to stimulate people to make different choices. So again, this balance between human behavior, technology and nature is just amazing here.

Or is just a simple bike, provided with the ‘right’- VAN GOGH PATH-like infrastructure the answer to future urban mobility?

Oh absolutely, definitely yes. You really have to show people the beauty of a new world and make them experience it. Besides that, it’s also a change in values and a way of living your life: a lifestyle. If you bought a Hummer 10 years ago, people would look up to you. If you buy a Hummer today, people are more likely to think you’re a looser. Answers to what is cool or what isn’t, what is beautiful or ugly and corresponding values are changing constantly. A company can only be successful if it is aware of these changes and finds ways to satisfy these new needs.

You said once in an interview: People won’t change because of facts or numbers, but with triggering the imagination of a new world. With this in mind, what kind of imaginations do you think would make people ditch their car?

First of all, it is important to design a way of transportation that can be both private as well as public. Sometimes I really want my trip to be personal, to be in my own bubble, in my own world. But sometimes I do want to share and meet people. I think the usage of smart materials, the right color in lighting should satisfy both of these needs. There is always a focus on the outside of the car, but we shouldn’t forget the inside. It has to be instant, and maybe even directly connected to your smartphone as soon as you enter the vehicle.

It is less and less about what a means of transportation, like a car, has to look like, but more and more about how it behaves. Right now, 95% of the time a car is standing still and that is not what it’s designed for. We can actually conclude that a car is a very bad idea, very well designed. We have to zoom out and rethink what it is we want.

So the idea of ridesharing, even though it isn’t the fastest way to transport people from A to B yet, is a good solution for the future, given that it is designed in the right way?

Absolutely. I think it is about offering a certain comfort and about giving people back their time. Creating the opportunity for people to have small talk, if they feel the need to. While driving your own car for example, you can’t even look people in the eye. Isn’t it weird that we value face to face communication more and more and that we want to understand each other, but we then design something in which we’re not able to look each other in the eye without the risk of causing an accident?

We have to focus more on human connectivity. If that is accomplished, I am truly convinced that it doesn’t matter if a trip from A to B takes 40 or 60 minutes. We think we are in a rush because we feel our time is spent useless, but if this time felt well utilized you wouldn’t think you’d be in a rush. The feeling of wasting time is exactly why I sold my car. Therefore, it should be designed as a place to work, to share and to discover. The fact that it also drives people around from A to B is then only a bonus.