Design Something That Makes Sense

Dave Hakkens as featured in the book 3 Billion Under 30 — This is his story. Read it. Share it.

“Dave Hakkens is a designer from the Netherlands and lives and works in a city called Helmond. His goal is simple: “try to make the world better by making things.” Whether it’s inspirational videos, machines to recycle plastic, or a modular phone concept, his work is seen by hundreds of thousands of people and pushes the world in a better direction. Visit to see his latest projects.

I studied at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, where we learned that design is used to make beautiful products, like a nice chair perhaps, with interesting materials in pleasing shapes and forms. I loved learned to do this and thought this is what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Over time, I started learning about global issues through documentaries and realized that the Earth is bleeding. Our environment is suffering, and the threats these changes pose are exponential. As a designer, it made sense to begin working on these problems instead, since many of them require a lot of resources and manpower to solve and I want to do my part.

Today, I’m interested in quite big issues, ones that affect the world, like the waste of plastic, how our food gets made, or environmental hazards caused by the fashion industry. Every problem has a reason, and usually, it is one created by humans. The systems we developed or things we did back in the day made sense at that time, but many of them are outdated. The biggest challenge, however, is helping others understand that we need to change these things. We don’t necessarily see many of our activities or processes as problems, and that makes it difficult to get started. “Why change what is normal?” we ask ourselves.

We need to go a few layers deeper before we fully understand a problem. Traveling the world is crucial to solving global challenges because things may not make sense until you see what happens away from your home and empathize with it.

In school, I thought of a lot of solutions to problems I worked on, but they didn’t make sense on a global scale. Take trash, for instance. After visiting many different countries, I learned about each area’s unique ways of doing the same thing. A lot of our electronic waste ends up in Ghana, and the people there have created ways to process it and earn a living doing so. They look at this waste with an entirely different perspective than we do. What can we learn from them? How might we apply their approach to waste management in our country? How might we apply it to other nations and cultures?

In India, they throw trash on the street, and that is quite normal. You could build a huge recycling plant or set up plastic infrastructure, but as long as they don’t change their habits of throwing trash on the street, a plant or recycling system won’t help anyone or do anything. But if they could make money by changing their habit, if all of a sudden that waste looked like dollar signs to them, the way it does in Ghana, the people of India would probably start managing their trash differently.

Usually, as I dive into these problems, I realize they are massive. They involve some of the biggest industries in the world and impact lots of people. I question my ability to create real change because, after all, I am just one person.

With the internet today, however, I can use my ideas to power change on a grand scale. I experienced this firsthand with a project called Phonebloks. I made a video (spending maybe two hundred euros total) to show how electronics can create less waste through conscious design. The ensuing press, community support, and interest from hundreds of corporations and individuals were astounding. Almost one million people around the world began building upon my open-sourced idea of developing modular electronics to reduce e-waste, starting with our phones.

Phonebloks was my graduation project, but it inspired me for the rest of my life. Seeing the actual impact that one person can have keeps me motivated when I start other projects that seem way too complex. I know firsthand that, if things are done correctly and efficiently, one person can do quite a lot.

Now, that is not to say that there aren’t limitations that come with a one-man operation. There are a lot of them. What I’ve learned, though, is that you have to determine the most workable solution within the boundaries of what you can do right now.

When developing Precious Plastic, a new project of mine designed to provide communities with machines that recycle plastic waste locally, maybe twenty different kinds of solutions came to my mind initially. Many weren’t realistic for me to execute on or would be impossible to achieve with the amount of resources available to others.

Precious Plastic took the approach of developing each machine one time and then sharing the designs and instructions with others who can build their machines with relative ease to start local recycling businesses. Would I have loved to provide the machines to people for free, or to mass produce and sell them at a reasonable cost? Of course, but that’s just not in the scope of what I’m able to do currently with my resources.

Global change is possible, but you have to get out there. Visit other places and cultures to learn new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. Question whether “the way things are” is the way they have to be. Recognize your limitations and figure out how to work with them. Determine what you can do — right now — at a local level and get started. If you stay realistic about what you can do to solve a global problem, you will find workable opportunities to create a huge impact.

This framework is so motivating because what we strive to accomplish becomes attainable. If enough of us take this approach, then we can change entire industries and practice sustainability — one person at a time.”

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