Meet Daan Roosegaarde, the man who vacuum cleans the sky

Laura Traldi

Engineer, artist, designer, entrepreneur. It is not easy to define the Dutch inventor Daan Roosegaarde. «Being undefinable is actually great», he says, «because real innovation is hybrid».

When Daan Roosegaarde answers the phone with a lively “Good morning” even if it is 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the first thing that springs to mind is that despite being scientific and all he may have his head a bit in the clouds. Which fits in with what’s known of him. Because yes, Daan Roosegaarde does super-technological things — like cleaning the sky from pollution with giant vacuum towers, finding the rubbish that’s floating in space, illuminate the dams without using electricity. Yet the 38-year-old Dutchman calls himself an artist. A techno-poet. «But not a airyhead. I’m in Miami. I said Good Morning because here it is 9 am».

«I wanted to be an explorer, an engineer, an artist, a scientist…»

Daan Roosegaarde travels a lot: China, United States, Europe. He lectures on innovation at the University of Hong Kong, is at home in Davos (where he is a contributor for the World Economic Forum), and in Vancouver they wanted him for the 2017 TED. He realized, in short, one of his childhood dreams. «When they asked me what I wanted to do I answered: I want to travel. But I also want to be an explorer, an engineer, an artist, an entrepreneur, a scientist».

Catching space waste in the night sky

A “I want it all” attitude that — given the persistence — alarmed his parents. «They sent me to do aptitude tests to help me choose a direction in life. From which it turned out that what I wanted to do did not exist. Then I thought: well, I can invent it».

It is difficult to pigeon-hole him, and consequently also what he does.

But there is a way to understand better what Daan Roosegaarde does and it implies you going to the Kunstlinie Almere Flevoland cultural center (in the Netherlands, on the other side of the Ijselmeer compared to Amsterdam) where, at night, green rays allow you to observe the space wastes that wander between 200 and 20 thousand km above our heads.

Between parts of rockets and debris of satellites larger than 10 cm, we are talking about over 29 thousand objects that Roosegaarde has made visible. He has also started a multi-year research program with students: his purpose is to catch them all and recycled them.

Scientific and poetic statements in the sky

If you happen to drive after sunset on the Afsluitdijk, the big dam built in the ’30s between the Noord Holland and the Friesland region, you would see the supporting structures that light up when cars go by, and switch off immediately afterwards. And long strips of light swaying in the wind like Lucio Fontana’s cuts in the sky (they are kites that, like windmill blades but with much more poetry, produce electricity). And if you have time to stop in the bunker halfway down the journey on the dike, you might feel the thrill of being in a room with walls and floors covered with algae that emit light.

The smog absorbing tower

How to define all this? Is it design, art, science?

And how would you call the bicycles that absorb smog around the cyclists’ face (Roosengaarde is making them in China) or the cycle path of pebbles that light up like stars using solar energy (it connects Nuenen, where Van Gogh lived, and Eindhoven)? Are they artistic installations, scientific demonstrations, urban approaches, ecological experiments?

Behind the “magic”, there are easy physical principles

«Naming what you do is not necessary: ​​hybrid is cool», says Daan. «What I do seems mysterious, magical and high tech. But the basic principle that the idea comes from is always very simple».

The smog-eating tower, for example, already active in parks in Beijing, Tianjin and Dalian in China, in Rotterdam and shortly in Krakow «works according to the principle of electrostatic energy that everyone, as children, observed on the balloons. The friction we exert by rubbing a material on an insulator displaces the electrons on one side (positively charged) to the other (negatively charged). Likewise, the Smog Free Tower emits positive ions in the air, to which smog micro-particles are attacked and then sucked into the negative ions produced by the tower itself».

It seems easy when he explains it that way.

Yet to build the tower Daan has invested 1.2 million euros (collected convincing the Chinese and Dutch government, as well as an unknown number of supporters on Kickstarter) and has worked on the project for four years with a team of 12 people, patenting the system and validating it with the Technische Universitat Eindhoven (the result: the Smog Free Tower collects 70% of the PM10 fine particles and 50% of the ultra-thin PM 2.5 particles).

Even when he talks about the project for the Afsluitdijk dam (commissioned by the Dutch government to regenerate the structure designed in 1932 by the grandfather of another illustrious Dutchman, architect Rem Koolhaas), Daan relies on a childhood memory.

Smog absorbing bikes

The magic here consists in the fact that the road lights up when cars pass without consuming energy or creating light pollution.

«Do you remember the stars sticked on the wall of your little room and lighting up at night? Here, it works like that»(in reality the reflecting material used on the dam was developed by Studio Roosegaarde after months of research on butterfly wings).

«Connecting something new to a shared memory is essential in order to be understood», Daan continues. «To convince investors and institutions before starting the project. And when it is finished, quoting shared memories helps to make the general public understand that the world is full of interesting phenomena that can enrich our daily life with surprises».

Fly to create the thrill, but ensure the happy ending

It is what American designer Raymond Loewy, inventor of the ’50s streamline design style, called the Maya principle: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. «Which means that to produce innovation you have to look far away, pushing to the edge of the cliff but you also need to keep those who listen to you with their feet well anchored to the ground. Fly to create the thrill, but reassure the happy ending of the event. When I tell my projects the first reaction is always a “not possible”. Then, when I explain how they work, we move on to “why did not we think about it before”?».

Remaining faithful to dreams

The principles of physics have always fascinated Daan, who grew up with a father who was a science teacher. «I used to ask him: “why is it so, how does it works? And if instead we did this, what would happen?». As all children do. But few are transformed into hybrid inventors like him. What is his secret? «To remain faithful to dreams. Observe the world with curious amazement. In the belief that everything is possible. And, above all, do not become fossilised in the traditional division of knowledge».

We all need “schoonheid”

Daan Roosegaarde was definitely never caught up in the “labels” trap. He was misunderstood at art school (“I was rejected twice”) and then as an architecture student he spent all his time with engineers and scientists.

The Afsluitdijk, with Daan Roosegaarde installation

«In Dutch we have a word, schoonheid, which indicates concepts. that in other cultures are considered separate: beauty and cleanliness. When designing cities, products or a landscape, schoonheid should be the guideline. To create things that are wonderful to look at and use but at the same time improve the world we live in».

And where is the “digital” bit?

It’s strange, but although Daan produces the most instagrammable installations in the world, and uses the technology to do so, during our conversation he never utters the word “digital”.
«We put too much emphasis on what happens online: too many ideas, money, interests. As if reality was not interesting enough to be worthy of innovation and evolution. And I do not like the direction the big digital and internet movements are taking where we live to create ever smarter algorithms and robots that then determine. how much insurance policies will cost us, what we should buy, how we should think. If we do not learn how to manage digital technologies, we will end up in a world full of watertight labels and compartments. The exact opposite of diversity that serves to change the world for the better».

Originally published at on February 10, 2019.

Laura Traldi

Written by

Journalist. Founder of | Independent views on smart projects, people, and ideas | A blog that sometimes makes people talk | ITA & ENG

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