“We don’t need more designers. We need reformers!”

The behaviour of materials
The future is similar to evolution, and materials are starting to show more and more of that behaviour. We are part of an exciting development: materials are starting to have more of a mind of their own, and technology is intricately fused into this idea. This is done by linking biology and technology with electronic technology such as smart materials. I follow biomimicry closely.

An example is the CRYSTAL project, in which small stones light up through a wireless connection to the ground. Each stone is a salt crystal with a perfect geometric shape, which we dipped in resin so that it becomes water-resistant. The only thing needed is a small wire and a LED. There are thousands of them: the things have grown, so that we can now ‘write’ with them though that was not the original design. This is not just copying but applying a principle which you have taken over.

I see myself as a hacker. I infiltrate in a system and then I give it a twist to make the whole better. I infiltrated the world of Heijmans (a top Dutch engineering & construction firm), as well as the fashion world, the creative top. First in order to analyze and understand, and then to produce an interference, an intervention. It is very hybrid. I am driven by ideology: if I was interested only in commercial applications our studio would have made very different products. It starts with an emotion, like a kind of taste in your mouth – you don’t yet have the right ingredients – and then, whether you’re in the fashion or the automotive industry: you try to change it.

One of my great examples is Richard Buckminster Fuller. High-tech materials were an unexplored area when Buckminster Fuller, working with NASA, made use of them. But he managed to combine them with a social factor, and I feel an affiliation: modern technology that uses and generates a social factor. With the project for Heijmans’ intelligent highways the task was clear: not the car but the highway itself should be changed. Designers are virtually absent in highway development. What actually happens? Many other research institutes are engaged. It is a project for the next three years: a haven for designers. There is research – but this is often hidden in a scientist’s drawer. We use that information, and then we make artist’s impressions: showing paint reacting to temperature changes by changing colour, we focus on images of snowflakes to form frost.

Look at the way highways currently look. Isn’t it strange that there are “slippery road” signs even in the summer? In this project the road itself becomes an interface, so it signposts itself: “I’m hot”, “I’m new”, “I’m smooth”, “I’m dangerous”, replacing all those signs.

Making the road more interactive doesn’t only benefit the user; another result is improved durability. Do we need all that hardware to communicate? So the first question of course was how much would it cost? We didn’t know as we aren’t road builders. But now I know what a variable message sign costs, and we really can invent something smarter to compensate for all those signs together. We are now developing about twenty ideas together with DSM and Akzo Nobel.

Soft and hard capital
So what is the added value? I call this ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ capital. Hard capital is what you pay, while an example of soft capital is the amount of attention that has been given by Heymans in making the highway more sustainable and longer-lasting. They truly embrace the ideal: it is also a way to show their skill – but it has to be linked to a new vision. This is not a simple process, but if the company itself indicates that it wants to get smarter both internally and externally, we went with a little luck – and a lot of perseverance – and were still able to innovate by design.

I would also like and need another word for design, as the present meaning is too decorative. We do not need more designers. We need reformers!

Everything is already there. All we have to do is rearrange. I’m a hippie with a business plan and I want to give a twist to the world as I know it. I look at it, I feel a kind of potential, and I reassemble. Take the colour-changing paint. It’s old and in no way high-tech. However, it has never been applied to roads. The material is the medium and the message, and our role as reformers is to create momentum and especially the desire to step out of our comfort zone. So this project is not done with an established designer furniture, but with a very sober and staid road builder.

Actually the conclusion is that we have to hack. Still, that can only be done if the intent is present within the company, or at least a clear desire for change. Heijmans has handled this well.

In China I learned to think like a network: I am a network, I’m a meatball in a large soup bowl, certainly a spicy meatball but still part of a larger whole: I am a maker of relationships. For example is interactive reality. The stuff is practically jumping off our television screens: all that work is a kind of prologue to a system that will be proactive, that can be linked to the problem of big corporations. Many large companies have the ‘help attitude’, saying “I don’t understand the world anymore – I grew up with fax machines and now everything is happening so fast, how can I adjust?”

Studio Roosegaarde has created light artworks that we are pleased with and that are becoming classics but the mental MAP project I have been working on for eight or nine months is new. My role in that process at Heijmans allows everything to come together: art, poetry, dreams, wonder… I have always linked our work to the urban landscape, and have always wanted to make a landscape.

There are still many challenges. In eight years’ time, for example, I would love to walk through supermarkets with a chip that knows what I have bought and how I feel and that will speak to me: “hello, you are allergic to this product”, or “you need some vitamin B”. Linking materialization with use and ultimately behaviour – it’s all about behaviour. A carton of milk can know whether it is good or bad for you at that moment.

I am very interested in food. It’s super-artificial now. The task is to become more human, not just to follow commercial interests. Design and technology can give us a proper autonomy, allowing us to choose our own food.

Imagine what that would mean for healthcare, overcrowded hospitals, spiralling costs and high premiums. Everyone currently has a “yes, but” attitude and nobody knows how it should be: and that is the role of the designer. To generate new ideas and proposals.

I see two paths for sustainability:

1. Making things that are self-sufficient. If I can replace all those lampposts with luminous paint, I can save a tremendous amount of material and energy.

2. Making things yourself. The world reacts to you. Life is not the sum of static elements; you can configure it, you can interact with it, create an interactive generation. That is sustainability, at an almost energetic level.

I have not designed it but I have reformed it. And my best work so far is the reformed homepage Heijmans.