Skip to main content
Move the World.
Project Windvogel uses kites to generate clean energy.

Neon green cables dance and curve in the Dutch night, pulled about by distant kites flying in the breeze. As they tug at their cables, the devices — dubbed Windvogel — are generating clean electricity. The goal is a power source as poetic as environmental consciousness.

Daan Roosegaarde's entire practice is centered around the beauty of living with nature and removing pollution from urban life. The Dutch designer and architect combines the influences of the natural world around him with modern design in an effort to not only enrich but engage.

From towers that create pockets of clean air to a luminescent bike path that glows like children's ceiling stars and windmills drawing lines of light across the sky, Roosegaarde's works aim to merge nature and design into something sublime.

Daan Roosegaarde's vision for a sustainable urban future becomes more pressing with every passing day, with each rise in temperature and sea level. Freethink spoke with Roosegaarde about pollution, the secret to getting government buy-in, and the Dutch concept of Schoonheid.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daan Roosegaarde is a Dutch architect on a mission to create a more sustainable and beautiful world through innovative, sustainable design. Photo by Rebecca Mell, courtesy of STUDIO ROOSEGAARDE.

Daan Roosegaarde is a Dutch architect on a mission to create a more sustainable and beautiful world through innovative, sustainable design. Photo by Rebecca Mell, courtesy of STUDIO ROOSEGAARDE.

Freethink: What does Schoonheid mean, and how does it drive your design philosophy?

Daan Roosegaarde: Schoonheid is a typical Dutch word which has two meanings: "cleanliness" as in clean air, clean water, clean energy, and clean space but it also means "beautiful" as in sublime aesthetics and creativity.

For us, Schoonheid shines light on both dimensions and calls for its recognition as a fundamental condition in urban environments. We are all makers, not consumers. We should be part of the solution, instead of the problem.

Schoonheid is a typical Dutch word which has two meanings: “cleanliness” as in clean air, clean water, clean energy, and clean space but it also means “beautiful” as in sublime aesthetics and creativity.

The 7-meter tall Smog Free Tower in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.  This giant outdoor air purifier filters fine particles from the smog to create a pocket of clean air in public spaces. Photo Courtesy of STUDIO ROOSEGAARDE.

The 7-meter tall Smog Free Tower in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This giant outdoor air purifier filters fine particles from the smog to create a pocket of clean air in public spaces. Photo Courtesy of STUDIO ROOSEGAARDE.

Freethink: What project of yours has had the biggest impact on the environment and how so?

Daan Roosegaarde: There is this book called Drawdown (edited) by Paul Hawken, where you can find around 150 inventions to reverse climate change. Everything is there in the book, but we are not implementing it — why? 

At the Studio we make projects that show that something could be done right now, showing the beauty of a new world. The key is about making new connections and making them contemporary again. Often, sustainability has been defined as doing less — fewer cars, less flying. I prefer to do more, not less.

All our projects are possible prototypes for the cities of tomorrow. Whether it is our Smog Free Project (a campaign against air pollution); Gates of Light (reusing energy that is all around us); or Space Waste Lab — a multiyear living lab with the European Space Agency to capture space waste and upcycle it into sustainable products. 

This is what creates an impact: they are here today for you to see.

At Studio Roosegaarde we make projects that show that something could be done right now, showing the beauty of a new world. All of our projects are possible prototypes for the cities of tomorrow.

The Van Gogh Path located in Nuenen,  the Netherlands. The path is charged by sunlight during the day and glows at night. Photo Courtesy of STUDIO ROOSEGAARDE.

The Van Gogh Path located in Nuenen, the Netherlands. The path is charged by sunlight during the day and glows at night. Photo Courtesy of STUDIO ROOSEGAARDE.

Freethink: The Van Gogh Path is part of Smart Highway, which looks to create interactive and sustainable roads. How does this work? What are the particular challenges of working with such a crucial aspect of infrastructure?

Daan Roosegaarde: Do you remember the little stars that stuck on the wall lighting up at night when you were a kid? Van Gogh Path works like that: a light-emitting bicycle path which charges at daytime and glows at night, inspired by Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night

The path makes use of these light-emitting techniques which are part of Smart Highway, interactive and sustainable roads of tomorrow, in collaboration with Heijmans Infrastructure. Its goal is to make smart roads by using light, energy, and information that interact with the traffic situation.

An interplay of light and poetry, where cultural heritage and innovation merge in a new public landscape. Connecting something new to shared memory is essential in order to be understood, to convince investors and institutions before starting the project.

I think we live in a world where there is not a lack of technology but of imagination. And if we can't imagine the future, we won't get there.

Project Windvogel uses kites to generate clean energy.

Project Windvogel uses kites to generate clean energy. These kites move around while connected with a cable to a ground station; the push and pull of the cable creates electricity. Photo Courtesy of STUDIO ROOSEGAARDE.

Freethink: What's the biggest challenge of balancing your environmental ambitions with aesthetics?

Daan Roosegaarde: I make these projects to make the world more understandable for myself. I look outside the window, and I don't understand the world anymore. I see air pollution, CO2 problems, a rising sea level, traffic jams, streetlights burning the whole night with nobody there. All these don't make sense to me. 

With problems like this, you have two options: you can sit in a room crying, blaming others, or you can try to design and engineer your way out of it — try to at least improve, if not to solve the issue. The projects we do are a way for me to understand what is happening in the world and to better connect with what is around me.

Freethink: To make these ideas a reality, you have to work with the municipalities. What's the hardest part about getting the local governments on board with experimenting in new designs? How have you been successful in this endeavor?

Daan Roosegaarde: The most important aspect is that you take your clients, governments, ministers, and pull them into the story, make them part of it. Don't only speak about the project, show them that it is working — make it visual, build prototypes.

Although the idea for the Smog Free Tower started in Beijing, the project was developed in Rotterdam, where we first constructed the prototype. We needed it to convince China's central government, so we used Rotterdam as a pilot, to test, to learn, to make mistakes, and to upgrade. 

Collaboration with governments is necessary to realize long-term clean air improvements by implementing green energy solutions. However, the problem of air pollution is urgent and calls for immediate action. Schoonheid contributes to action by accelerating the process, by taking a bottom-up approach — sparking conversations and endorsing new ideas to be tested.

These projects are prototypes for the city of tomorrow: they are proposals for how I would like to see the world. Not as a utopia, but as a protopia: to show, to learn, to fail, and to upgrade the world around us.

Freethink: What do you foresee as the future of city design?

Daan Roosegaarde: I think we live in a world where there is not a lack of technology but of imagination. (Imagine) how we want the future to look like. And if we can't imagine the future, we won't get there. That is why we are stuck right now, because we are afraid of the unknown. That is why projects such as Waterlicht or Smog Free Project are there, to visualize and activate people about our changing world and become part of the solution.

These projects are prototypes for the city of tomorrow: they are proposals for how I would like to see the world. Not as a utopia, but as a protopia (term by Kevin Kelly, referring to a future with as many new problems as benefits, a more realistic vision to strive for): to show, to learn, to fail, and to upgrade the world around us.

Subscribe

Up Next

Fashion
Digital IDs Add Transparency to Fashion
digital ids for clothing
Fashion
Digital IDs Add Transparency to Fashion
With RFID tags, clothing’s new “digital identity” could be the key to circularity in fashion.

With RFID tags, clothing’s new “digital identity” could be the key to circularity in fashion.

Catalysts
This Woman is On a Mission to Turn Beer into Food
This Woman is On a Mission to Turn Beer into Food
Catalysts
This Woman is On a Mission to Turn Beer into Food
Jacquie Berglund is using the profits from her beer company to buy organic produce from local farmers and distribute the produce to food banks in the area.

Jacquie Berglund considers herself more of a wine drinker than a beer drinker, yet she is building an empire around the beer brand, Finnegans. When Berglund purchased the brand for only a dollar, she knew that if Finnegans were to make an impact, the beer needed to be in every pub in Minnesota. Now you can find Finnegans in four Midwest states. But Finnegans is more than a beer company. From combating food insecurity to...

Future of Food
These Pioneers are Building the Sustainable Food Systems of Tomorrow
These Pioneers are Building the Sustainable Food Systems of Tomorrow
Future of Food
These Pioneers are Building the Sustainable Food Systems of Tomorrow
In a new Freethink original series, Michael O'Shea goes around the world to introduce us to the scientists who are working hard to ensure that we can feed our future world.

There are currently over 7 billion human beings alive on Earth --- and in 2050 the world's population will rise by almost 2 billion. That's a lot more mouths to feed considering that roughly 11 percent of the world goes hungry today. To prepare for this future, we'll need to scale up food production in a sustainable way --- without using more land and lowering emissions --- and figure out more efficient farming and...

Health
The Future of Healthcare Could Look a Lot Like the 1900s
The Future of Healthcare Could Look a Lot Like the 1900s
Health
The Future of Healthcare Could Look a Lot Like the 1900s
For many cancer patients, being treated at home is just as safe, more affordable, and more convenient than being...

For many cancer patients, being treated at home is just as safe, more affordable, and more convenient than being treated in a clinical setting.

Challengers
Five Insights: Linc Gasking On What Every Startup Should Be Shooting For
Five Insights: Linc Gasking On What Every Startup Should Be Shooting For
Challengers
Five Insights: Linc Gasking On What Every Startup Should Be Shooting For
Linc Gasking, co-founder of VR startup 8i, discusses the day-to-day grind and big picture excitement of being an...
By Mike Riggs

Linc Gasking, co-founder of VR startup 8i, discusses the day-to-day grind and big picture excitement of being an entrepreneur.

Challengers
Meet the Startup Creating Incredible Virtual Realities
Meet the Startup Creating Incredible Virtual Realities
Challengers
Meet the Startup Creating Incredible Virtual Realities
8i takes video and converts it into virtual realities that are nearly indistinguishable from real life.
By Mike Riggs

8i takes video and converts it into virtual realities that are nearly indistinguishable from real life.

Challengers
An American Entrepreneur on the Importance of Chinese Manufacturing
An American Entrepreneur on the Importance of Chinese Manufacturing
Challengers
An American Entrepreneur on the Importance of Chinese Manufacturing
Greg Shugar, founder of Tie Bar and Thread Experiment, discusses why his businesses wouldn’t have been possible...
By Mike Riggs

Greg Shugar, founder of Tie Bar and Thread Experiment, discusses why his businesses wouldn’t have been possible without Chinese factories.

Challengers
An App for Global Trade
An App for Global Trade
Watch Now
Challengers
An App for Global Trade
Flexport thinks bringing trade into the 21st century could improve lives around the globe.
Watch Now

Flexport believes that nothing helps people improve their lives more than the ability to trade with one another. And, yet international shipping is still way too cumbersome. So Flexport built an in app to make it easier. If Flexport succeeds, nearly everything you buy will cost less.