Clean Landscapes, Techno-Poetry and Storytelling for Cities

This month we talk to Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch artist and innovator at the forefront of sustainable, interactive and intuitive design. With projects ranging from architecture and transport to fashion, he creates smart and social designs that instinctively interact with sound and movement.

Daan Roosegaarde. Photo by Thomas Dral / TEDxRotterdam.

His project Smart Highway creates interactive and sustainable roads that use interactive glow-in-the-dark and turbine-powered highway lamps that generate sustainable electricity. Other projects include the Sustainable Dance Floor, an interactive dance floor that generates electricity through the act of dancing, Dune, an interactive landscape made of fibers of light that illuminate a walkway in public pedestrian Maastunnel, and Sensor Valley, Europe’s largest interactive sensor artwork of pillars that breathe light and sound in response to people.

We speak to Daan about high-tech city landscapes, his role as Ambassador in Dutch Design Week and his upcoming project in Shanghai, China:

How would you describe what you do in 2 sentences?

It’s about merging world innovation and imagination, about technologies and a new-dreams poetry agenda that is at the same time a pragmatic agenda. My ‘Smart Highway’ project was about creating an up-to-date reality.

LIQUID SPACE – an interactive creature that becomes physically bigger, smaller and brighter in relation to human behaviour.

How has your design work evolved over the years, and in which direction do you aim to go in the future?

I’ve always used public space – my project Dune was set up in pedestrian tunnels and we’ve done other projects in open spaces. Art and design are important in public spaces as increasingly, large corporations have a mission to be involved in the design of new landscapes. These corporations are the new landscapers, it’s all about scale and impact enhancing, and I think it’s a good thing – it’s great to team up with road developers and city administrators, and I think we will be doing more of this in the future.

DUNE 4.1 Maastunnel – an interactive landscape of light which brightens according to the sounds and motion of people.

A lot of your projects are focused upon dynamic relationships between people and technology- why is this so important for you?

Our relationships with our bodies determine how we are and how we feel. The world has moved away from being static and flat, so we need to make the environments we live in more visual and tactile to create new types of dialogue. It is time we told stories again- in prehistoric times people would tell tales around campfires in caves, so why can’t we do the same today? We also need to ask ‘what would this look like?’ today. Environments should be more human again… but it’s not about being retro – it’s about what’s next. I think environments need a social agenda but they also need to believe in technology.

LOTUS – an interactive artwork of smart foils that fold open in response to human behaviour.

How do you think that these creations can benefit cities and citizens?

The city is the new stage for thinking. Cities will be innovations – they create lapsed settings that make creativity possible and allow us to be excited about landscapes again. At the Studio, when we work with road manufacturers, we are taking non-usual suspects who are not from giant corporations, and connecting them with wider scale innovation. This is a great way to make a statement on a public scale and fulfill our goal of working with companies outside of their comfort zones.

Your projects Dune, Intimacy and Smart Highway are all tactile high-tech environments in which viewers and space become one. You have described this as ‘techno-poetry’- what does this mean exactly?

Techno-poetry is about imagination, innovation and seeing that emotions are connected to the digital world.

SMART HIGHWAY – sustainable roads of the future where glow-in-the-dark paint indicates when roads are icy.

Can you tell us about your ideas for the Smart Highway? How the idea came into being and where the project is now?

Several years back, I worked on creating a sustainable dance floor where the movement of dancers generates the electricity for a nightclub. Then one day I was sitting in a car and I thought, “Why aren’t we thinking about roads?” It struck me that roads were disconnected from design thinking, and that we needed to connect these elements to make a new program for sustainability. The first Smart Highway road will be launched in Holland by Christmas and we will be building the next highway next year  – it’s all going very fast and a few of the details are secret.

Are there any recent urban innovations that have caught your eye?

In general, there is a tendency towards the super-local, as the government is pulling away… people are using technology to liberate themselves. In terms of energy and food, there is a rise in people cultivating food on their own rooftops, in Shanghai for instance. This is of course after the recent crisis in China where people no longer trust manufacturers with food. With new innovations, we need to look at people, technology and markets. We need to find the ‘merge’ button and combine these three things.

MARBLES – interactive glowing landscape art in Almere City, NL.

Tell us more about Dutch Design Week and your role as Ambassador.

Dutch Design Week has an innovative name, but a lot of emphasis is still placed upon chairs, lamps and tables, and this is outdated in my opinion. We should focus upon landscapes and not objects, on process and not products. As Ambassador for Dutch Design Week, I put forward relatively unknown people for awards, such as the women behind the concept, “Plant-e technology”, that enables us to produce electricity from living plants. These people may not know much about branding or marketing but they are really important for creating energy-neutral cities. So as Ambassador, I tried to push young bright people that might otherwise be excluded from Design Week as “designers”.

Do you think there is a typically “Dutch” approach to tackling design challenges, and if so does this affect Dutch cities?

It’s an interesting case in the Netherlands where the Dutch are living under the sea level. The whole landscape is tech-based because of this. Without the dykes, we would drown, so I think we’ve always had a weird relationship with technology. Our practical thinking evolved from challenges of nature, and this probably carries over into cities.

CRYSTAL – a thousand and one light rocks which interact with people.

You have an office in Shanghai. How does working in China influence your approach?

I’ve learned a lot from spending time there… China thinks like a network – the idea that we work together and find a future – and I apply this idea in my European projects. “You can’t change China, China changes you” is a book by John van der Water by Next Architects, which talks about this idea.

Tell us about your current or new projects.

Waterschap, a government organization that controls all the water in the Netherlands, recently commissioned us to work on a water management project with them. In the Netherlands, everyone take the dykes for granted but they are a continuous project. The question is, can we make landscape art that influences machines and this technology? We are also involved in a project to deal with pollution problems in Beijing. Smog in Beijing is so extreme that the US Embassy is getting involved as it has an extremely negative impact on the health of human beings. In response, we have developed weak magnetic fields that attract smog and create a huge field of clean air, so you can see the sun again. This ‘clean landscape’ is in its pilot prototype phase and could be used in playgrounds or other city spaces. I am flying to Beijing later this week to meet the Mayor and discuss the project in further detail.

Find out more about Daan’s projects at

Dutch Design Week runs from October 19 – 27 in Eindhoven