Daan Roosegaarde is an artist and innovator whose work explores the dynamic relation among architecture, people, and technology.
Daan Roosegaarde, an artist and an innovator, shares the importance of merging physical and digital realities into seamless, intuitive experiences.
Interview conducted by Vinod Baya
PwC: Daan, trends such as the Internet of Things are introducing more and more technology in our physical environment. What is it that you see happening?
DR: Technology, in a way, has always been around us. From day one we have created things, invented things to make the world around us more understandable. So the wheel is an extension of our legs, the glasses are an extension of our eyes, and so on. But now the technology has become so advanced that in a way it is getting a mind of its own. It creates its own language. And what I find interesting is that technology is not staying within the computer screen. Technology is jumping out of it and is becoming part of our body, of the walls and doors that surround us, and of the landscapes that you and I live in.
As an artist, designer, and innovator, I’ve always been fascinated with how does our future look, particularly in the coming three to five years. I think about some questions in all my projects: How can we create environments that are interactive, which engage people in an emotional and communicative way? How can we be more sustainable in energy and in the way we consume information?
PwC: You advocate merging the physical and digital in a new seamless reality. Why?
DR: I think the old system is crashing in terms of economy and in terms of ideas. A new system still must be developed, and it’s unclear today what it should be. From an artistic or a design point of view, I see the physical and digital merging to be useful to us. For example, on the roads in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the lighting is being shut down, because government cannot afford the money to power them anymore. This lack of lighting creates a lot of very dangerous situations, because people don’t see where they’re driving. We could develop a paint that charges up during the daytime and gives light at night. Use elements from nature and apply them. It merges the two realities and creates a sustainable solution.
PwC: What should enterprises be doing?
DR: Stop optimizing old ideas, and look at reality in a new way. Open up. This is a very old message, in a way. At my studio, we trigger the imagination of people. We merge experience with innovation, and imagination with a business plan.
We want to create a situation of co-control in which you make things, but this making also makes you again. This kind of relational network— and how to create that network—is about technology and sensors and the Internet of Things, but it’s also about design. How does it feel? What does it look like? What kind of feedback does it give? I think we’re only just beginning to realize the type of interactions we can have within that. Enterprises should think of new systems that relate to their products and services and that augment the experiences of their customers by merging the physical and digital realities. The value of creativity, of relooking at what you’re doing and reimagining how you want the future to look, automatically leads to new R&D, new products, and yes, new profits. But if you do not invest in that, you’re gone. Big companies are starting to realize that now.
Within this story there is soft and hard capital. The soft capital is the impact on the brand as people start to imagine or think differently about the products and company. The hard capital is, for example, that a road manufacturer must change from being an asphalt, hard concrete company to an information technology company.
PwC: Much of the technology used today is behind a keyboard or touch interface. How do you see those interfaces changing?
DR: There are two things. There’s message and there’s medium. The medium right now is so underdeveloped. I mean, yes, everybody’s impressed with the touch interface, but I still feel like we’re people in caves making a drawing, and everybody thinks we have Photoshop. Current interfaces are non-intuitive. They are very hard in a way. I think we can learn much more from the human body and from nature to make things that are more organic, intuitive, and seamless.
We are always interested in nature. For example, look at a piece such as Lotus, which has this material that folds open like a flower and then closes again when the light goes away. We’re applying this concept to greenhouses. The sun hits it, it folds open at daytime, and it closes at night so the greenhouses don’t create a massive amount of light pollution, which is a big problem in the Netherlands right now. So we learn from nature.
Second is message. What is the story you want to tell? Yes, I can make a sticker that I stick on my body, and it shows how much vitamin C I still need for that week. You can self-enable people again, in information and in food and in energy. That’s the driving force of everything we make, and that’s why we always team up with different companies to make that happen.
PwC: What interface solutions do you see on the horizon that appeal to you?
DR: You have a lot of people thinking about using mind control, so you think right and it [for example, the cursor] goes right. They’re tapping into the body somehow and asking: Who needs a keyboard? Who needs a display? This literally embedded interface technology is, I think, very appealing.
On the more social side, an example is when elderly people get an RFID tag, usually in hospitals. They often sit inside all day, as they cannot go out on their own. Sometimes they can go out when a nurse comes, but nurses don’t have time. The RFID tag knows who they are and what their condition is, and the doors can be programmed to automatically open or close, so they can walk around freely. I think these are incredibly fascinating ways of using new technologies to make us more human again. And there is a gigantic market for that.
PwC: In your sustainable dance floor project, the dancing on the floor creates all the power for the discotheque. Can you take us through what prompted its creation?
DR: Sure. We believe the future is about interaction and sustainability. So one question we continually seek to answer is how can we engage with a wide audience in a new, profound, and more intuitive way? In this case, it was literally me in a discotheque looking at all these people and just wondering, why can we not do something with that?
You have your bicycle that creates light, so why not use the power of the dancing to do the same? Make a floor tile that can move a couple of millimeters but produce electricity of 20 or 25 watts per module.
PwC: So you created a new reality that blends technology with the dance floor?
DR: Exactly. We upgraded reality. This is augmented reality in its purest form—not as a mobile app, but a seamless integration of the physical environment and technology. Technology is super important, but more important is the will to create new and seamless crossovers between physical and technological interfaces.
PwC: Is there a process that enterprises can understand or follow to create the new realities related to their products?
DR: That’s a very corporate question, I think. I mean, it starts with a taste in your mouth of which you do not know the ingredients yet. So you start to read, to write, to travel, to talk to other people, to make prototypes, and to figure out what the ingredients are to make that taste in your mouth possible. And you’re not sure if you’re making a pancake or a pizza or a quiche.
You need to be ready to invest in a process, to launch and to learn, to fail, to start again, to not copy-paste old ideas, but to copy-morph them and to learn from what you’ve done. Do it again, learn from it, and do it again and again. That’s what we always have done in the studio in a design way, but also in a technological development way and in a contextual way. So you’re asking for a key, but there’s no door.
PwC: What have you learned about spotting opportunities? How do you select the projects you work on?
DR: I look for missing links, and I look for disciplines where we can transform something. For example, why are billions spent on innovations in cars and almost nothing on roads? Nobody could give me an answer to that question. To spot opportunities, you go to the periphery where nobody has gone before, and then you hack it. You update it with the knowledge, ideas, vision, and techniques you have. But this periphery is everywhere, since the world is changing, right? Old rules don’t apply anymore.