Daan Roosegaarde: A Dutch artist’s mission to clear smog from Chinese cities
Photos: in courtesy of the Roosegaarde Studio 
Daan Roosegaarde embarked on his China-centered Smog Free Project in 2013 when he first proposed the idea of an outdoor air-purifying cleaner to remove smog from the skies. After several years, the Dutch artist is now gratified because “things are becoming really concrete.” Not only his “huge vacuum cleaner” idea has evolved into a smog-free tower that ‘travelled’ to Beijing, Tianjin and Dalian, the Roosegaarde studio has recently unveiled its even more ambitious plan—portable air-purification through specially-equipped bicycles, he said in an interview with the Sino-US.com.

Roosegaarde has recently announced his design studio’s cooperation with OFO, one of the top bike-sharing companies. “We (and OFO) decided to work together at the Dalian World Economic Forum, and we’ll have the prototype (of smog free bicycle) finished at the end of this year,” said Roosegaarde. The architect-turned-artist has signed a three-year contract with Tongji University in Shanghai to be a professor, while also working on the design.

As the Guardian reported, an equipment installed on the handlebars of the bikes would “suck in polluted air, using positive ionization to purify it, before releasing it back into the atmosphere.” Roosegaarde told Sino-US.com the plan is to put one or two million of such bicycles into use next year. “We have to do it step by step, and our first task is to make the first prototype and prove it works,” he said, admitting unlike his smog free tower which is now a mature product, the bike is currently at the concept stage.

Despite the uncertainty, Roosegaarde confirmed the bike is to adopt the same technology used in his smog free tower, “Basically, what we’re doing is to make a smaller version for the bicycle.” The Roosegaarde Studio has gained a lot of experience with the positive ionization technology that makes their smog-free tower work.

“It is something like static electricity. When you have a plastic balloon and you polish it with your hands, it becomes static electrified. We’re using the principle to remove smog because most filter systems are quite expensive, energy-consuming and have difficulty in capturing smaller particles like PM 2.5. Meanwhile, unlike the older systems of ionization, the positive ionization would not create ozone,” he elaborated.

Roosegaarde said although in their exclusive collaboration with OFO, the technology is patented; in the end, they may open the source. “These young companies are not only interested in making money but also giving something good to people to fulfill their social responsibilities,” he said. During the past year, companies like OFO are changing the landscape of major Chinese cities. The Dutch artist still remembers several years ago, when he started to cycle, his Chinese friends would joke he may be too poor to own a car. Now, that’s completely changed.

“The new generation (of Chinese) values not just money but good lifestyle. China’s bike-sharing programs are very important in improving the quality of life with clean air, while companies like OFO realize they have to invest in new ideas to be the best,” said Roosegaarde. The aspiring entrepreneur is adamant that he wants to be part of the initiative. In his view, the Smog Free Project is all about how designers could use new technologies and designs to improve city life.

The Roosegaarde studio has gained popularity for finishing a series of landscape designs in Europe which are good for people and the environment. Daan Roosegaarde, the founder of the design firm based in Rotterdam believes that “true beauty is not LV bag, Rolex watch or Ferrari, but clean air and energy.” He believes there is no lack of money or technology in the world; instead, there is a lack of imagination. And the world should trigger new ideas and make them happen.

Roosegaarde knows that pollution is a sensitive topic in China. “A lot of Chinese people are a little bit ashamed of the pollution. They have lived in pollution for quite a long time, so it has become quite a serious topic,” he said, referring to the suspicions he encountered during the process of pushing his Smog Free Project in the country.

“I don’t care about opinions anymore, I care about proposals,” he said, referring to the famous quote of Canadian author Marshall McLuhan—“On spacecraft earth, there are no passengers, we’re all crew.” He had thought the community feeling, or collective feeling is what China needs to progress, although recently the European innovator admitted he’s motivated by some new developments.

Roosegaarde mentioned Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s participation in the Dalian World Economic Forum several weeks ago. “I have the feeling that they (Chinese government) are really investing in the new world, the clean energy, things like solar panels. Sustainability is not something like a luxury. America is going back in time by letting it go, while China has now taken the leadership in these discussions.”

He believes China has become a platform for innovation, meaning that if new solutions and designs were made possible in the country, the whole world will come to learn and then apply it to their own countries. Actually, since the smog free tower’s success in China, now Roosegaarde’s studio has also signed contracts with India, Mexico, and Colombia—all countries with environmental concerns.

Now, the Roosegaarde studio has gained validation and support from both local governments in Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian and Tianjin and Chinese central government’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. On the one hand, he’s clear that he must work with the governments to make sure the projects get the maximum impact; on the other hand, he knows he would not wait for “top down” policies.

“I know the real solution (to air pollution) is clean energy, electrical cars and green technology, but it takes 10 or even 15 years for governments to address the problem,” Roosegaarde said. He depicted his approach as something “bottom-up,” that is to meet “top down” government moves in the middle. “I would cooperate with them to speed up the process and this will create quite an impact,” he said. The smog free tower designed by his team is the first fruit harvested by the concerted efforts. Now working with China’s central government, the Roosegaarde studio will be installing more of the towers around the country.

Just recently, the 23-foot wind-powered structure functioning as a giant air purifier has been validated by the prestigious Eindhoven University of Technology to be able to remove up to 70 percent of the of the ingested PM10 and up to 50 percent of the ingested PM2.5. In an open field in calm weather, the tower is able to clear smog in more than 20 meters of area around it. 

“Now, we have scientific proof that the tower, being an effective local solution, can help make parks 20-70 percent cleaner than the rest of the city. On the city scale, our goal in the current phase is to reduce 5-15 percent of pollution with the towers,” Roosegaarde told Sino-US.com. His studio has a Chinese partner in Tianjin, whose factory is now producing more of the towers in China, with the Roosegaarde team in charge of quality check.

Daan Roosegaarde is confident of his team’s future in China, “I think the smog free bicycle really proves we’re here to stay. And Chinese people are now even more open to our air-purifying towers.”

He did his first exhibition in Beijing six years ago, with one of his studio’s artworks called Dune, the interactive landscape of thousands of LED light fibers which interact with the sounds and motion of people walking by. “We exhibited it before in Europe. When I was exhibiting it in China, people got engaged and attracted to it. I love how the Chinese people react to my work. They were really curious about how the future innovation might change their way of living,” the innovator said. 


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