Working out of Studio Roosegaarde in the Netherlands, a company
he founded almost five years ago, his works of art explore the relationship between space, people and technology.
“Technology plays a huge part in how we interact, communicate and experience reality,” explains Roosegaarde. “But what happens when technology jumps out of the computer screen and becomes a part of our environment, a part of our bodies? How can we use that to create the innovative and interactive landscapes of the future? I want to create that type of techno-poetry.”
The merging of poetry and technology is certainly evident in all his projects, which range from fashion to architecture. His most recent installation is a ‘living’ dome placed within Sainte Marie Madeleine Church in Lille, France, that explores this human interaction with technology. The Lotus Dome, with its aim of making the church interior come alive and seem more contemporary, is made out of hundreds of aluminium flowers that open in response to human behaviour. When approached, the dome lights up and opens its flowers. Then, as the person makes their way around the circumference, the light slowly follows them, creating an interactive play of light and shadow. “This really gives you an idea of how you can merge nature with technology and futurism with poetry,” says Roosegaarde.
But the project he is perhaps most well known for is the Sustainable Dance Floor, launched in 2008. This interactive dance floor, which was created for the Sustainable Dance Club in Rotterdam, generates electricity as people dance on top of it. With an energy-harvesting mechanism within the modular system, the electricity generated could power, for instance, the club’s lighting or DJ booth.
It was while this dance floor was travelling around the world that Roosegaarde found himself driving along a highway in the Netherlands late at night. He was looking at the road ahead and started to think that instead of always focusing on the car to innovate the driving experience, why not innovate the roads instead. “An incredible amount of time and money is spent on the design of cars but roads are out of the Middle Ages. Nobody really seems to care what they look like or how they behave,” says Roosegaarde.
He started to imagine what a ‘Smart Highway’ of the future could look like. “We did some research and copy morphing, not copy pasting, and applied the principle of the sustainable dance floor to roads and then came up with ways to make them more interactive and sustainable,” he comments.
The result was a range of concepts that use interactive lights, smart energy and road signs that adapt to specific traffic situations. These included:
• Induction Priority Lane – a lane for electric cars with charging loops beneath the road surface that would automatically charge a car as they drive over them
• Glow-in-the-Dark Road – road markings painted with photoluminescent paint
• Dynamic Paint – graphic elements painted on the road surface to communicate fluctuations in temperature
• Interactive Light – street lighting that senses the presence of vehicles and illuminates the road just for the period that they are passing
• Wind Light – thousands of flower-shaped micro wind turbines along the side of the road that harness the wind energy from passing cars
Roosegaarde often gives lectures at conferences and events about innovation and design. During one of these lectures he was talking about the Smart
Highways project and unknown to him the directors of the Dutch infrastructure management group, Heijmans, were sitting in the audience. “They called me afterwards with the question: ‘What’s the price?’,” laughs Roosegaarde.
The two have since teamed up and over a period of three years will work on designs for the smart ‘Route 66’ highway in the Netherlands. “Heijmans was already thinking that the infrastructure would need to change with more electric vehicles coming up. We really want to question the status quo and think of solutions that are more sustainable, which is really unconventional for a construction company,” says Kristel van Haaren, head of sales and business development at Heijmans.
“Heijmans is a very conservative company and what we do as designers is create a missing link – we link craftsmanship with vision,” adds Roosegaarde. “For them this project is about really rethinking their business model and what they are going to sell in 10 to 15 years time.”
The designers from Studio Roosegaarde and the technologists and engineers from Heijmans brainstormed ideas together. As well as thinking of ways to implement the Smart Highway concepts Roosegaarde had already conceived, they also looked at existing technologies in order to create innovative smart combinations or applications. This resulted in 20 ideas, six of which are currently being prototyped. “It’s a fascinating trajectory in which we learn to relook at reality, question it, dream about it and at the same time team up in order to design and realise it,” comments Roosegaarde.
One of the concepts that has already been prototyped is the Glow-in-the-Dark Road. Photoluminescent powder, which charges in the sunlight and gives up to 10 hours of illumination in the dark, replaces traditional road markings. “It’s the same principle as the glow-in-the-dark paint we remember from our childhoods but it is really quite different. We’ve teamed up with paint manufacturers to push it much more than that because you need a certain amount of lighting to make the roads safe,” explains Roosegaarde.
The Dynamic Paint concept has also been prototyped. Symbols, which respond to the surrounding temperature, are painted onto the road surface to communicate relevant traffic information directly to drivers. For example, blue snowflakes become visible on the surface of the road to indicate that it is likely to be icy and slippery. “Again, this technology has been around for years – on baby food packaging, for example – and we have just scaled it up,” says Roosegaarde.
These first Smart Highway prototypes were showcased to the public during the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven during October 2012 where Heijmans and Studio Roosegaarde were also presented with the ‘Best Future Concept’ at the Dutch Design Awards. But these prototypes won’t be concepts for long because from mid 2013 they will be installed on a stretch of road in the province of Brabant in the Netherlands.
The Smart Highway concept has received global attention in its bid to give the road a contemporary and inspiring makeover. “One of the reasons why I think this project has received so much attention is because it comes from such an unconventional partnership – beauty and the beast in a way,” describes van Haaren. “To really think differently – that is the power of these types of partnerships.”