Jacob Stubbe Østergaard from Copenhagen 02/09/2013
"Why do highways have to be dumb as bricks?" - the question is posed by Daan Roosegaarde, inventor of Smart Highway and with a background in the fine arts. How about streetlights only lighting up when there's someone on the road? How about dynamic, temperature-sensitive displays which alert you when the road is slippery? And what if the road could fuel its cars by using stored energy from previous passing vehicles? The Dutch inventor's dreams are not far from being realized. The first Smart Highway opens in the Netherlands this year. Meanwhile in Massachusetts, USA, Kavita Shukla and her company, Fenugreen, is conquering the world with small, white sheets of paper. FreshPaper, bio-degradable paper infused with organic spices, keeps fruit and vegetables fresh 2-4 times longer by inhibiting the growth of fungi and bacteria. It was originally intended for developing countries, but now it's catching on in the Western world too. Just like Roosegaarde, Fenugreen's Kavita Shukla has an artistic streak; she's an accomplished violinist and dancer.
Today, both of them have come to Copenhagen. Along with 58 other finalists, they are awaiting the verdict of the INDEX Award jury. The five winners are each awarded €100,000 and a boost in recognition probably worth far more.
FreshPaper was invented by Indian-American Kavita Shukla. When visiting her grandmother in India as a teenager, she drank contaminated tap water, but avoided illness after her grandmother had prepared her a special tea containing a bacteria-inhibiting spice.
The INDEX award, founded in 2002, strives to award 'design to improve life'; design that addresses social and environmental problems in innovative ways. Related with the rise of CSR ('corporate social responsibility'), Design To Improve Life (the organization that awards the INDEX award) maintains that there is a great commercial potential in sustainable and socially responsible design to improve life in developing as well as developed countries. It is an endeavour to focus the creative energy of bright minds across the globe on solving truly important problems. In the organization's own words, designers should "...stop designing white tea cups and instead focus their creative skills on more pressing issues".
The INDEX award organization works for design to improve life. In another part of Copenhagen, Bjarke Ingels and BIG architects have devised the principle of "hedonistic sustainability" - the related idea that there is no schism between designing socially and designing for fun and pleasure. Is it the outline of a greater, global trend, concretized in the small kingdom of Denmark?
This marriage of artistic creation to practical problem-solving is much in contrast to Oscar Wilde's famous dogma: "All art is useless". It's a challenge all creative people face every day: creativity is strongest when it runs completely free, but it only turns into money and opportunities when it's bridled. The relationship between art and design is particularly relevant to Daan Roosegaarde, inventor of Smart Highway. He has an academy degree in fine arts and several exhibitions under his belt. "I see it all as art - as landscape design", he says, "but the road manufacturers don't. They're not buying an art work from me.". "I'm a hippie artist and they are conservative businesspeople. It's a big contrast, but I want to make a dialogue with them instead of a struggle. This is what makes a project like Smart Highway possible." Perhaps more than an attempt to divert art from its pure and 'useless' excellence, INDEX award emphasizes the potential of artistic creation in the area of social and environmental problems, which has traditionally belonged to politics and institutionalized science.
"Artist Daan Roosegaarde's Smart Highway is meant to be 'interesting, smart and poetic'. It uses dynamic paint to alert drivers of road conditions."
And the winners are...
The mayor of Copenhagen arrives at the press conference at 10:03. Three minutes of extra tension build-up in the small press conference room. The silence is so dense you could slice through it. Then the INDEX press representative breaks the spell, announcing "this is a happy day!". The chairman of the board bids us welcome and then lends the floor to the mayor, whose speech consists of 90% praise for Copenhagen. What it lacks in modesty, though, it makes up for in a very thick Danish accent.
After the mayor and the chairman of the jury, the floor is finally given to the organization CEO. I prepare my notebook. To all of us sitting here on lines of black chairs with our laptops and our microphones and our cameras, it's an interesting news story. To the award winners, it's the culmination of all the work they've done in their life, and perhaps the greatest honour they will ever receive.
The five winners are:
The City of Copenhagen, winning the award for Copenhagen Climate Adaptation Plan, which is the first plan to offer combined solutions to the combined challenges of rising urban population and climate change due to rising temperature.
Fenugreen, winning the award forFreshPaper - the mass-producible and compostable sheet of paper which can keep fruit and vegetables fresh for 2-4 timers longer than otherwise by inhibiting the growth of bacteria and fungi.
Raspberry PI Foundation, winning the award for Raspberry PI - the $25 computer, making a toy out of computer programming. Raspberry PI is intended to raise a bright new generation of engineers by allowing kids of today - and not just the nerds - to grow up accustomed to computer engineering.
Laerdal Global Health, winning the award for The Natalie Collection (see top illustration) - a midwife education program aiming to reduce childbirth mortality in poor areas. The collection consists of a newborn simulator, a womb simulator and a nostril suction device.
Studio Roosegaarde, winning the award for Smart Highway - reconceptualizing the road as a proving ground in our quest for energy conservation. Smart Highways are lit up only when you drive on them, re-charge your electric car as you drive and automatically alert you when the road is slippery. Studio Roosegaarde employs existing technology but also seeks to develop new technology to make roads safer and more energy efficient.
The winning designs all address big, global issues: climate, food, education, health and energy, respectively. This is no coincidence.
After the handshakes and the acceptance speeches and the applause, Arterritory.com met with jury chairman Mikal Hallstrup for an interview about the trends of this year's field of nominees and about design as a solution to global problems:
What are the trends among this year's field of nominees, compared to those of previous INDEX awards?
You can answer that in many ways, but as we see it, across the categories and across the challenges that we discussed, it seems there is a certain common understanding that we need to address not the small problems, but the big problems. Global problems. Bang for the buck. We had water, habitation, food, education and so on. It's not about designing objects anymore. It's about designing systems. The trend is that designers understand that. The whole digitalization and everything impacts the way we think solutions.
There is of course a relationship between the ingenuity of a design and its scope. How brilliant it is and how important the problems it solves are. How do you deal with that as a jury?
That's probably one of the best questions. It's very exciting to do the jury process, but it's also very challenging. When you get down to a couple of hundred nominees, you see that there are many potential winners. The main reason for being a very international 12-person jury is that we can judge in different contexts. What's a big problem here - flooding of Copenhagen basements - might not be a big problem in India. And getting a great, energy-efficient fridge, for example, is another thing in India than it is here. You always have to judge based on the context. That's what we do at INDEX.
What is the potential of design, in a world where there's also a lot of political and economic movements determining what happens in the world in terms of development? How important is design, and is it getting more important?
I think it is. Design has become textbook material in business schools and places like that. The whole notion of design, creativity, tackling problems in a new and different way, is being adopted all over the world. By politicians as well. We're not all designers, but I think we do understand the design mindset. Not design as in something you go out and shop in a design shop, but design as a process solving these nasty problems.
Copenhagen suffered an unprecedented flood in 2011, leaving insurance companies with a $1bn bill. Now, the city has made a very long-sighted plan to secure itself against future climate related problems.
Why do you think this is happening now?
I think we've been through a couple of decades of slow adoption, moving away from design being an artistic discipline to focusing also on solving problems. We're accepting - for a while - that what we design might not be the most beautiful thing right now, but instead we are solving a big problem. We are helping people. And later on, we can jazz it up. We can make it beautiful and even more user-friendly and so on.
We recently published a piece about the Roskilde Festival art program. We found that it was also very much centered on social issues and social responsibility. Are we seeing a bigger, global trend of people becoming more responsible and artists maybe feeling it's not okay just to make good art anymore - that you have to deal with these problems?
Yes. It has to make sense somehow. The whole world - politicians, designers, businesspeople, whatever - everybody's looking for something that makes sense. Not for more useless stuff filling up our streets or our homes. There's so much crappy stuff around that doesn't work. So let's rethink.
As an art magazine, we sort of take offense in the idea that art for art's own sake is a vain quest. Do you feel that it is?
No, I think art is very useful. Art is improving life. Within art, you can find crappy art and you can find art that changes our mindsets and our lives. There's great art, and there's great design, and there's the opposite as well. But I think art plays an enormous role in inspiring us. Take the Smart Highway, for example. There's an artist behind that. I think some of the best people at breaking the rules are the artists. They are the 'no gravity'-people. I think we constantly need to remind ourselves, as designers, artists, politicians etc., that we shouldn't get too full of ourselves and just do our own thing. We've got to focus outwards. We should be doing it for people out there who need it.
Art is important, just to finish that one off.
So we can quote you for that?
Yes, you can, definitely.
The five winners today - addressing problems such as climate adaptation, birth safety and food waste - are designs that have a wide, global scope of application?
Yes. We picked them because they're worthy winners. They have the right mix. They've already been realized, but there's still a vision in them to improve life. The winners are also representatives of whole categories of other nominations that deal with the various challenges: child mortality, drinking water, food waste and so on. There were several in each category. We just found that these ones were iconic and also did a great job in communicating their value.
"Raspberry PI, a credit-card sized computer, affordable to schools and children all over the world, helps a new generation grow up with a better understanding of science."
The exhibition goes on a world tour
The official award ceremony tonight, in Elsinore north of Copenhagen, marks the end of this 'happy day'. According to the chairman of the board of INDEX Design To Improve Life, "The challenges are many, but what most people are not aware of is that there are also many solutions out there". Hopefully now more people will be aware of some of the solutions to our biggest challenges.
The official exhibition of all 60 finalist designs opens tomorrow, August 30, in central Copenhagen. One month later, it will commence its world tour. Stay up to date at designtoimprovelife.dk