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Verve Man
January 12, 2016

How Daan Roosegaarde’s Vacuum Cleaner Can Save The World

Text by Wyanet Vaz. Images Courtesy: Roosegaarde

Dutch artist and innovator of ‘techno poetry’, Daan Roosegaarde, triggered the idea of a smog-free city

Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night lies undisturbed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Prints of the hypnotic swirls are regularly downloaded by thousands, and ‘set as desktop background’. But, if you happen to visit Nuenen in Netherlands — the town where Van Gogh lived in 1883 — the locals (and travel websites) will urge you to stop by the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bicycle path for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Inspired by the famous painting, this pathway is lit by thousands of twinkling stones, to recreate the famous night sky on the ground. The tiny LED lights are connected to a nearby solar array that charges during the day. The mind behind this stunning night-time display is Dutch artist, inventor, architect and entrepreneur Daan Roosegaarde. “This is an experience you cannot download,” he told me.

As I hoped to make the best of my short time with him, a fanclub of young Indians hustled to grab a selfie with the man who had just dropped the idea of a Smog Free Vacuum Cleaner, at TEDxGateway 2015 in Mumbai.

As we discuss Delhi’s recent ‘odd-even’ road-rationing solution that will be implemented this new year, Roosegaarde questions,“Why do we accept pollution? We should do more, not less. And make modern cities liveable again”. Some of the greatest ‘light-bulb moments’ come in the oddest of places. Roosegaarde’s idea of the Smog Free Project bloomed while he was in the shower.

“I remembered what happened when I was a boy playing at a children’s party with plastic balloons. When you start polishing a plastic balloon, it becomes static — it attracts your hair. And two days later, I wondered about taking that principle and building the largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world, which sucks up polluted air, and spits out clean air, creating parks and playgrounds which are cleanest in the city. And two years later, we made it!”

More than 1,500 backers on kickstarter pledged 113,153 euros and helped Roosegaarde create the largest air purifier in the world. Today, the first seven metre-high Smog Free Tower is open to public viewing at Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and will soon travel around the world. And you mustn’t miss the fact that the tower runs on green wind energy and uses no more electricity than a water boiler.

Roosegaarde showed me a packet that looked like it contained coffee powder. “That is Beijing smog,” he said, taking me by surprise. “There were buckets of those standing in our studio!” He went on to explain how waste should not exist, and their cool concept of compressing these buckets of smog under high pressure. Since 42 per cent was made of carbon, they ended up making what they call Smog Free Rings! They are also creating cufflinks for men; and it seems that there is a popular demand for piercings (though Roosegaarde is completely averse to the idea).

Pop culture makes you believe in the mad scientist — ‘forever alone’ ones like Einstein and Edison, who mostly hung out with their experiments. What is extraordinary is Roosegaarde’s fascination for not just creating experiments but actual experiences. The magical railway station in Amsterdam lets you see a rainbow for a brief moment after sunset, and the ‘smart highway’ that comprises luminescent lines charge at daytime and glow at night, discarding the use of street lamps. ‘Dune’ is another dreamy light-infused landscape that interacts with human behaviour and brightens according to the sounds and motions of passing visitors. He calls this ‘techno poetry’ — the idea of blurring the lines between dreams and reality.

Talking about this captivating concept, Roosegaarde comes back to where we started — the light-emitting pathway. “So the sheikhs from Qatar began to call, asking, ‘How much for 10 kilometres?’ This is good for business, but what is as important is the world of soft capital. A children’s book was sent to us, and in the book, they explore Van Gogh and visit the bicycle path. They printed it in the book! So now, we have a generation of children growing up thinking that a lit-up bicycle path is a completely normal thing.”

And the unqiue combination of the practical and the poetic is exactly what he is all about — as evidenced by his parting note. “Do you know why you cannot tickle yourself? Because your sense organs are aware of what you are doing. But the moment you tickle your neighbour, then you get a reaction, and that, I think, is something incredibly fascinating. We are programmed in such a way that certain experiences cannot be had alone.”

Roosegaarde Speak

The life of an inventor is “Intense.”

Inspirations come from “Asking ‘why’.”

Best innovations of the decade “Neuroscience and biotechnology.”

Favourite invention is “The escalator, because it was the first time our life became animated.”

Art you would love to ownThe Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.”

Home is where “My laptop is.”

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