Lift-off

In­spired by cre­ative thinkers with strato­spheric am­bi­tion, we launch our very own Wall­pa­per* Moon­shots Divi­sion, a de­sign lab with ex­tra­or­di­nary ob­jec­tives. Watch this space for Earth-shak­ing new prod­ucts, pro­to­types, ex­pe­ri­ences and im­mer­sions

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The new Wall­pa­per* Moon­shots Divi­sion

Daan Roosegaarde is a tall, ex­u­ber­ant man with big, ex­cit­ing ideas (the Dutch of­ten are). Since es­tab­lish­ing his de­sign stu­dio in Rot­ter­dam a decade ago, he has cre­ated en­ergy-neu­tral street light­ing, en­ergy-gen­er­at­ing kites, an on-de­mand au­rora bo­re­alis to il­lus­trate the threat of ris­ing wa­ter lev­els and, most fa­mously, a smog-suck­ing tower. His lat­est mis­sion is to dam or di­vert or­bit­ing streams of space trash; 29,000 satel­lite bits and rocket pieces which, if left unchecked, threaten to block es­cape routes out of the Earth’s at­mos­phere. Or at least wipe out your Wi-fi for a good while.

In Oc­to­ber, his stu­dio launched Space Waste Lab, the first move in a long-term ef­fort to take down, or bet­ter up­cy­cle, as much of this or­bital junk as pos­si­ble. To kick­start a space waste expo and sym­po­sium, Roosegaarde and his team set up camp at the KAF cul­tural cen­tre in Almere in the Nether­lands and aimed high-pow­ered LEDS at scrap me­tal or­bit­ing at al­ti­tudes of any­where be­tween 200 and 20,000km (they had spent over a year work­ing with space agen­cies to de­velop track­ing tech­nol­ogy and ob­tain the req­ui­site safety ap­provals).

This spec­tac­u­lar light show, with monthly re­peats through to Jan­uary next year, is an ef­fort to il­lu­mi­nate and pin­point just one per cent of space trash more than 10cm long (pieces much smaller than this, some trav­el­ling at a speed of 25,000km/h, can also cause cat­a­strophic dam­age to satel­lites but they are al­most im­pos­si­ble to map).

The three-month-long space waste expo, put to­gether with ad­vi­sors from Nasa and the Euro­pean Space Agency, in­cludes work­shops or ‘liv­ing labs’. Am­a­teurs and pro­fes­sion­als, sci­en­tists and school­child­ren alike are en­cour­aged to come along and throw in their own ideas and sug­ges­tions.

Like all of Roosegaarde’s projects, Space Waste Lab’s open­ing gam­bit is an alert and call to arms. His stu­dio is ded­i­cated to spec­u­la­tions, pro­to­types and provo­ca­tions, spec­ta­cle de­signed to gal­vanise (and cer­tainly not the gazil­lioneth re­it­er­a­tion of an ev­ery­day ob­ject). But this isn’t show­man­ship sell­ing high ideals and sloppy science. Roosegaarde is clear that much of his team’s work is done in col­lab­o­ra­tion with aca­demics and re­search sci­en­tists. The aim isn’t to get prod­uct trundling off pro­duc­tion lines or keep crafts­men busy (though this may hap­pen), but to change think­ing and pol­icy at the high­est level – or every level that mat­ters.

Roosegaarde calls what he does ‘tech­nol­o­gy­driven so­cial de­sign’ or ‘prob­lem solv­ing in the ma­te­rial world’. And he is adamant that a de­sign stu­dio is ex­actly the right tool to tackle ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, creep­ing doom or sys­tem fail­ure on a grand scale be­cause these are fun­da­men­tally de­sign prob­lems.

You could also call Stu­dio Roosegaarde a ‘moon­shot’ op­er­a­tion. Since Pres­i­dent Kennedy chal­lenged Amer­ica’s bright­est and best to shoot a man to the moon (and get him back again), ‘moon­shot’ has be­come a catch-all term for any project of vault­ing am­bi­tion and – though not al­ways – hon­ourable in­tent. Over the last half-decade it has been more closely as­so­ci­ated with X, Google’s (or, more pre­cisely, Al­pha­bet’s) highly se­cre­tive moon­shot fac­tory. X de­fines a moon­shot project as an ef­fort to ad­dress a huge prob­lem, propos­ing a rad­i­cal so­lu­tion and us­ing break­through but not un­fea­si­ble tech­nolo­gies. In some ways you can see it as a counter-force to the armies of young tech­nol­o­gists who have ded­i­cated them­selves to de­vis­ing smarter ways of de­liv­er­ing piz­zas or dis­rupt­ing the mat­tress mar­ket. And given the tech sec­tor a bit of bad rep in the process. A moon­shot project is not, at least in the short term, in­ter­ested in huge prof­its. Longterm eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity, though, is cru­cial and X will shut down any project that has no chance of some kind of com­mer­cial fu­ture, how­ever noble the ideal (plung­ing oil and gas prices meant the plug was pulled on a plan to turn sea­wa­ter into fuel). Roosegaarde too un­der­stands the im­por­tance of com­mer­cial pos­si­bil­i­ties. He’s al­ready talk­ing to one of the two tech ti­tans – both Tesla’s Elon Musk and Ama­zon’s Jeff Be­zos op­er­ate rocket launch ser­vices – who have a clear in­ter­est in keep­ing the space­ways clear, and to rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Lux­em­bourg gov­ern­ment who are keen to stake their claims in the space-min­ing gold rush, should it hap­pen.

Founded in 2010, and headed by ‘Cap­tain of Moon­shots’ Astro Teller, X looks at hun­dreds of ideas a year, all con­sid­ered by what Derek Thomp­son, writ­ing in The

At­lantic mag­a­zine, called a ‘Jus­tice League of nerds’: sci­en­tists and engi­neers but also aca­demics, pol­icy wonks and pro­fes­sional thinkers of all sorts. Teller and his team make clear that the suc­cess of any of X’s projects is based on ask­ing the right ques­tions, and a range of dif­fer­ent right ques­tions, from the out­set. In this way they hope to com­pact in­ven­tion and in­no­va­tion, of­ten dif­fer­ent pro­cesses that hap­pen in dif­fer­ent places, in a sin­gle project. It is, as Thomp­son sug­gests, a ‘new model of rad­i­cal cre­ativ­ity’.

Of course, we at Wall­pa­per* like to imag­ine that rad­i­cal cre­ativ­ity is our stock-in-trade. So ear­lier this year we de­cided to launch our own par­tic­u­lar kind of moon­shot divi­sion. While we might not have ac­cess to the huge cash stock­piles that Al­pha­bet has to back X, we do have the ear of the world’s best and bright­est de­sign­ers, ar­chi­tects and artists – ex­actly the peo­ple we think might ask the right kind of ques­tions and ad­dress our big­gest prob­lems as de­sign prob­lems.

The plan was, and is, to con­nect them with tech com­pa­nies, start-ups and re­search sci­en­tists, and see if we can come up with our own pro­to­types and spec­u­la­tions. What is clear is that there is no lack of ap­petite for tak­ing on the big­gest of pick­les – waste and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and re­pair, saner cities and in­fra­struc­ture, sus­tain­abil­ity, pub­lic health and health­care pro­vi­sion, ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, trans­port and mo­bil­ity. Or for en­gag­ing with emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies that might pro­vide some of the an­swers. Far from it. What there is, as Ben­jamin Hu­bert of Layer De­sign says, is ‘huge bar­ri­ers to en­try’. Dif­fer­ent ways of work­ing, talk­ing, rhythms and meth­ods. And Hu­bert, whose ad­vice has been in­valu­able in the early stages of es­tab­lish­ing the Wall­pa­per* Moon­shots Divi­sion, knows what he is talk­ing about.

Layer, his sus­tain­abil­ity-cen­tric in­dus­trial de­sign agency, has worked with Sam­sung and Braun and cre­ated, among other things, wear­ables to track car­bon use. Lay­er­lab, the com­pany’s re­search divi­sion, was set up in 2016 to in­ves­ti­gate new tech­nolo­gies and ma­te­ri­als and is be­hind a made-to-mea­sure 3D-printed wheel­chair.

For our part, we are con­vinced that there are im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tions to be had and ques­tions to be asked. Our Moon­shots Divi­sion, Roosegaarde and Hu­bert in­cluded, is very much is in its early stages. But we are deter­mined to launch and land in Mi­lan dur­ing next year’s Salone (8-14 April 2019) as part of the tenth edi­tion of our Hand­made ex­hi­bi­tion, tagged ‘X’ (see what we have done there). We hope to bring not just prod­uct and pro­to­types but ex­pe­ri­ences and im­mer­sions. There will be spec­ta­cle and en­ter­tain­ment. For now, on­wards and up­wards.

Stu­dio Roosegaarde’s live Space Waste Lab per­for­mance can be vis­ited af­ter sun­set, 9-10 Novem­ber 2018, 7-8 De­cem­ber 2018, and 18-19 Jan­uary 2019 at KAF in Almere, The Nether­lands, stu­dioroosegaarde.net

above, Stu­dio Swine’s Spe­cially com­mis­sioned image of Smoke-filled bub­bles, part of their on­go­ing al­go­rith­mic and ephemeral me­dia

this is­sue’s lim­ited-edi­tion cover by stu­dio swine, avail­able to sub­scribers, see wall­pa­per.com

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