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
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