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Meet the Dutch Designer on a Mission to Kill Smog

The world’s first Smog Free Tower debuts in Rotterdam next month. For Daan Roosegaarde, the rest of the world is next.

“It’s my job to look around me and be amazed or irritated by things, and then come up with new proposals about how to change things,” Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde tells me over the phone. “I’ve had that with fashion, with highways, with dance floors. Now I have that with smog.”

Two weeks ago, the ambitious idea for a Smog Free Tower broke ground, a Kickstarter project by Studio Roosegaarde to build a working tower in the Dutch city of Rotterdam that cleans the surrounding air of smog. The plan includes a way for people to back the tower, by purchasing ‘smog free rings’ that are made of the collected smog particles, in effect ‘donating’ 1.000m3 of clean air to the city. The project is already at 89% of the funding goal (with 35 days to go), making it pretty likely that Rotterdam will soon welcome the world’s first Smog Free Tower. Afterwards, Roosegaarde wants to do the same thing in polluted cities such as Paris, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Beijing. “I’m tired of the whole fact sheet-discussion about environmental pollution. People don’t give a fuck about all those numbers. It’s time to let people feel for themselves how we can improve the world.”

The Creators Project spoke to Daan Roosegaarde about the idea of the tower, the Smog Free Movement he hopes to inspire with it, and the plan to finally to do something tangible about worldwide air pollution.

The Creators Project: How did you come up with the idea for the Smog Free Tower?

Daan Roosegaarde: I was sitting in a hotel room on the 32nd floor of a hotel in Beijing and on the weekend I was able to still sort of see the city, its people, its trees, its cars. Come Tuesday it was as if there was a veil of smog wrapped around the city, I couldn’t even see the opposite side of the street. There’s been a whole generation growing up in Beijing that never experienced a blue sky—children who play indoors until they’re eight because it’s too dangerous for them to play outside. That was a real eye-opener for me. I mean, you can throw all the figures and models at me but when you physically experience what a problem smog really is, you realize: we need to do something about this. Not in a nagging kind of way, because people don’t respond to that, but by making them experience firsthand what it is like to breathe clean air again.

How does the Smog Free Tower work exactly?

Do you remember when you were little and you would rub your hand against a balloon till it was static enough to draw your hair out? The tower works on the same principle. I developed the tower together with Bob Ursem, who is a scientist at the TU Delft who’s been researching smog for over 12 years now and has a lot of patents to his name. I asked him if there would be a way that we could use to clean the smog out of the air. He said: “Yes, I can’t think of a reason we can’t do that. To which I replied: “What are you doing the next two years?”

Now we have a working prototype that we’re going to reveal in Rotterdam soon. It’s basically a seven-meter-high air purifier that sucks the pollution out the air by charging the smog particles positive on a nano level. Within the tower there’s a big negatively charged surface that attracts the particles, enabling us to clean the air in a safe and energy-friendly way. We then push the clean air outwards, creating a smog free zone of 15 to 20 meters around the tower, as a sort of safe bubble of clean air.

To what extent is this useable as a large-scale solution to the smog problem?

It’s a real solution, but is a local one. It’s never going to solve the greater smog problem for an entire city. To do that you need to make national decisions about cleaner energy, electric cars and making sure citizens become more aware. With this project we hope to start a movement, a Smog Free Movement, if you will. We’re going to start in Rotterdam and then move to Paris, Mexico-City, Los Angeles, and Beijing. We are already in close contact with the mayor of Beijing, for example. He started out pretty skeptical, to me as well, being relatively young by Chinese standards to propose something like this. But now he’s completely turned around, calling us up to ask: “And, is it here yet?” What I’m trying to say is: innovation can be a pretty ungrateful job. No one seems to really want it at first. You have to really fight to make something happen.

Last March, a study revealed carbon dioxide levels hit 400 ppm for the first time in a million years. Is it hard to stay optimistic in trying to find solutions to the problem of climate change?

We don’t have much choice. I need to believe that that we can still turn things around. The only thing that I can do as a designer, as a human being, is try to find solutions to this problem and hope it’s in time. That’s the frustrating part. The old world is still very much locked in its own, crashing system, while the new world is still really unclear. Add to that the fact that a lot of people are afraid of the future, with robots stealing their jobs and fear about artificial intelligence, and you’re left with a really difficult scenario. If my work can somehow spark our curiosity about the future again, and trigger some involvement with it, then at least I feel like I’m contributing something.

A model of the Smog Free Tower which will soon come to Rotterdam

How’s the project doing? Are you going to make it?

We’re already getting calls from Chile, Kazakhstan, Tehran, and Mexico-City. And it’s really good to see all the commitment from the backers and the press. My faith in humanity is a little restored [laughs]. We’re currently at 43.000 of the needed 50.000 Euro, so I’m confident that it’s going to work. On September 4th we’ll have the official opening of the tower with our crowdfunding VIPs, press and mayors from all over the world. And from the 5th of September onwards everyone can visit the tower.

And then there will be a working tower blowing clean air around?

Exactly. Then everyone will be able to experience clean air again. I want to let people experience a different, cleaner future. That, I think, is the bridge towards the definitive solution. Then we can move on.

Check out the links below for more from Daan Roosegaarde and Studio Roosegaarde:

The "World's First" Smog-Eating Tower Breaks Ground in Rotterdam

Gaze Up at an Aurora Borealis Made from Advanced LEDs

Roads Of The Future Are Here... And They Glow In The Dark

A version of this article originally appeared on The Creators Project Netherlands.