Summit Europe: Art Meets Tech in Glowing Roads and a Smog Eating Machine

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There’s a stretch of Dutch highway that glows like Tron; a path of radiant tiles swirling like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”; a lotus dome of a hundred unfurling smart flowers; a jungle of genetically engineered plants glowing green like jellyfish.

Daan Roosegaarde, director of Studio Roosegaarde, is interested in the intersection of art and technology. Speaking at Summit Europe, Roosegaarde said you can’t tickle yourself—there’s no surprise there. But you can tickle your neighbor.

“There are things we cannot do alone,” he said. “We need each other to create something new. If I can tickle your brain, that would make me very happy.”

Roosegaarde ran down a list of his studio’s projects. You may have heard of their glowing stretch of highway—three miles of specially developed luminescent paint that soaks up sunshine during the day and glows up to eight hours at night.

“Why is it that when talk about mobility and innovation everyone focuses on the bloody car?” Roosegaarde asked.

The glowing highways project is part of a larger program of infrastructure innovation.

Roosegaarde wants to make interactive roads using temperature-sensitive, color-changing paints to warn of icy conditions or roads that charge electric cars. He wants to augment cities with interactive light landscapes, even add genetically modified glowing plants for “natural” lighting. And his audacity doesn’t end there.

Studio Roosegaarde is building a kind of electric vacuum cleaner to make a smog-free park in Beijing. In the development process, his studio collected whole canisters of smog particles. Did they throw them out? Nope. It’s mainly carbon. The studio compacted the smog, not into diamonds—too much energy—but into carbon cubes they’ve set in rings and cufflinks.

They plan to sell this smog jewelry to fund their anti-smog project.

If all this sounds a little bit off the reservation—Roosegaarde knows it.

But he thinks practicality can be an excuse not to innovate. The idea is to shut off that knee-jerk self-regulation, to go beyond the inevitable “yes, but” appended to every idea. “There are 5,000 reasons not to do something,” he said. “Of course, you should be analytical, but have the guts to go beyond that.”

And make no mistake, that’s easier said than done. In theory, we’re all for innovation, but in fact, there are great powers conspiring against creativity. It’s easier to say “no” than take an experimental risk. But failure is part and parcel of creativity.

“There is 80 percent bullshit to get 20 percent beauty,” Roosegaarde recently told Wired. “But it’s worth it.”

Image Credit: Studio Roosegaarde

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.