Daan Roosegaarde stole the show this year in Dalian, with his Smog-Free Project, a tower that sucks up polluted air, cleans it and releases it back into parks and playgrounds. Another aspect of the project saw the captured smog turned into diamonds.

Roosegaarde came up with the idea while gazing out over Beijing’s polluted skyline, and many of the Dutch artist and innovator’s designs have been inspired by the natural world and the relationship between people, technology, and space.

Studio Roosegaarde, the social design lab he runs out of Rotterdam and Shanghai, has also looked at using bioluminescent algae to light up our paths and waterways, bicycles that filter pollution and direct a stream of clean air towards the cyclist and motorways which charge from sunlight and glow at night.

Here, Roosegaarde discusses the progress of some his most exciting work.

This time a couple of years ago, you created a stir in China with your Smog Free Tower – a kind of outdoor vacuum cleaner that sucks up pollution. What’s new with that?

We’ve proved it works! That’s really important.

A team at the Eindhoven University of Technology showed that people can enjoy significantly cleaner air in its vicinity.

To be precise: the researchers found that within 20 metres of a tower, you are breathing 45% fewer PM10 – that’s particles of pollution that are less than 10 microns in size – and 25% fewer PM2.5.

We have lots of interest now from mayors around the world.

We are displaying the Smog-Free Tower in Dalian this week, and producing more towers in China. We’re about to launch the project in India.

Image: Studio Roosegaarde

The tower is an attention-grabbing conversation-starter, but is it also a practical solution to the problem of urban air pollution?

Yes, we see it as a local solution.

I don’t see it as purely an artistic statement because I aim to have the tower working at scale in parks.

The project shows the beauty of clean air, and clean energy. But the ideal future, obviously, isn’t polluted cities with clean air in parks. It’s cities where the air is clean everywhere.

That means more investments in green tech. I’d like the Smog-Free Project to spark conversations with governments, NGOs and universities on how to do that.

The Smog-Free Project, by the way, isn’t only about the tower.

We make Smog-Free Rings by compressing smog filtered by the tower, and by purchasing one you donate 1000 square meters of clean air.

We hold Smog-Free Dialogues where we invite scholars and other makers who create innovative solutions for smog-free cities.

From the one we held at the contemporary art museum M Woods in Beijing, we developed the idea of Smog-Free Bicycles, which inhale the polluted air, clean it, and direct a stream of clean air towards the cyclist.

We recently released the concept, and it is creating a lot of attention in the media. We hope to find a solid partner who would like to develop this further.

Image: Studio Roosegaarde

Another project you’re launching soon is light installations that use bioluminescent algae. How did that come about?

I enjoy diving at night.

When you shut off your flashlight underwater, you see swarms of bioluminescent algae.

You move through them, and they respond to the movement by lighting up like fireflies.

Nobody knows why they do this, by the way – whether it’s to convey information, or scare predators, or it’s just an epiphenomenon.

For the last two years, I’ve been working with a team at Wageningen University and Studio Roosegaarde to collect, nurture and selectively breed these algae.

Now we have, without doubt, the brightest in the world.

Shake a jar of them, and it lights up.

We’ve increased their longevity, too – they survive for several months. We’re planning to use them in layers of water, one or two centimetres thick, so they shine as you interact with them.

Image: Studio Roosegaarde

You’ll first be able to experience this in November at the Afsluitdijk, the 32-kilometre dike, which protects the Netherlands against flooding.

As part of the dike’s renovation, we were asked by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment in the Netherlands to create an installation that uses light in various ways to make people think about how the dike shields the country from the sea.

Along the dike are old concrete bunkers from wartime. We’ll show the bioluminescent algae there.

Is this, like the Smog Free Tower, an example of an artistic statement that could potentially have practical applications at scale?

We like to start with a big statement with an installation, and there is always a desire to upscale.

I can imagine, for example, using bioluminescent algae to light bicycle paths through a forest, where you don’t want to have invasive LEDs.

There’s something magical about having dark places lit up by these ancient organisms, alive and responsive.

What does nature teach us about design, and what other problems in the world might we be able to solve by looking to nature for inspiration?

I’ve recently been in Brazil to see the work of Luis Forti.

He studied ant colonies by pouring concrete into abandoned anthills then excavating. And he discovered an incredibly complex and beautiful system of logistics, including ventilation shafts – in effect, ants have engineered underground air conditioning. Now that’s a smart city.

So, what principles might we learn from ants to make our own cities more liveable?

Ants manage not to have traffic jams, for example. Their waste becomes food for others. Could we understand how they do it, and copy-morph those principles into our own cities?

Or think about the silent way an owl flies.

Might that teach us anything about reducing noise pollution from aircraft?

These questions may sound esoteric but they are worth asking. Nature isn’t just to look at and be amazed by, it’s a potential pool of knowledge.

There’s no shortage of technology or money in this world, but there is often a shortage of imagination.

Another question you’re asking is how to solve the problem of space debris. How did you get interested in that?

In a crazy way, I am a voluntary prisoner of my imagination – I get obsessed by things.

Four years ago, looking out of a Beijing hotel room window, I became inspired by Beijing smog. And working on the Smog-Free Tower led me to wonder whether similar principles might work for space debris.

Right now, the Americans are tracking 23,000 pieces of space debris that have been caused by collisions between satellites.

Any one of them could take down another satellite, creating yet more debris, and a higher chance of further collisions, until conceivably we pass a tipping point where all the satellites are taken out, we can’t launch spacecraft through the debris, and humankind has trapped itself inside a layer of space waste.

What a future that would be to leave to our kids.

I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m enjoying conversations with astronauts and tech companies to think through possible approaches.

Is this something you’re doing on your own initiative, rather than something a client has commissioned you to think about?

About 60% of what my studio does is commissioned by someone – a government, a city, an entrepreneur – and 40% is self-commissioned, putting our own time and money into developing an idea and seeing where it goes.

After all, four years ago, nobody was going to call me up and say “we’d like you to build a Smog-Free Tower”.

How do you think about the balance in your work between solving problems, making art and directing people’s attention to important issues?

Everything I do has some poetic and some pragmatic ingredients.

And the common aim is to improve life, whether that’s in the short term by proposing practical solutions or in the longer term by triggering conversations.

Ultimately, impact comes not only from the bottom up or the top down, but from what happens when they meet in the middle.

That’s why I value the World Economic Forum, because people like me can come with proposals and connect with governments. Together we have the power to enforce and enhance and improve.