• Sarah Naarden

Urban Foraging in Design week

Toxic City Symposium Melbourne Design Week at NGV

Resonating deeply are the Landscapes of the Future proposed by Daan Roosegarde’s and his design studio in Rotterdam. At the heart of this interdisciplinary practise is an ethos of socially engaged design prioritizing ecological concern. A unique production of imagined futures proposed through speculative and finely crafted prototypes for the built environment. Discovering such a practise a few years ago made me curious to do a PhD and understand how to playfully facilitate similar creative collaborations.

From what I sense Daan’s practise achieves a rare form of alchemy. It emerges from radical collaboration, persistent experimentation and robust iteration. Across diverse fields passionate collaborators are invited to ‘design through a problem’. Marine biology, environmental science, engineering, zoology, entrepreneurs and infrastructure consultants are collected with designerly framing. Daan describes the process as ‘turning obstacles into opportunities’. Yet behind studio doors it is anything but simple. The idea of ‘simplexity’ better describes his process making complex messy entangled processes appear graceful and effortless.

As a fellow deep sea diver with Dutch heritage, I am curious Roosegarde’s ability to plunge deep into unknown waters of ecological challenge. I am inspired by his sense of ‘Dutch courage’ in the intoxicating cycle of unlearning and learning again with fresh eyes. Ideas borrowed from ancient ecosystems are translated both metaphorically and literally into unexpected contexts and scales. I wonder if this sense of creative mastery is part of a wider genetic memory in Holland. One that is predisposed to mastering the elements of water, wind, soil out of geographic exposure and invention of dykes, windmills and greenhouses.

Roosegarde shares a compelling story of inspiration from night diving, a hobby that helps him to ‘switch off to switch on’. He describes being immersed underwater with only glowing phosphoros fish darting out of his path while swimming through. In free association, the image of Van Gogh painting ‘Starry night’ comes to mind. The movement of the light captured in the rolling skies of the painting sparks an idea for a speculative installation. Like finding a pearl underwater it is brought to the surface for exploration. In this instance the pearl captures an idea to commemorate 125 years since the passing of Van Gogh. Roosegarde proposes a ‘ starry night’ illuminated bike path to honour the legacy of Van Gogh. Phosphorus infused particles are integrated into the path attracting energy during the day to glow at night and interact with the pressure of a bike riding through. Thus reducing the startle effect of night lights on native fauna at night. Seemingly a win-win scenario borrowing from natural systems to save it.

The question arises from the audience around the privilege of prototyping as art with large budgets, dream clients, How much of this experimentation goes onto be developed beyond the prototype for economies of scale where significant environmental impact is reached ?

Daan address this question by discussing his War on Smog beginning in Beijing. Reflecting the Toxic City symposium panels sentiment War on Waste by ABC’s presenter; Craig Reucassel. Reflecting The World Health Organization concern that the smog levels in many cities are so high that it can do the damage of smoking 17 cigarettes a day. From a Beijing hazy hotel room window Daan accounts watching children playing in the hazy smog. He imagines a process of extracting carbon monoxide from polluted air in the playgrounds and deliver it back instantaneously with clean air. A series of speculative prototypes of a sculptural Smog cleaning Tower began. The most inspiring feature being the bi- product could be captured and compressed in glass to make a piece of jewellery. A social media success, couples over the world consider this a socially aspiration alternative to the blood diamonds in Africa. A clever way of putting ‘a price on carbon’ and allowing the smog towers to be afforded on mass through a crowd funding campaign selling carbon captured rings. Hopefully the economies of scale can be sustained to inspire other inventions of carbon capture.

Like others in the audience, I leave the symposium with a smile yet agitated with a sense of stuckness. How can we be involved with similar aspirational design interventions and shape the future landscapes of Melbourne? I rethink the intoxicating magic. This is one mans vision to beautifully craft his dreams come alive with a very large budgets and an exclusive selection of expertise invited into the process. From the beginning of it conception, Design Think Lab has questioned the privilege of the aha moment sparking in selected thought leadership circles. The question I ask for design collaboration is how might the process of discovering the spark be a collective experience? One that is relational socially inclusive and can be read with multiple analogous perspectives ? One that invites the voices of First people, old people and young people into the cross fertilization of ideas. What is at stake if we continue to undervalue the process of unlearning unconscious status quo privileging?

For the sake of being the change I want to see in the future landscapes of Melbourne, I am once again transitioning out of my comfort zone. This time it is in the process of de-weeding my inner landscape. The public fear of being a virgin blogger can no longer be buried. In the methods of my PhD madness I propose to blog like no one is watching. But unlike a vulnerable teenager dancing in front of the bedroom mirror, I am happy to be caught out. Building an audience without paying them in social media likes can be slow. For Design Think Lab , it has been a year under the radar. New academic waters have been navigated to skim the surface of complexity and ‘diversity in a university’ With the support of the Wonderlab Phd Cohort at Monash University Art Design and Architecture, I charter these intriguing questions between the intersections of play, learning and design. After understanding the role of being a lab within a lab I am now happy to cast the net wider for the collective finding of pearls in the sea of research possibility.

10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Sarah Naarden is a trans-disciplinary designer, architect and collaborative research leader. In 2015 she founded Design Think Lab to champion social and ecological impact through regenerative circular design thinking.


Sarah has  25 years of experience in architecture, interiors, landscape and product design practice and combines this with a focus on social sustainability. Sarah sits on the panel for the Victoria Design Review Panel. As a former Associate director of Bates Smart, Sarah lead a design team for the Royal Children’s Hospital. With Indigenous Elders and Design Think Tank, Sarah co designed The Aboriginal Healing Garden at Monash Health. It was acknowledged with a Federal Government Community Services award.

Currently, Sarah is a PhD Candidate in Wonderlab at Monash University. She is investigating Co-design for regenerative place-making and design pedagogy.