Meet the Dutch Designer Who’s Turning China’s Smog Into Diamonds

March 9, 2017, 10:25 AM UTC

Midway into a presentation at Singapore Design Week on Tuesday, Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde reaches into his pocket to pull out a clear plastic baggie.

“This is not the substance my country is famous for,” he announces, passing the packet into the crowd gathered for the Innovation by Design conference, where he is being honored as one of the world’s emerging next-generation designers.

We’re holding black smut from Beijing, where Roosegaarde has crowdfunded and created his first 23-foot vacuum cleaner to literally suck smog out of the sky.

Photograph by Jordan Goh for Time Inc.
Photograph by Jordan Goh for Time Inc.

He is encouraged by the results so far. Chinese authorities in November declared that the air within the vicinity of Roosegaarde’s “Smog Free Tower” had become 55% cleaner after 41 days, and he is planning hundreds more around China, having set up another tower in Rotterdam. He’s also working on a bicycle version that hoovers up pollution as you ride it.

“Why do we accept pollution?” he states in an interview with Fortune. “Why do we live in cities which are bad for us, you know? Sometimes I’m in Asian cities, or sometimes I’m in Paris or London, where I almost want to smoke again just to feel healthy.”

Sure, there’s a war on smog, Roosegaarde nods. “But it takes long—10 to 15 years. So we wanted to make something in the now.”

Photograph: Derrick Wang/Courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde
Photograph: Derrick Wang/Courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde

Staring at all the buckets of pollutants they were collecting, Roosegaarde and his team had another idea. More than 40% of the intake was carbon, and “carbon under high pressure—you get diamonds,” he says. “That was interesting.”

His studio began producing jewelry out of the waste, asking people to “share” their rings with friends and directing the proceeds back to the original project. “The true sign of beauty—clean air,” said Roosegaarde, pointing to a picture of a newly engaged couple with one of his rings.

Roosegaarde is adamant that businesses will increasingly have to “invest in design to stay alive.”

“Creativity will become the new currency,” he says. “This is not a ‘nice to have’ … It’s the new economy.”

Of course, it’s not always so easy.

“What I experienced in my life is that a lot of people say they want innovation, they want ‘the next,’ ‘the new,’ et cetera, et cetera. But the moment you present a new idea, to your wife or your boss or your husband or your grandma, there’s this weird tendency to reply to every new idea with two words,” says Roosegaarde.

Hearing these two “horrible, creative-destructing, annoying little words” gets him so riled up, he’s got a new piece of furniture to show for it. And it has voice recognition.

It’s called the “‘yes, but’ chair,” Roosegaarde tells the audience at the Innovation by Design conference.

Daan Roosegaarde, founder of Studio Roosegaarde, presenting at the Innovation by Design Conference at Singapore Design Week. (Photograph by Jordan Goh for Time Inc.)
Photograph by Jordan Goh for Time Inc.

The concept is simple. Anyone who sits on the chair and says “yes, but…” immediately gets a “short but pretty intense-level shock,” he says.

“We need to not be afraid. Not ‘yes, but,’ but ‘What now?’”