The design community has paid particular attention to the environment over the course of the last decade. This, as accelerating rates of consumption, development, and pollution pose ever-greater threats to planetary health. In architecture and its related circles, the focus has been on finding potential solutions for individual problems, but the plans often stop short of how they might be achieved. The question of agency has potent implications: After all, who has the capacity to bring about the swiftest and most effective ecological benefits? Governments, private corporations, non-governmental organizations, volunteer networks? I recall the British architect Bill Dunster’s unapologetic response to this question at an environmental symposium in Barcelona in 2009, which can be summarized as such: The power rests with the individual alone, because governments and the private sector cannot be trusted to act in a timely and adequate manner.
Since then, another form of environmental agency has come into vogue for architecture and design: crowdfunding. This collective financing vehicle fills the gap between individual creative aspirations and the need for funding to realize these ideas at scale. The notion that designers need not wait for governments—much less traditional clients—to take measurable steps toward ecological progress is profoundly compelling, as evidenced by an abundance of design-focused proposals on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and similar online crowdfunding platforms. Concepts range in size from portable energy-harvesting devices to large public infrastructure projects, such as the Thames Deckway floating bicycle path in London or the Lowline subterranean park in New York.
The following three recent projects illustrate the potential trajectory of the movement toward crowdfunding for design with environmental savvy.
The first is the , a combination solar phone charger and light designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in collaboration with engineer Frederik Ottesen. The slender, square device, faced with a photovoltaic surface on one side and a luminaire on the other, can fully charge a mobile phone in five hours, its makers say. It is fitted with a standard USB port to power a variety of mobile electronic devices. Currently, the team lists the device's retail price at 120 euros ($134). Based on the premise that affordable light sources beyond daylight should be available to the masses, Eliasson and Ottesen envision also supplying off-grid communities with Little Sun Chargers and have included the option on their Kickstarter page to donate a device to partner organizations in Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso.
This effort builds on the pair’s initial project, the Little Sun solar-powered lamp, of which 147,000 units were sold to communities lacking access to electricity. With a handful of days remaining in the crowdfunding campaign for Little Sun Charge at press time, Eliasson and Ottesen have raised more than $260,000—which, compared to their original $56,345 funding goal, suggests public approval for the concept and a willingness to invest in the idea.
Another notable project is the designed by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde. Described by the project team as being the largest air-purifier in the world, the small structure resembles a mechanical ventilation shaft clad in thin metal louvers. It uses the same ionic purification technology found in healthcare and portable home devices to remove ultra-fine smog particles from the air. Three years in the making, Roosegaarde’s vision began during a trip to Beijing: “On Saturday I could see across the street, [and on] Wednesday I couldn’t,” he says. “It’s strange that we accept that we breathe this in every day. I decided it was time to take action.” The tower creates zones of purified atmosphere in outdoor public spaces, so that citizens of chronically polluted cities like Beijing can experience clean air.
According to Roosegaarde, the tower cleans 30,000 cubic meters of air per hour using 1,400 watts of power, resulting in a clean “bubble” the size of a playground or small park. The initial version, located in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, was made possible through a successful Kickstarter campaign, though the studio hopes to build other filtering towers elsewhere. In exchange for their funding, backers received products like rings and cuff-links containing black, 8.4-millimeter-cubes of particulates filtered from 1,000 cubic meters of air—a clever design provocation that transforms waste into a personal treasure.
A third example builds on the notion of provocation but at a larger scale of visible impact. Bjarke Ingels and Jakob Lange of Denmark-based architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) launched a crowdfunding campaign for what they’re calling the world’s first , a reinterpretation of the industrial smokestack for the eco-conscious city of Copenhagen, Denmark. Positioned at the highest point of BIG’s Amager Resource Center—a proposed waste-to-energy plant that will be constructed as a kind of artificial mountain covered with a public ski slope—the tower is intended to emit steam rings with every ton of carbon dioxide released from the facility. Given the challenge achieving a smoke-ring phenomenon at urban scale, the designers have employed combustion engineers and rocket scientists to work on the project.
A successful crowdfunding effort enabled the design and construction of a few working prototypes, the most recent measuring 5 meters tall and 2.5 meters in diameter, or one-third of the intended tower’s final size. A significant undertaking, the project’s ultimate aim is to reveal that which is typically concealed. “By sweeping nothing under the carpet, but rather projecting our carbon footprint onto the Copenhagen sky, we provide every single citizen intuitive information to help them inform the decisions they make for their lives and for the city that they want to live in,” the pair states on the project’s Kickstarter page.
These projects demonstrate the value of design in creating compelling syntheses of art and science in the service of a beneficial common cause. Equally important, crowdfunding is proving to be a fertile mechanism for bringing to life visions that may not otherwise have been achievable. The use of crowdfunding as a strategy to realize environmentally focused design proposals is still a fairly recent phenomenon, however, and is not without its challenges. According to MIT media scholar Rodrigo Davies in his 2014 master’s thesis on civic crowdfunding, the platform glorifies the so-called hustling artist as a kind of anti-organizational underdog focused on discrete products and outcomes, and an unforeseen consequence can be the large time investment required. He writes: “Crowdfunding often renders invisible the significant work and resources required to run a successful campaign, which are underestimated by creators.” The reality that an effective fundraising operation can be equivalent to taking on a second job, as design critic Alexandra Lange explains in her analysis of Davies’ report, may give designers pause.
Yet for the energetic and intrepid, crowdfunding presents a world of possibilities when compared with the traditional commissions-based design process. For budding designers who would like to be more entrepreneurial, Roosegaarde offers this advice: “Be more curious towards the future. Stop thinking design is only about chairs, lamps, and tables. Connect world problems with creative thinking. There's your new playground.”