“Protocells” from Rachel Armstrong’s research into “Living Architecture”

3D printing is advertised as technology for everyone, but it is not. It does not change the consumptive paradigm, Rachel Armstrong recently claimed during a master class on the ecological human in the 21st century in Eindhoven.

We are thoroughly trapped in the ideal of industrialization, Armstrong told participants. We have become completely dependent on the technical manufacturing process. 3D printing and all the manufacturing tools are great, but they are incredibly polluting and proliferate consumption, and are entirely isolated from the environment.

The master class on the ecological human in the 21st century was organized by artist-designer Arne Hendriks and designer and scientist Rachel Armstrong at Baltan Laboratories – aka Natlab – in Eindhoven. Armstrong is one of the speakers at WDCD14.

If renewable energy were free for everybody, Armstrong said, we would consume even more and faster. The bottleneck of the material realm is the concept of the parasite as the driver of social relations. Everybody wants to take, but not to give something back. What we need is long-term mutual engagement, not short-term solutions for crises. Finding an alternative to the machine could be a starting point. We have new ways of thinking, but they are being constrained and pushed back by prevailing norms. We need to dig more into this.


“The ecological being” is a way to rethink what we are, who we are, and what our relationship with ecology should be. This requires a holistic approach, in which bio-mimicry by appearance is not good enough. Works like those of Dunne and Raby, or the Nanomarket by Next Nature, are great examples, but they are all about making products.

Things are not always about design, and design is not always about things, Armstrong said. There are also ideas, concepts and science fictions. In order to interrogate this field, we have to immerse ourselves in the matter. Action should be about involvement, not just about sitting and thinking. Design can create a vision of possibility. While biodesign has huge potential, it risks being re-simulated back into the program of industrial production and machines.

In Armstrong’s vision we must consider all aspects of the ecological being, ecological technology, ecological city and ecological community in order to reconnect with all the beings in the world.

This post was first published on What Design Can Do blog.




“World change starts with educated children” is the slogan of Room to Read, an NGO helping children in developing countries break the cycle of poverty by acquiring literacy, and helping me fulfil my dream of storytelling.

I was born and raised in Mekong Delta, Vietnam. I was lucky to have quite a few children’s books to read during my childhood. My mom checked many bookshops and newspaper stands for children’s books. I still remember some of them in brown jackets with thin pages filled with stories of foreign places I had never heard of. They brought me great happiness and companionship and a knack for imagining stories.

Twenty years later, I had the chance to write stories for children myself in collaboration with Room to Read (RtR), the organization founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood. In 2000, on holiday in Nepal, Wood visited a school in a remote village. When the headmaster showed him the ‘library’, the cupboard contained just a few books.

The rest is history: Wood quit Microsoft to start Room to Read for the dispersion of books and literacy. RtR now has operations in ten developing countries, where local staff stimulates the local production of children’s books.

Last week I had a chance to talk to Phong Le, country director of Room to Read Vietnam, about this publishing program.

“RtR has a program to publish picture books in local languages,” he explained. “Targeted at children who start learning to read, the stories have to be interesting, engaging and pleasant to read. Only when children like what they read, their reading skill and capabilities can be improved. At first we prioritized stories relating to Vietnamese culture, but we found that children’s engagement with the story must be the first and foremost requirement. It is not good if the story is forced within a theme frame of culture or tradition, but fails to captivate the children.”

Being an organization for development, RtR works with local authors and artists. “The picture books that RtR wants to make are a new concept to the Vietnamese authors and artists,” Phong Le said. “By organizing workshops and seminars for them, we want to extend their skill set, so that they also benefit in long-term. That is the ideology of RtR.”

The country director is motivated most “by the visible result and perceptible effects on the pupils and the schools,” he told. “For example, I feel very happy whenever seeing a new school library being opened. The same happens with the Book Publishing program. Each year I am very proud to see new picture books being published in great quality and with good content.”


RtR book fair on literacy day in Vietnam


Girl’s education program in Bangladesh

This post was first published on What Design Can Do blog.



The Amsterdam Center for Entrepreneurship put art and design students together with students from other disciplines in Grit Project to tackle real societal problems.

I came to Amsterdam six months ago to study Design Cultures. Around the city, I have discovered many things to see and enjoy, but few things to do. Part of the reason is the language barrier, since I do not speak Dutch — not yet anyway. Another part is the lack of a platform for people like me to engage with the local community. My classmates and I usually meet at school for lectures, but rarely elsewhere. Sometimes we hang out at cafés and bars. Communication with students from other disciplines and other schools occurs even less often.

By chance or some mysterious force, I found the missing puzzle piece in late February: the Grit Project, where students from various disciplines in Amsterdam worked collaboratively in teams to solve community problems.

Project manager Femmy van den Elsaker explains: “The Amsterdam Center for Entrepreneurship initiated Grit Project from a thought: Let’s bring creative students from Amsterdam School of the Arts and Gerrit Rietveld Academy together with students from other disciplines like business administration, medicine, marketing, and see what happens when they work in a multi-disciplinary team and talk about designs, concepts and entrepreneurship.”


Among the assignments we could work on were: bring vibrancy to Amsterdam Science Park, expand the mobile application iKringloop, and design playful products for the elderly. For the first two days, the teams attended workshops and received support from coaches. On the third day, each team pitched its ideas in front of a jury and other participants.

Solving any of the proposed problems in just three days surely sounded impossible at first, but we managed. We were highly motivated due to the perceptible goal of the project. Working on a real societal problem, not some sort of hypothetical case, with so much support from the multi-disciplinary teammates and organizers, created the kind of framework I think any designers or design researchers would love to have.

My team consisted of five members with five different nationalities studying five different disciplines (Design Cultures, Jazz, Pedagogical Science, Design Lab, Interaction Design & Unstable Media). It was an example of diversity at its very best. We took on the assignment of designing playful products for the elderly.

The result was a line of products called ‘Ballie’ made especially for elderly people suffering from dementia. Each product takes the shape of a ball with different properties, in which you can see the expertise of each of our team members. We were very happy with the results. And what is more, our team was selected as winner of Grit Project 2014.


This post was first published on What Design Can Do blog.



Mount an old door leaf onto a bike wheel and you get “Cyclo”, a movable working unit.


Compose patterned panels you can swivel to create the desired level of privacy and you get “Spin It”, a lightweight, foldable paravent.


These solid and durable products in traditional materials are created by Future Living Studio (FLS), a meeting of Vietnamese and western design minds in Hanoi that resulted in a collection of furniture, all made of bamboo and rattan. In a new edition, FLS is currently active in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The aim is to turn Vietnam and Cambodia from countries that just produce things into ones that design them too.

A second aim of FLS is to bridge the gap between designers and producers by involving both of them at all stages of development, from user research to communication with craftsmen. All the products in the collection made in FLS’s 3rd edition in Hanoi – the first two editions were held in Ho Chi Minh city – were developed with craftsmen from Xuan Lai, a company specialized in sold and smoked bamboo furniture, and Thanh Dat, a small workshop that produces furniture made of rattan, both located close to Hanoi.

Designers Tran Hoang, Nguyen Ha Phuong and Nguyen Thi Thu from Vietnam teamed up with Philippa Abbott (Australia), Michael Schuster (Germany) and Audrey Charles (France) for three months and produced prototypes that are both vernacular and sustainable. In addition to “Cyclo” and “Spin It”, the collection includes “Sit.And” (office chair), “Sen” (multipurpose element), “BB” (workstation), “Hai Den” (stackable light), and “XL Redesign” (chair).

Vietnam is a developing country in which sustainability is viewed as a luxury and design rarely extends beyond appearance. FLS want to change attitudes by educating designers, producers and consumers, and by building a design community in Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia with local and international partners.

The project is funded by SWITCH-Asia and Delft University of Technology.

This post was first published on What Design Can Do blog.



A small open-source device with low-cost sensors helps citizens to establish the actual conditions of their living environment. By measuring and sharing levels of air pollution, noise and light pollution, temperature and humidity, participants of Smart Citizen generate data that can help them to improve the quality of their environment.

Smart Citizen is a crowdfunded, crowdsourced and open-source distributed sensor network aimed at stimulating the participation of citizens in the improvement of their city. The project was formed by Fab Lab Barcelona at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, which focuses on the impact of new technologies to human habitat. Smart Citizen was successfully funded through Kickstarter in June 2013.

For the project low-cost sensors were developed that can measure carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, noise, light, and humidity levels at a given place. Participants in the Smart Citizen project, that is currently tested in Barcelona, can upload the measured data to their iPhones and from there to the Smart Citizen website.

The website may need some study for a first visitor to understand all data displayed, but it looks great. The idea is that by connecting data, people and knowledge in a project like this one, people can actually contribute to the development and improvement of their cities.

The bigger objective of the makers is to investigate how to build a real Smart City. Considering that the project was awarded the Initiative Award of World Smart Cities Awards in September 2013, they are on the right track.


In the Netherlands a similar project, funded by the Lung Foundation, demonstrates how smartphone users can help raise awareness about the health aspect of the air quality that we breathe in every day.

This post was first published on What Design Can Do blog.