Sustainability appeared in many guises at this year’s ShowRCA 2014, so it is not surprising that SustainRCA received a record number of applicants. Almost 100 graduates from across the Royal College of Art, including the new programmes Interior Design, Service Design and Information Experience Design, applied to join the SustainRCA’s dedicated programme of tutorials, talks, workshops, specialist resources and access to a professional sustainability network. As I scoured the Show, several of the SustainRCA graduates spoke warmly of the inspiration, mentoring and support that they have received from SustainRCA. The freedom to explore many meanings of sustainability is reflected in the variety of work. From new materials and processes to community projects and designs for a fairer, more transparent economy, the 36 SustainRCA Show finalists provide innovative responses to scarcity. Beauty is a powerful motivator of behavioural change.
The declining health of coral reefs has been widely reported recently, with a WWF campaign to prevent dumping in the Great Barrier Reef, and growing concern about ocean acidification, which makes it harder for corals to absorb the calcium carbonate needed to make skeletons. The delicate beauty of Monette Larson’s Aspiring Nature, certainly captures people’s attention. The series of filigree glass installations made of small glass spheres fused together in the kiln to create larger organic structures inspired by corals. Shimmering in the light, the delicate tonal turquoises and blues transport you to a marine landscape, the glass a metaphor for the fragility of marine eco-systems, where coral reefs are necessary to an estimated 25 per cent of all marine life.
If Larson’s work excites an appreciation for the sheer beauty of coral, Nell Bennett’s project, Coral3, directly tackles ocean acidification, and provides a potential income for local communities. Bennett created alkaline substrate structures to be placed up current from coral reefs. Over time, the water dissolves the alkaline structure, making the water surrounding the reef less acidic. The coral reef is strengthened, enhancing local biodiversity, providing greater coastal protection and an opportunity for well-managed tourism. The project is envisioned as a large scale social enterprise involving many stakeholders from subsistence fishermen to dive tourists, but offers potential for significant economic and environmental benefits.
Julian Melchiorri‘s Silk Leaf & Exhale is another prototype, a biomaterial derived from silk protein and chloroplasts. It is an artificial leaf that absorbs carbon dioxide and emits oxygen and biomass via the photosynthesis of stabilised chloroplasts in the silk protein. Silk Leaf can generate more oxygen and biomass than a normal leaf, depending on the number of chloroplasts embedded in the silk. Silk Leaf could be used for a variety of applications from interiors products, such as the lights pictured right, to architectural surfaces that provide air purification. Green buildings in more ways than one!
Marcin Rusak‘s Flowering Transition is a conceptual project that explores the commoditisation of flowers cultivated for the global cut-flower industry. These mass-produced flowers are often highly-engineered to accentuate their longevity, scent, colour or other commercial virtues. In consequence, some flowers have lost their scent, sense of local connection and ritual. This work is divided into five chapters: fragrance; a perishable vase made from waste flowers; a textile printed with waste flowers in gorgeous purple, pink and lilac hues; and then two chapters devoted to Flower Monster which speculates where further genetic engineering of flowers, to suit a commercial wish list, will lead. Rusak collaborated with geneticists, post harvesting specialists, engineers and floral artists to combine existing flower species, each with a different virtue. The model was 3D scanned, and after some software alchemy printed in 3D. Beware the monster created by the search for perfection.
The cultivated flower industry relies on the services of the humble bee, as do up to 90% of all wild plants, and 70 of the 100 staple crops that provide 90% of world’s food. Max Danger‘s witty Let it Bee! graphics, drawings and jewellery speculate on the future of bees to stunning effect. God save the Queen, is a beautiful pin made of 18 ct gold and diamonds. Gabriele Dini‘s Swarm’s Scale, a large installation of honeycomb provides another perspective from which to appreciate the complexity of bee’s behaviour, as it is derived from swarm data. Our appreciation needs to be for more than aesthetic. Bees numbers are in drastic decline due to factors such as diseases and parasites, climate change and wider industrial agricultural practices, including loss of wildflower meadows and deadly insecticides. Julia Johnson’s Plan Bee is a self-monitoring beehive that detects unusual activity in the bee breeding patterns and could help to detect disease or infestations. In a Plan Bee hive, a scanner captures images of the brood daily, which are then digitally analysed for any unusual patterns, and the beekeeper is alerted to any unusual symptoms. Perfect for the 99% of beekeepers registered as hobbyists that inspect their hive, on average once a fortnight.
If the many of the projects remind us that nature’s bounty is fragile and precious, others provide ways to make better use of raw materials and rescue the value that is often lost to waste. With New Value Of The Waste, Hana Mitsui developed a weaving process that revitalises discarded cloth into new, luxurious materials. Mitsui’s original yarns created from textile waste can be used for industrial and hand-weaving looms. Mitsui creates rich woven patterns inspired by traditional ikat fabrics. Neha Lad‘s Beauty In The Discarded literally shimmers as Lad’s experiments combine precious and up-cycled materials with traditional handicraft techniques.
Timothy Sadler‘s VIBE is a computer interface that uses vibration to transfer information to a digital output, without electrical circuit board. This streamlined product vastly reduces the amounts of critical raw materials used, and so their waste streams. Two projects envision a circular economy model for consumer electronics. Paul Stawenow‘s Project PHOENIX, supports design for disassembly and material recovery to tackle the a small percentage of small electronic appliances are currently recycled. PHOENIX products would be designed so the user can separate the electronic parts from the casing in a delightful way. Parts would either be put in domestic recycling or returned to the manufacturer in a pre-addressed envelope. In many portable devices, raw materials are hard to recover as components are stuck together to achieve a sleeker look and feel. Andreas Bilicki’s, eGlu is a reversible adhesive for electronic components that would enable easier bonding and separating of components, making it easier to replace a broken screen or recycle a smart phone.
With festival season in full swing, Sol Lee‘s Smart Festivals is a rental system for camping equipment with a colourful intelligent wrist band. No more lugging sleeping bags, tents and other gear to the site for festival goers. The aftermath of Glastonbury 2014 (pictured left) is typical of desolate post-festival fields littered with tents abandoned after a single use. With an average 10kg rubbish per person, much of it textile waste, the scheme would reduce the great clean up for organisers. The system would also enable intelligent affiliate partnerships, with further development. Festival goes in 2015 can travel light, travel far for their summer rites.
Change Ringing is a collaborative artwork by artist Peter Shenai and composer Laurence Osborn that would chime perfectly with Glastonbury as it combines music, sculpture, and performance to literally convey the sound of climate change. The six bronze bells have been cast in shapes mathematically derived from graphic statistical representations of summer temperatures at seventeen-year intervals over the course of the twentieth century. Arranged, and struck in order the bells ring out a sombre, inharmonious warning. It simply does not ring true. What a wonderful example of Information Experience Design, making the intangible data of climate change intuitively comprehensible.
Finally, a super, simple gadget. Ashley de Garmo and Federico Trucchia’s Mag-Cook uses a series of spinning magnets to create induction heat to cook your supper without gas or electricity. It is manually operated, so could be used anywhere you have space to pull the cord!
As Head of SustainRCA, Clare Brass said: ‘The diversity, depth and quantity of graduate work this year is unprecedented. There’s growing awareness that sustainability – environmental and social equality and justice – really underpins the fabric of our future.”
The winners across four categories, Moving Minds, Visionary Process, Inspired Product and Solutions for Society, will be selected from the 36 finalists, and announced at a private view on 17 September. Each receive a bursary of £5,000 to support their ongoing work in sustainability. The SustainRCA Show and Awards will then run from 18 September–3 October, supported by the Genesys Foundation and Climate-Kic. I hope to catch up with a few of the finalists before the show to tell their story in fuller form, so watch this space!
Image credits: Adam Gray/SWNS.com; SustainRCA