Interview with Daan Roosegaarde on the Smart Highways project

The Smart Highway, developed by Studio Roosegaarde in The Netherlands aims to reinvent not only the way highway networks look and behave, but also our interaction and connection with them. “In cities like Los Angeles or New York, the roads dictate the landscape even more than the buildings,” states Daan Roosegaarde, founder of the Studio. “So it’s strange that the designer is completely absent from the design of the road from a functional and safety point of view.”

Winner of the ‘Best Future Concept’ at the Dutch Design Awards 2012, the Smart Highway is a “smart” alternative to traditional streetlights, signage and wayfinding replacing these with glow in the dark, temperature sensitive decals that reveal themselves only when necessary.

Icsid sat down with Daan on a recent visit to New York City to discuss the vision and mechanics behind the Smart Highway and how he’s working towards developing a more poetic landscape, globally.

Q: There is an interesting mix of professional expertise relating to materials, engineering, as well as industrial, graphic and interaction design that played an integral part of the Smart Highway system. Tell us about your design team.

Studio Roosegaarde was founded five years ago and the teams in The Netherlands and Shanghai (China) comprise 12 staff, half of which are designers and architects, the other half cover the technical and software development side of the business. The Studio focuses on landscapes and processes rather than the creation of specific product. We don’t think the world needs any more products, but we want to focus on the space in between, the processes that link them together.

Our main objective is to work on processes that connect people in a more emotional way with their environments; whether it’s a public square or a highway – it doesn’t matter. The public is in the DNA of our projects.

Q: What was the driving force behind the Smart Highway concept? Was it the environmental, technology, sustainability, design?

It’s about making roads not only safer and more energy neutral, but also more poetic.  There was a huge environmental and technological component; we knew we wanted to stay away from any hardware – no LED lights, microchips or cables. This lead to the development of a photo-luminescent paint that charges during the day and glows at night to illuminate the highways.

In France, The Netherlands and in Belgium, the government is turning off streetlights in some areas because they cannot afford the electrical bills. A 4% increase in casualties due to lack of light in The Netherlands has been reported. It proves there is absolutely a niche market for this type of development. The old system is crumbling in terms of economy and energy and I think it is the role of the designer, not to make another chair or another lamp, but to determine how we can design our environments to be self-sufficient, social and safe.

Q: The transportation industry as we know it today is fuelled by innovation, where cars are continually adapting their design, improving efficiency and adding new features. But, very little attention has been paid to road design until now. Why do you think this is?

It’s true; the budget is always focused on cars – making them safer, more glamorous, more beautiful. But it’s the roads that actually determine where we’re going and how fast we can get there. There is definitely a gap in the market, which created this niche for Smart Highways.

Studio Roosegaarde wanted to skip all the hardware and signs that didn’t mean anything. What is the purpose of having a permanent sign on the side of the road warning of slippery snow conditions in the middle of summer? This was the driving force behind the photo-luminescent decals – to make the highway more intelligent showing only information that is pertinent.

Q: Have you done any comparative analysis on costs vis-à-vis the smart highway versus the more traditional elements of the road, be it signage, lighting, etc?

People always want something new, for the price of the old. Right now, looking at the numbers, the Smart Highway is more expensive than the highways we currently drive on. However, if you calculate all the components of a traditional highway, including the lights, cables, maintenance and sum it up over a larger period of time, the Smart Highway becomes quite price competitive.

More than the price, it is important to look at the added value of this new technology. The technological and social value is immeasurably higher. Introducing a new priority lane for example, coated in a special paint, allows electrical cards to charge while driving will only encourage energy neutrality.

Q: Tell us a bit more about what you will be testing specifically during the pilot phase in The Netherlands later this year. What are you hoping to find out and what is the plan going forward?

We have a three-year partnership with Heijmans Infrastructure, one of the largest highway manufacturers in Europe. We are launching several pilots; some have an economical agenda and others a social agenda.

Testing will begin in November in Brabant, not far from Eindhoven. These first few hundred meters currently don’t have any light fixtures, so we’re not taking anything down or turning the lights off. It will stay energy neutral.

In the coming three years, we want to ensure this project keeps moving forward and doesn’t get stopped by roadblocks, literally and figuratively. There are new objects and processes in the works that will only continue to improve the Smart Highway system. We are currently working on a printer that is attached to a car that can directly print the snowflakes or other signage directly onto the road. We can mix different ingredients in the paint that affect its lifespan, some paints last for one day, others for 10 years.

Q: Do you imagine a world where all highways are replaced by Smart Highways? What are some of the opportunities and challenges?

We want to apply this to all-existing roads, not just for new roads, or ones that have existing infrastructure.

Since we launched this project 10 months ago, there has been a lot of positive attention around the Smart Highway and we have received several requests to add new features and implement tests in several areas. Another aspect, one we didn’t anticipate, was that citizens are lobbying their government to implement our technology. They see the footage and prototypes our studio has created at design fairs and on the news and want to know why it hasn’t yet become a reality in The Netherlands.

The largest challenge is the context, the people who don’t believe until they are desperate that this is a solution they can adopt to improve every aspect of our existing roads; but that makes our job more interesting, convincing people that this is the future.

Q: What’s next for the Smart Highway?

We want to keep moving forward, in 2014, we hope to bring the Smart Highway to the international market. We’re looking at Aruba, South Africa, Saudi Arabia.

We’re currently working on a project in Aruba that will hopefully also serve as the gateway to Latin America allowing us to work with big cities that have major problems with regards to roads and are open to alternative and smart solutions. We’re not interested in developing this project as a novelty for wealthy cities. We would rather work with a city like Cape Town (South Africa) where although there is no budget, there is a belief in the project.

It may not be easy, but I like that. Studio Roosegaarde is a lab. We’re constantly working on new projects and creating new visions for our landscape.

Find out more about Studio Roosegaarde at

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