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Can innovation alone create a sustainable future?

Ooho innovation

An innovative way to package water - Ooho. © Ooho - Pierre Paslier, Rodrigo García González and Guillaume Couche

At a recent visit to the ‘Looking Forwards’ Royal College of Art (RCA) graduate show in London I found myself surrounded by pieces that could herald a bright new world.

If human ingenuity and creativity are freed from corporate desire and allowed to explore without profit as a guide, great things can happen.

Serious problems emerging in the natural world are considered in work such as Nell Bennett’s ‘Coral 3’, which counters the devastation of the world’s coral reefs.

‘I have developed a method to create localized de-acidification around coral reefs to strengthen their foundations for biodiversity, coastal protection and touristic enjoyment,’ Nell explains on the RCA website. ‘The physical outcome is an alkaline substrate structure that is placed up current of the reef. Over time the water flow dissolves the alkaline structure, making the surrounding water less acidic.’

Julia Johnson’s ‘Plan Bee’ could alleviate another disastrous modern phenomenon, Colony Collapse Disorder, which is killing off 23 per cent of the British bee population each year. Plan Bee is a simple early-warning monitoring system that uses wifi to alert beekeepers to the first signs of unusual behaviour patterns within a hive.

The voracious appetite for electronic devices that quickly become ‘obsolete’ because of regular and dubiously ‘necessary’ upgrades results in around 80 per cent of them being thrown into landfill. Recycling these devices has been made harder by the use of adhesives that bind all the parts together within sleeker designs. Andreas Bilicki’s ‘eGlu’ is a reversible adhesive inspired by the feet of geckos. It is a thermoplastic, structural adhesive with ferromagnetic particles that can be heated selectively, allowing the easy disassembling of specific parts, making full recycling very simple.

One of the darkest developments in a world of turbo-charged senseless consumerism has been the creation of a ‘need’ for bottled water, made all the more ridiculous when you consider that it takes three litres of water to process the plastic needed for a one-litre bottle of water. ‘Ooho’, inspired by the way nature encapsulates liquids using membranes, is a double gelatinous membrane using brown algae and calcium chloride that allows you to package water in a cheap, biodegradable, even edible way that you can make in your own kitchen. It’s an attractive way to wean people off using – and discarding – plastic bottles and is a deserved winner by the design team of Pierre Paslier, Guillaume Couche and Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez.

All of these undoubtedly creative designs are solutions to problems that are human made or, at least, caused by an economic and political system that has infinite growth as its guiding principle, regardless of any damage to our ecosystem or unnecessary depletion of our natural resources. There would be no need to save the coral reefs if our species did not pollute and wreck nature and no need to devise easier ways of recycling if built-in obsolescence and waste was not normal practice.

Two further exhibits indicate a more direct solution. Janice Lau’s ‘The Public Abattoir’ is a travelling ‘atrocity exhibit’ where visitors witness the slaughter of animals for meat, a powerful disincentive to continue eating animals. The meat industry is one of the main contributors to climate change, making the travelling exhibition a powerful tool for change.

Finally, Pierre Paslier presents an array of brilliant tools for what he calls ‘advanced activism’. Recognizing that activism has to continually evolve creatively, Paslier has developed a remote-controlled car with a paint dispenser, which can be used to draw huge images on public surfaces; a drone that can deliver banners and messages directly to hard-to-reach places; and a new guerrilla form of projecting images. Although this activist toolkit is ‘playful’, Paslier draws attention to the threat of the TTIP, the Lobbying Bill and the fact that the Metropolitan Police have recently acquired water cannons, indicating that now more than ever, civil disobedience, creative resistance and direct action are becoming the last tools for change in a democracy that has long passed into being a neoliberal corporatocracy.

The ‘Looking Forwards’ show continues until 3 October.

Jamie Kelsey-Fry can be found on Twitter @jamiekelseyfry

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