A Call For Optimism

The 2021 SEOUL DESIGN INTERNATIONAL FORUM has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

SPEAKER: Richard van der Laken (Co-founder & Creative Director What Design Can do)

What Design Can Do

Approximately 10 years ago, Denmark designers organized the design group What Design Can Do. It is a design studio that leads and forms various initiatives. Moreover, it has developed into an international organization with principal offices in six countries at present. Focusing on establishing international design community, What Design Can Do plays an active part in providing solutions for significant issues in today’s society. As we all know, the climate crisis is the most significant assignment for humanity in this era. What Design Can Do focuses on climate issues to consider deeply how design can fulfill social responsibilities and contribute to society.

What Design Can Do launched a “No Waste Challenge” a few months ago. Designers took part in producing videos and distributing them for publicity. Numerous designers on screen confessed that their productions had been “disposable works.” They warned that the design accelerates valuable resources to become the disposable ones. As the “take-make-waste” model creates products with extremely short life spans, it is required to shift to a society where circulatory productions can be made. The design field is responsible for waste recycling. 91% of plastics worldwide are non-recyclable, and 30% of food is either damaged or wasted. That is why we must view waste differently. We are responsible for taking care of our non-recyclable creations that we made. We need to change the way we design and reinvent our whole relationship between products and services. To the public, designers stressed the need for new eco-friendly ideas and encouraged aggressive participation in the “No Waste Challenge” campaign. It started out as a campaign mainly aiming at viral videos about no waste ideas. Later on, it received positive responses and went viral.

What Design Can Do sincerely considers what designs can do for our society. Design is not simply about creating aesthetic figures that look good in the eyes but a creative force that changes society. Our design group is a down-to-earth organization that thinks meticulously about practical matters with a positive, optimistic attitude. What Design Can Do has developed through various activities in the last decade, and it currently holds annual conferences in Amsterdam, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo. Along with designers worldwide, creators, entrepreneurs, NGOs, and government officials from each country join the conference to seek opportunities and visions aiming at design innovation. Capital, technologies, or policies of international organizations cannot solve every issue in the world. The world we live in today needs creativity of design as a fundamental solution for alternative strategies, new ideas, and challenging mindsets. As such, What Design Can Do operates participatory platforms such as blogs and social media to discuss various issues on design, climate change, social problems, health, and well-being. These activities promote new, innovative ideas and insights for critical issues in today’s society. We also hold challenge targeting design communities to draw new solutions for social issues, such as refugee problems and climate change. It uploads and shares various ideas made by creators on the online platform. The best idea is then selected by the judging committee, which is later commercialized or developed into a business model through the accelerator program. In the near future, What Design Can Do is planning to hold a challenge about energy and safety in local cities throughout five continents, along with the new conference in Mexico City. Anyone seeking to participate may do so through our website: WHATDESIGNCANDO.COM.


What Design Can Do focuses on the positive influence of design and develops and operates a social impact design program accordingly. Let me share with you some core factors of this program.


Diverse events are held from the very first day, including conferences, festivals, workshops, parties, and interview sessions. They deliver significant values by attracting various people, providing insights, promoting collaboration, and forming communities. The program is held as an online workshop including the sites in Amsterdam, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, and local partners in Nairobi and Tokyo. Social medias are used to form communities, and various types of communication are attempted through collaboration with international media partners. For example, during the Clean Energy Challenge Campaign, we produced the “I AM” series targeting five cities: Amsterdam, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Nairobi, and New Delhi. Each city’s creative community took the lead in offering words of encouragement for participants to join the Green Energy Challenge.


The most important part of our social impact design program is the Design Challenge Program. Starting with the challenge to respond to refugee crises centered on Europe and Middle East in 2016, it subsequently implemented the Climate Action Challenge in 2017, the Child Sexual Exploitation Challenge in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands, the global Green Energy Challenge in 2018, and the No Waste Challenge (2020) targeting five metropolitan cities. In other words, the Design Challenge Program aims at providing solutions to urgent global issues. Every challenge targets people worldwide through open calls, and all kinds of great ideas were collected through detailed proposals. What Design Can Do was provided with simple ideas as well as high-quality ones with design-based initiatives, including unique insights. Such ideas gave us confidence that we were doing the right thing and that we had to go on.


The critical question is: How do we make this happen? And how flexible should the process be?

After being briefed by designers, we proceed with the task, hold discussions on the target selection, and support designers in developing and accomplishing their projects.

Thus, the first thing we do is research. We organize a lab by inviting experts worldwide for each subject, including designers, creators, and architects. Each lab collects and integrates knowledge shared by experts for designers to go on with their tasks. More specifically, we collaborate with our affiliated professional researchers, brainstorm through a particular methodology, and share each session’s briefing through our website. Then, we implement PR activities to support designers in submitting their proposals.

After the open call ends, we assess and select proposals filled with wonderful ideas based on their initiatives. We see various proposers worldwide, from design startups to professional design studios. It is a highly challenging task, but the assessment is done based on detailed criteria such as the initiative’s potential, the team organization, and the leader’s qualifications. We provide funding promptly after the target has been selected to realize and maintain the idea.

The “take-make-waste,” a model handling waste issues with our research cases, highlights the fact that humanity collects excessive amounts of resources from the earth. Products made from non-recyclable resources and disposable goods are exceedingly inappropriate for the society and the environment since waste produced from such products is unmanageable and noncollectable. What Design Can Do realized the shortcomings of the take-make-waste model and proposed a slightly different model accordingly. The refined model’s processes are to “take less,” “make better,” and “handle smarter.” The research briefing was uploaded on our website for designers to view and access, and designers worldwide referenced the briefing for the proposed topic during the open call period.

What Design Can Do closely works with partners to provide funds for the award winners. IKEA is a VIP partner in providing funds to design-based startups, providing opportunities to use the fund to maintain, develop, and realize their works. The accelerator program plays a leading role, too. The winner develops a separate project for three months through an intensive accelerator program or promotes even more tremendous growth by expanding business plan through prototype development and evaluations.

Let me introduce a few examples and cases of accelerating program operations supported by What Design Can Do. First, BEE HIVE presents new alternatives to cool down urban heat through an initiative in New Delhi, India, which concerns installing differently-sized structures in public facilities and private houses. BEE HIVE is an interesting initiative that uses the air cooling principle, which cools water immediately after being poured into the pottery, a knowledge coming from ancient times. Another significant initiative is RADIAL, an award-winning project of the No Waste Challenge. It applies biotechnologies to transform agricultural waste into carbon-neutral materials. We are currently supporting its subsequent developmental stages. Finally, we have the power plant initiative developed by a Dutch designer, the winner of the first Climate Action Challenge in 2017. The work presented the self-powering greenhouse, a beautiful combination of design and technology and the world’s first attempt to self-supply electric power. The designer’s goal is to install self-powering greenhouses in yards or rooftops for all in the future. This is a positive and beautiful vision for a better future.



Accelerating Cases of What Design Can Do

Until now, What Design Can Do has selected 40 initiatives and supported and proceeded with accelerating programs. Every participant has big dreams and expectations about the future and continuously strives to pull off a successful initiative. 32 out of 40 teams continue their businesses with EUR 15 million worth of investment funds. This is a positive signal that many investors show interest in and agree with design-based initiatives’ effectiveness for climate issues.


First, What Design Can Do has an ongoing large-scale program called No Waste Challenge, which plans to reduce the amount of waste and emissions to respond to climate change. Campaign activities aggressively use networks and communities and various content, including videos. The channels have far-reaching power and effect throughout the world.

The No Waste Challenge, which arranged open calls for innovative solutions to prevent design products from turning into waste, held a media campaign to reset the take-make-waste process. The campaign raised awareness and encouraged designers or innovators to propose ideas. What Design Can Do wrote advanced research on waste issues and consumerism, providing positive insights for solutions to numerous designers and creators. The campaign was held initially as a public offering for the whole world.

People all around the world visited the No Waste Challenge platform and downloaded the briefing, and campaign content demonstrated intuitive graphic keywords in the communication area. It also promoted waste issues to be handled from a more design-centered perspective. This message was spread through What Design Can Do founder Richard van der Laken’s contribution as well as global designers and several videos. As a result, the contest achieved extraordinary outcomes. 1,409 ideas were submitted from 105 countries, the highest record in history, with over 300,000 platform visitors. The contest was mentioned on social media approximately 15 million times, with a 6.7% increase in online participation rate and an 11% increase in social media followers. The final stage of the No Waste Challenge is selecting the award-winning idea and realizing it to respond to global waste issues, thereby creating substantial impact. Waste and trash can become an idea. Since we produce trash, we can get rid of it, too. The global creative community can take part in these solutions more actively. It is incredibly significant to establish a creative community and exercise our imagination to take various countermeasures against urban matters, including climate change. We must remember that designers have creative power that turns imaginations and innovative solutions into reality.

We are looking forward to meeting everyone in Seoul, Amsterdam, or other cities, and we hope many people share ideas on various subjects on our websites and social media platforms.

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