WDE Spotlight: Bertrand Burgers

In WDE Spotlight, we give the floor to several designers from the Embassies. This time we speak with Bertrand Burgers, part of the Embassy of Health at Dutch Design Week 2023. What is his background? What inspires him? What does he hope to achieve with his work? You can read about it in this Q&A!

Type Update
Published on 18 October 2023
Part of Embassy of Health
WDE Spotlight: Bertrand Burgers
Part of Embassy of Health

Can you tell a little more about yourself, your background and your design practice?

My practice is at the intersection of design and science. This is a direction that originated during the Crossover Creativity master’s programme at HKU. In my projects, I work with scientists on complex and abstract themes. With art and design, I can make these themes accessible to a large audience, offer new perspectives or make possible implications tangible. What my works have in common is that they allow you to experience a tangible perspective of the future that stimulates the imagination and about which we can engage in conversation. Because experience and emotion are central, different insights arise than when debated purely from the ratio. This is interesting for scientists because for them, it is often a challenge to make their complex subject matter discussable for the general public, while they like to enter into that dialogue; especially when it comes to ethically debatable technologies of which it is important that the views of society are included in their development, genetic modification for example. Early this year, I founded my own design studio Symbiose within which I want to bring scientists and designers together.

At WDE, we believe that design thinking is fundamental to arriving at new solution directions for complex social issues. How do you see that as a designer?

Exactly like that. I think many complex social issues are completely bogged down by a lack of imagination. We keep trying to do the same thing and then hope for different outcomes. In addition, it seems that politicians no longer dare to make choices and are only concerned with their four-year policy period. Citizens want to change, but do not always know how and have less influence than business and governments. As a result, we are all putting out fires that may solve something today, but get us into all the bigger problems tomorrow. Design thinking offers a cure by coming up with new vistas and concrete solution directions, and then also being able to implement them quickly and without huge sums of money. I find the latter in particular a great strength. Having the courage to do it, to learn and adjust along the way.

Initmate Implant - Bertrand Burgers - credits: Jasper Zijlstra

Your project Intimate Implant is part of the Embassy of Health during Dutch Design Week 2023. What can you tell us about the project and the phase it is in?

Medical ethicists Manon van Daal and Anne-Floor de Kanter of the UMC Utrecht asked me late last year to design an interactive art installation about regenerative implants. That is a new type of implant that is replaced by the body’s own tissue and eventually breaks down by itself. However, that technology still raises some questions, such as the literal fusion of your body with a technology, in this case an implant. And what if that implant helped you regain mobility, do you want it to break down again? Does that possibly cause feelings of insecurity or alienation from your own body? And of course, it deals with a larger question: how do we actually want to live together with technology? Manon and Anne-Floor gave me the freedom to explore those types of questions, come up with new angles of my own, or just raise new questions.

During the research phase of the project, I focused particularly on the emotional relationship between human and implant, turning the perspective by asking: what is it actually like for an implant to live for a year in, with and in the service of a human? In turn, that perspective raised all sorts of new questions. The final work is three artistic objects, each representing a type of implant. The intention is for visitors to become intimate with the objects by holding it against their body, followed by an emotional farewell message from the implant.

Why did you choose to participate in the Embassy?

To me, Embassy is a familiar name that I always enjoy visiting during Dutch Design Week myself. They have a wide reach and attract a diverse audience that is relevant to me, including business, government, scientists and healthcare professionals. In addition, the Embassy has a clear focus on addressing social problems, which is always an important spearhead in my work as well. And in terms of theme, Intimate Implant naturally fits in very well with the Embassy of Health.

What are the next steps for Intimate Implants?

The next phase is that we want to exhibit the work in as many places as possible. In parallel, we will start a study on the impact of the work. But for now, I am especially looking forward to seeing and hearing how people react to the work.

‘An important premise of my projects is that I want new knowledge to be developed. This is also one of the reasons why I work so intensively with scientists, so that the insights gained can really land in their practices.’

How do you hope your work makes impact?

An important premise of my projects is that I want new knowledge to be developed. This is also one of the reasons why I work so intensively with scientists, so that the insights gained can really land in their practices. For example, now that we are exhibiting with Intimate Implant, scientists from the UMC Utrecht are starting their research into the reactions and impact of the work, and are writing a report about it which in turn will be shared within our funding partner INKplant, a consortium developing regenerative implants. But also insights that already emerged during the process, for example my focus on the emotional relationship between human and implant – a perspective that still receives little attention in science – are shared and discussed among themselves. In this way, I hope that my work really contributes to new knowledge and inspiration for scientists, and that scientists see the value of collaborating with designers.

In addition, I hope to make visitors aware of the possible implications of emerging technologies in an accessible way. Sometimes technology can be so complex and abstract that it is difficult for many people to grasp what the impact might be. I hope my work helps with that. Then, the next time it’s about genetic modification, artificial intelligence or implants at a birthday, that someone can have a substantive conversation and take a stand.

What is a dream project you would like to realise in the future and why?

I would like to design something on a really large scale someday. I read in Walt Disney’s biography that he wanted to design an entire city from scratch, which he called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Pretty crazy, but also inspiring. I don’t really have a dream project I think. I mostly dream of building a place where artists, designers and scientists can collaborate with each other on innovative projects that have social impact. I would like to facilitate such a place. I don’t always have to be the executive designer myself.

Suppose you get to choose one person for the ultimate collaboration (a scientist, artist, philosopher, biologist, designer, politician, whoever). Who would you choose and why?

I think Neri Oxman is fantastic and a great role model. I would love to collaborate with her, especially to learn from her design process and how she manages her company. How does she come up with innovative projects and ideas, where does she get funding, how does she make sure her projects have impact?

Intimate Implant - Bertrand Burgers - credits: Jasper Zijlstra

What tips do you give healthcare professionals when working with designers on an issue?

Go in with an open attitude and also try to let go. I personally notice that the design process can be quite exciting for non-designers. You start something without knowing what it will deliver on the back end. The designer knows from experience: something beautiful always comes out of it, but we don’t yet know what or how. But non-designers often don’t have that confidence yet. Then it helps if you can let go of a very specific end goal and let yourself be carried along by the process. That is more fun for all parties and ultimately contributes to a better end product.

Later when you look back on your career as a designer. What do you hope to have accomplished then?

First and foremost, I hope to continue doing many and long beautiful projects myself.But as mentioned earlier, I also hope to eventually build a place to facilitate other designers and scientists in setting up and executing beautiful projects.And it would be nice if by then it is more the norm than the exception for designers and scientists to work together, and that I have been able to make a small contribution to that.

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