WDE Spotlight: Hollandse Luchten

In WDE Spotlight, we give the floor to various designers from the Embassies. This time we talk to Imme Ruares, concept developer at Waag and part of the Embassy of Health. What is her background? What inspires her? What does Waag hope to achieve with their work? You can read it in this Q&A!

Type Update
Published on 2 June 2022
Part of Embassy of Health
WDE Spotlight: Hollandse Luchten
Part of Embassy of Health

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and about Waag?

My name is Imme Ruarus, I am a concept developer at the Smart Citizens Lab of Waag Futurelab. Waag is a creative research institution from Amsterdam that contributes to research into, and the design and development of a sustainable, just society. The Smart Citizens Lab is one of Waag’s research groups and focuses on how people can use technology to take ownership of their own lives and living environment. Residents conduct their own research and use open technology to map their own environment. By gathering data and gaining insights themselves, they obtain tools to improve their own quality of life. In this way, they create a perspective for action.

The project Dutch Skies is part of the Embassy of Health. What can you tell us about this project, and what stage is it in now?

Dutch Skies is a citizen measurement initiative in which residents themselves map the air quality with sensors. Because they collect data themselves, they strengthen their information position – namely, everyone has access to the same information – and thus an equal dialogue can be conducted with governments and companies. 

The project is in a very interesting phase right now. Since 2019, measurement communities in the IJmond region and Amsterdam North have been measuring air quality. These local measurement communities form the starting point for the research: What does the presence of Tata Steel mean for the air quality of the IJmond region? And the port area in the north of Amsterdam? We are currently closing this measurement period by analyzing the data together with residents, data experts and the Province of Noord-Holland and looking at how we can use that data and these insights. At the same time, we are now in the middle of preparations for the next measurement period. In this we are building on the insights we gained from the first period. We are looking at which measurement questions have been answered and drawing up a new measurement plan. We are also using the technical knowledge we have gained to further improve the quality of the data in the future. When this data is of higher quality, it can be used by more parties (such as municipalities) and when more parties use the data, the perspective for action to bring about change increases. 

Can you explain how your project relates to the story of this Embassy?

The Embassy of Health focuses on chronic health, the idea that health depends on many different factors and that everyone can contribute to it. That ties in very closely with Dutch Skies. We see society as a community that conducts research together and uses citizen science for that purpose: not research into residents, but with them. Air quality is a complex problem that is literally invisible but at the same time affects everyone and where individual actions are not enough to change anything. It is precisely by working together with residents, experts and authorities that everyone can put together a piece of the puzzle. That does not mean that we will have a solution tomorrow, but it does mean that we can work together on that solution by building bridges between different parties.

What was the main starting point of the Dutch Skies project?

Dutch Skies is a pioneering project, researching and experimenting with a new collaboration between residents, experts and authorities. It is a citizen monitoring network consisting of residents, the Province of North Holland and organizations such as the RIVM and GGD. That makes it strong. Residents themselves, together with experts, draw up their measurement strategy, collect data about air quality, and analyze the data. Based on this, we can discuss the living environment with each other to see whether there are options for follow-up actions. Air quality concerns everyone, so everyone has something to say about it. The data we collect is open data, so everyone has access to it and can view and use it. In addition to a citizen measurement network, Dutch Skies is perhaps, even more, a platform on which all these different parties can enter into dialogue with each other. For example, residents, RIVM, GGD and the Province of Noord-Holland regularly meet and work together. It is unique that there is structural cooperation in this way.

Residents also know a lot about the place they live, and what works and what doesn't. Everyone is an expert in their own living environment. That knowledge is extremely important.
— Imme Ruares

Dutch Skies is a collaborative project involving local residents, among others. Why is it so important that local residents measure air quality themselves?

Air measurements are carried out very well and accurately by official organisations. But is that information also accessible to and understandable for residents? And what can they do with an official report if it turns out that the air quality in their area is bad? Residents are often the ones who are missing from conversations about air quality and how it can be improved. At Dutch Skies they, the measurement communities are the starting point for measuring air quality. They build up their knowledge, but they also sit at the table to make their voices heard. This is the most important aspect for me: The point is that air quality is not measured only by residents or only by experts and that they then draw conclusions from the measurements in isolation. The aim is to talk to each other, to learn together and to take the next steps together. 

Residents also know a lot about the place they live and what works and what doesn’t. Everyone is an expert in their own living environment. That knowledge is extremely important. Within Dutch Skies there are a number of very active participants, the Dutch Heroes, who provide input and participate in decision-making. Their knowledge and experiences – for example, about the maintenance of the sensors in the raw maritime climate or about the local air quality issues – coupled with the knowledge of air quality experts provide new insights that really fit the local context.

Can you name another interesting designer/researcher dealing with the same theme, and explain why his/her work is so strong in your opinion?

What I find important is: how do we make air quality tangible? It is a subject that concerns us all, but which we cannot see. That sometimes makes it difficult to understand its urgency. Art and design can play a role in making air quality tangible, through creative research and experiment. Oceans in Transformation is an artistic project that explores the impact of humans on the ocean. Territorial Agency uses geospatial and remote sensing data to shape public installations (such as exhibitions and workshops) to initiate a dialogue between experts, scientists, activists, and government; and to build capacity to take action on complex environmental problems. 

In the field of design, there are also many interesting methods that help to make something intangible concrete. For example, the Clean Air Agreement (Schone Lucht Akkoord) states: ‘The aim of the Clean Air Agreement is to permanently improve air quality in the Netherlands … aiming to achieve a health gain of at least 50 percent by 2030 compared to 2016’. For me, a 50 percent health gain by 2030 is a completely elusive concept. I recently attended a workshop ‘Imagining the Unimaginable’ on speculative design, using imagination to explore fictional and alternative future scenarios. For example, a ‘nicer and more humane’ scan car of the future (scan-auto van de toekomst) was designed in a co-creation process, in order to question the development of technology. A concept such as privacy is thus made very tangible. I find that interesting, making something like ‘privacy’ or ‘air quality’ concrete and recognizable.

If you could choose one person to work with in the future (a scientist, artist, philosopher, biologist, designer, politician, anyone), who would you choose and why?

In the first place, I would like to collaborate much more with local residents’ collectives and organizations. For example, a collaboration with local residents as well as libraries or museums, aimed at citizen science and nature. In the end, that’s what it’s all about for me: working with local experts and people who are committed to making change. That’s why I find the work of Naomi Klein, a Canadian author, activist and filmmaker, inspiring. She portrays local communities that are building a better balance with nature, based on the idea that real solutions to the climate crisis arise from the systematic transfer of power and control to communities. I want to work on this with Hollandse Luchten: building a structure that gives residents and citizen collectives ownership of their own living environment. 

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