Emma van der Leest On Design, Social Impact And The Circular Economy


Emma van der Leest is trained as product designer, but has great interest in the field of biofabrication. Biodesign is based on the principles of biofabrication, a field that emerged out of regenerative medicine technologies. Biodesign incorporates living organisms e.g. bacteria, fungi, algae or cells into the design process.

As product designer, she collaborated with different disciplines, from scientists, physicists, artists and designers and is trying to create an environment where boundaries dissolve, and where different disciplines benefit and learn from others.

Emma is also the founder of the BlueCity Lab, in an open workshop and laboratory based in the heart of an old abandoned swimming pool in Rotterdam, which is now turned into BlueCity where entrepreneurs work together in accordance with the sustainable concept of the Blue Economy, where production work as an ecosystem, waste of one entrepreneur is food for the other.


Emma discusses transitioning to a circular economy, provides tips on taking action as a designer, shares insights on combining science and design as a bio-designer and talks about opportunities for design students. 


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Nikoline Arns] - Emma, could you please share a bit about your background and the journey you took before joining BlueCity? [2:36]

[Emma van der Leest] - I am trained as a product designer. I graduated two years ago here at the Willem de Koning Academy. But from the beginning on I was interested in creating materials and products afterwards. Basically I got really interested in biology and science. But it was very hard to get access to a lab cause they were saying, "you're not a biologist, you're a product designer and your home is the real workshop and not a lab." So in the end I succeeded with a lot of effort and after my graduation I thought, "now it's time for my own lab where there is room for everyone, even if you are an artist or business executive person or a journalist. And literally lower the threshold for anyone who wants to practice biotechnology and really discover this field and see the possibilities emerging when I met Siemen Cox from RotterZwam who are growing oyster mushrooms on coffee waste here. And he said, "well we are also thinking about a lab, why don't you come by." That was one and a half years ago, so I just started here from scratch. Basically I was an entrepreneur in the building but now I work here and created my own job which is very amazing with a lot of amazing people here in the building. We are doing great things, but it's still hard because we are a start-up.

That's great and still very recent. It's amazing that in this short time the people know the project. [4:01]

Yeah that is really great and of course the building is a very bespoke building so a lot of people still think its a swimming pool. But it's actually one big green house. Especially the old dome and the swimming pool is. We had a lot of very special plants and flowers, fruits and vegetables growing there. It's a big green house in the middle of the centre of Rotterdam which makes it very interesting for people to come. 

As I understand the people and start-ups that are here in the building all take part in the circular economy. What attracted you to the circular economy and what’s the most rewarding part of your work? [4:36]

I think it's very interesting that next to the innovative materials and products we also think of social impact, create jobs and create opportunities for people.

We are maybe not the first person to think of itand it's literally a network of waste streams that are used by different entrepreneurs. 

So literally the waste of one entrepreneur is food for the other and the same with social skills. They can really help each other and it's an ecosystem like in nature.

And here in BlueCity we invite nature on our table. To see, how does nature work? There is no waste in nature. I think thats a very beautiful thing and next to that we all make money with it. That's very important because normally sustainable concepts and products need a lot of funding and of course when you just start you might need a little bit of funding but in the end everybody pays their rent with the money they earn with their waste products. 

The linear economy is still there but it's dissolving.

So I think the circular economy, they have to make the step, especially for bigger companies in a city it's hard. But you can really make money with it, and that, for a lot of people, is also very interesting because otherwise it's very difficult to make a product big and really integrate it in our economy. The business model behind it; we really need to rethink that too because it's very old fashioned, and we have to think of a more innovative model.


What is the relation that BlueCity has with the rest of the city? How does it promote this innovation in the economy but in relation with the outside? [6:40]

I think it's very important we are in the centre of the city, because a lot of new start-ups & workshops are in the western part of the city (Merwe-Vierhavens). So people also said to us, "why don't you move there, cause you can do whatever you like to do?" 

But we find it very important to connect with the citizens and municipality and show people how you can contribute to the circular economy. 

So for now the building is not open to the public yet, but we really want to open it up to show people what initiatives are here and how you can contribute to that. So for example in our marketing we do a lot of articles about how you can make your life a little bit more circular. It's already happening, we are doing tours and workshops and in the end we'll be open and then it's like a whole market place where people can experience the circular economy. So buy local products and now we are building the BlueTiek (as we say it), where people can buy the products and make them a little bit more comfortable with it.

You can really change your linear economic behaviours with circular behaviours. It's not that difficult but people don't know exactly where to start.

And I think that's very important that we are in the centre to show people. 

As well as with the lab we are participating with the science weekend in the whole of the Netherlands and also companies like ESA [space] are opening their doors to show people what science is exactly. And I think it's very important because science is something that is being done in university laboratories and like "rocket science" people think it's difficult but no, you can do it at home. There are DIY things on the internet which you can look up and see how you can create amazing things yourself or build aquaponic systems or... But people still want to see how it's done. So I think it's something that we want to do here in the centre. 

As a biodesigner you are connecting science with design and communication and in the BlueCity you are combining these 3 things together. [9:00]

And to communicate science because a lot of things are staying in the lab, and I think if we really want to push innovation we need to get these treasures out of the lab.

[Emma gives an example]

That's where a designer needs to come and talk to the scientist, and say, "hey we take your technology to the market you know." So for me there are a lot of treasures that need to be discovered. I always say, "don't be scared" and "go to science conferences". If, for example, you are a designer and you work on an algae project, go to the algae lab where they grow it. They don't have to be designers; just ask them if they can tell you about it, because they are so passionate about growing things or go and do research on it. Just don't be afraid.

Besides BlueCity, you work as an independent designer in the field of biofabrication, where you are creating new biomaterials. What particular sustainability issues or problems do you believe we as a society could tackle in a more innovative way? [11:00]

Well there are quite a lot!

I think in general the way we live, the way we eat, the way we dress ourselves, the way we transport ourselves needs to be changed.

And in the energy sector a lot of good things are happening right now. It's getting bigger and the energy companies are willing to change, so that's a good thing. [Emma gives an example about how the fashion industry and construction work are adopting the new mentality.]

People need to think differently. Mentality. 

We need to show people the value of it.

Make working prototypes and go to companies like Shell or whoever. Even though here in Rotterdam the harbour as it is right now will be different in say 10 years. So the mentality has to change, cause now we see all these 'stinking' boats but maybe in 10 years the acre of the future is laying here in the Maas (name of the river) with food growing on it.


We’ve seen an increase in awareness about social impact, with more startups and companies joining the circular economy movement especially in Rotterdam Port. Could you please share more about the development of the social enterprise sector in The Netherlands and where you think it’s heading into the future? [14:36]

The Netherlands in general is doing great things, a lot of good initiatives. Also in Amsterdam they are working in this field and subjects. The thing is, that it's also a trend and that makes it a little bit difficult sometimes because a lot of people are talking about circular economy and startups and we are doing this and this and this.

But it's really important to show people that you are really working on it. Even though we are building, from the beginning we have people making their products even though the building isn't finished yet.

And we are doing stuff and putting it on our website and on Facebook to share with people how we are building this BlueCity. And I think also in Amsterdam you have Mediamatic and Metabolic, those initiatives are quite young but are really showing people the change we have to work on.

It's really hard but you have to start somewhere and I think collaboration is the keyword.

[Emma explains a bit about the benefit of collaboration.]

What do think would be the key factors to implement BlueCity on a bigger scale? [17:15]

We are talking about that. We get a lot of attention from municipalities & abroad. But I think we first have to prove that we really have an impact. We are doing this right now but not the way we want it to be. We need 4 years or less to get the whole place working as we wanted. It's not finished yet. We are doing good but it could be better on a product scale, innovation scale, social scale and business scale and then we can scale up.

Next to that we also saved a building from an auction [Emma explains how the building was saved and reused.]

Internationally, which countries/cities do you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to social innovation, and what can other countries around the world learn from them? [19:17]

I think especially in America both on the west and east side there are a lot of very interesting companies in biotechnology. In New York there is a company called Ecovative that scaled up to be a real factory where they grow the mushroom into insulation panels. And also the Ellen MacArthur Foundation [https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/] are really leading the charge in circular economy. [Emma explains how these examples inspire her.]

What are some of the key challenges you believe students and young entrepreneurs are facing? And what can we do to help prepare them for 21st Century challenges? [

I think the challenges for students may be their teachers. That really sounds bad but some of them are teaching the old linear economy and if we want to change, we need to put young people over there and people from industry.

The students really have to work on tactile challenges and really understand this field and work on it and in it and together with it. 

What would be your advice? [

Go to a specialist, step out of the school, go to another city or another country. If you are really inspired by that technique, find that professor, or find that physicist or maybe it's an artist who is doing great things. Go to him or her and ask them everything you want to know.

If they are open to it of course but I think a lot of people are, and also flattered maybe.

Step abroad and discover. Sometimes ask someone who is sitting next to you in the train what their profession is. Visit companies, go to lectures. Discover fields outside of your studies because you can learn a lot from them.Different insights from different disciplines.

What advice would you give to starting entrepreneurs who believe they have a great idea to create positive change, yet are unsure how they can make it a reality? [23:34]

Come to BlueCity! 

Take it to the outside world. Don't be afraid. Speculating about the future is difficult and it's hard because you don't know what is going to happen, so just do it, which is hard. But you have to start somewhere and find others that think like you. 

Yeah they will come to BlueCity in the end...  

There are a lot of others too but we are really trying to show people how you can work on it. Just come to a program and meet others. There are a lot of students or people that are graduated or start-ups or even companies that are more than 20 years old that have those good ideas but are scared. I am scared too sometimes of what will happen, but you are not alone, that's the advice i think. 

To finish off, could you please recommend a few useful books or resources to our listeners that you find inspiring? [26:40]

I read a lot of books but also a lot of magazines. For example The Scientist, but also Nature and National Geographic. And even though it's more about science or nature I always get something out of it for myself. It could be a new idea, or insight or someone that wrote the article, I'll look up what else they have published. And books, there are two books from curator William Myers. They're called BioArt and BioDesign [Emma explains the importance of these books and the time they were published.]

A really important one is also The Blue Economy from Gunter Pauli. RotterZwam is used as an example in this book. 


You can contact Emma on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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