Transforming the world by design

May 23, 2024 | News

What Design Can Do champions innovative solutions to climate and social issues. Its founders reveal their inspiration behind the latest creative call they have made: (the small issue of) radically re-designing everything


Pepijn Zurburg is the co-founder of What Design Can Do, a Dutch nonprofit. “At some point, someone had to design all the trash in there. All of the things we make end up becoming a problem. Designers should feel responsible for solving problems, whether they are food, clothing, or other products.

What Design Can Do is an international organisation with offices in Amsterdam and Delhi, Nairobi, Tokyo and Sao Paolo. It was founded 12 years ago by Richard van der Laken and Zurburg van der Laken, who wanted to explore the impact of design on society.


The pair, who were graphic designers and ran an agency together, began with a conference of one day. They invited experts to speak about how purpose drives aesthetics and design. Van der Laken says, “We loved working with clients.” “But if you take the initiative yourself, you are also the owner of your contents.” You could say as a graphic artist that you design the book cover but never write it. But What Design Can Do is a book written by designers – and the designers are far from finished.

The mycelium of the Loop impressed the team at What Design Can Do. Image: Loop


In 2015, the first of many challenges began. The pair invited designers from around the world to submit design-led solutions that could ease refugee crises. They worked with the Ikea Foundation, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In 2010, more than 911,000 people arrived in Europe, and 3,550 of them lost their lives. The five winning submissions included a biodegradable housing, a storytelling platform, and a radio frequency ID card. Each of the five winners received EUR10,000 (PS8,580), to help make their ideas real. Since then, six other challenges have been launched to encourage ideas on tackling challenges ranging from waste to child sexual exploitation.

If the ideas Zurburg describes can be taken as a guide, it is clear that the entrants have been embracing the challenges over the years. “We liked The living coffin, a startup called Loop. It’s not a wood coffin but one made from mycelium, a root structure that provides nutrients to a mushroom. The coffin will disappear when someone is buried and will then break down the toxic substances from the body. Designers are always thinking of new materials. They also touch on other social issues. This living coffin opens a conversation on death, which can be taboo in many cultures, especially the West,” says Zurburg.


The Redesign Everything Challenge is the most ambitious challenge yet. “[The entries] include everything from redesigning everyday products to overhauling and rethinking existing systems, such as new ideas for land usage. “There’s a circular, electric concept car there. But it’s about materials as well, like biodegradable and circular alternatives to leather, textiles, and plastics. The range is wide .”

As designers, we are responsible for the creation of this problem.

More than 550 innovative ideas were submitted, ranging from neighbourhood initiatives that revitalize local food systems to solar powered innovations that help communities in need. A selection committee narrowed down the field to 33 nominees who will be presented before an international jury which will decide 10 winners. The winners will be invited to Amsterdam for a’sprint’ week in the first week in July, where they will take part in workshops and masterclasses, as well as visits to circular design agencies. On 5th July, the winners will be a part of the What Design Can Do Live in Amsterdam where hundreds of creatives and policymakers are expected to meet.


Redesign Everything is what it says: an invitation to rethink products, processes, and systems in everyday life for the better with circularity as the core.


The pair have had stimulating conversations with people working in waste management about the topic of materials. “They tell us that packaging is often made from different materials melted together and cannot be separated. Van der Laken adds that the only way to dispose of it is by incineration. “But if the waste management facility is designed differently, it can separate and reuse materials .”

What Design Can Do is Live! Want to know more about creative climate change action? Amsterdam will host a day of talks, workshops and discussions on design and climate justice on 5th July 2024 at the Muziekgebouw. Learn how creativity can be used as a powerful tool to create change, and from the leading voices of the movement. Use code PositiveNews to get a 25% discount. Secure your seat now. #WDCD2024


The co-founders also offer designers more advice on circularity: bigger isn’t always better. Van der Laken: “Circling to our challenge program, we don’t focus on big brands.” “There are many examples of designers, startups and entrepreneurs who have become very successful entrepreneurs. Not that startups always succeed, of course. But look at [Swiss bag maker] Freitag, for example. It began as a small project by two graphic artists who made bags from old truck tarpaulins. Now it’s huge .”

Zurburg says it’s important to determine where your ideas will have a real impact. “Don’t help produce things that will end burning in landfills. “If you want to focus on sustainability then think about working somewhere that your vision and skills will make the most difference,” he says. “But this is not really about design, it’s just good advice for life.”

What Design Can Do Live will be in Amsterdam on the 5th July 2024. The festival pass for this year includes access to talks by speakers such as Bobby Kolade, Afaina De Jong and Clive Russell. It also includes workshops on topics like community-building and Climate storytelling, and the chance to meet hundreds of other citizens, creatives, and activists. Buy tickets Here

Main image: Carol Sachs

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