Beacons of hope in a changing world

Precious Plastic Universe – The alternative plastic recycling system / Dave Hakkens (NL), Credit: Dave Hakkens

Under the title HOPE, the Ars Electronica Festival 2024 will focus on the people who give us cause for optimism.

The Ars Electronica Festival and its themes are always a response, a reaction to the contributions of thousands of artists and protagonists from science and society worldwide. The last few years have been characterised by major social challenges, from the climate crisis and the energy transition to essential questions of democracy and its development. Despite many reasons for concern, the activities of global initiatives offer cause for hope. This inspired this year’s theme of Ars Electronica: ‘HOPE – Who will turn the tide’. It symbolises an optimistic approach that is deeply rooted in the DNA of Ars Electronica. Optimism, understood here as a confident perspective and trust that we as humans have the ability to actively bring about change.

In these volatile times, it is industrial designers focusing on reuse, African open source communities seeking to democratise access to powerful AI systems, and artists initiating sustainable environmental projects, among others, who act as beacons of hope. This article highlights ideas and initiatives that offer hope in a time of global challenges and show how art and technology together can offer innovative solutions to pressing problems.

Remix el Barrio, Food Waste Biomaterial Makers / Anastasia Pistofidou, Marion Real and The Remixers at Fab Lab Barcelona, IaaC (INT), Photo: Fab Lab Barcelona

Innovative technologies for sustainable resource utilisation

In a world that is increasingly facing the challenges of waste management and sustainability, innovative approaches to waste reduction and energy recovery are taking centre stage. In Catalonia, 720,000 kg of food is thrown away every day, which equates to 260,000 tonnes annually – enough to meet the annual needs of 500,000 people. ‘Remix el Barrio’ was created at Fab Lab Barcelona in the regenerative neighbourhood of Poblenou to explore innovative uses for food waste through artisanal and digital manufacturing techniques. The project enables designers to develop new materials and products through peer learning and access to resources, creatively repurposing local food waste. Various techniques such as moulding, extrusion and 3D printing are used to create prototypes with circular narratives. Beyond the pilot project, Remix has transformed into a collective that experiences the impact of the circular economy, not only by producing materials from local food waste, but also by exploring collaboration, inclusivity and self-management towards shared knowledge with local actors and global outreach. For their innovative collaboration between industry and the arts, the collective won the S+T+ARTS Prize Innovative Collaboration in 2021.

Precious Plastic Universe / Dave Hakkens 

However, food waste is not the only problem. Worldwide, plastic waste poses a significant challenge, with the global average recycling rate being only around 9%. The majority of plastic is not recycled but incinerated, landfilled or pollutes nature. This low recycling rate is often due to the high costs and patenting of conventional recycling machines. The ‘Precious Plastic Universe’ project, which received an Honourable Mention in the 2020 S+T+ARTS Prize, aims to expand and simplify access to recycling technology. It develops open-source machines and tools that are made available online for everyone, thus promoting a global network dedicated to recycling. By providing starter kits with tools and instructions, the project aims to enable sustainable business models at every stage of the plastic recycling value chain – from collection to production. This creates a local network of independent organisations that recycle plastic waste and transform it into valuable products. It promotes understanding and active participation in the recycling process to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic and raise awareness of the value of plastic.

The Living Light / Nova Innova (NL), Photo: Nova Innova 

Also mentioned as an Honourable Mention for the S+T+ARTS Prize 2021 was the ‘Living Light’ project by Nova Innova, which uses microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology. This innovative method of generating energy from organic waste such as compost, sludge, urine and plant residues was recognised by the European Commission as one of the ‘100 radical innovation breakthroughs for the future’. ‘Living Light’ has already developed indoor lights and parking modules that utilise naturally occurring microbes in the soil to generate energy. This technology, similar to solar cells twenty years ago, could play an important role in the renewable energy sector. The project aims to further develop MFC technology and demonstrate how innovative use of sustainable energy sources can improve our energy supply and our relationship with nature.

Art and science in action for ecological challenges

The diverse impacts of human activities on nature and the environment are increasingly the focus of science and art. The following projects deal with the protection and restoration of ecosystems and the investigation of environmental pollution, highlight the need for a new awareness of our interactions with the environment and call for a rethink of conventional views on human intervention in ecological systems.

Pollinator Pathmaker in Pollinator Vision, 2023, Credit: Courtesy of the artist/Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles and other pollinators are essential for the reproduction of many plants and for our ecosystems to thrive. However, man-made habitat loss, pesticides, invasive species and climate change are leading to an alarming decline in their populations. With ‘Pollinator Pathmaker’, artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg has developed an algorithmic tool that organises planting according to the tastes of pollinators rather than humans. In collaboration with leading pollinator experts and an AI scientist, Ginsberg has developed this tool to plan with empathy for other species. The result is an unlimited collection of algorithmically generated, living artworks that are freely accessible on the pollinator.art website. For this impressive achievement, the project was honoured with the S+T+ARTS Prize 2023 in the Artistic Exploration category.

Oceans in Transformation / Territorial Agency – John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog (INT), Photo: Giorgio Fiorese

Territorial Agency’s ‘Oceans in Transformation’ project explores the wide-ranging impacts of human activities on the world’s oceans. By utilising geographic and remote sensing data, it creates discussion spaces across different platforms that bring together multidisciplinary experts, scientists and conservationists. The aim is to better understand the dynamic and fragile ecosystems of the ocean and develop strategies to address the challenges of the Anthropocene, an epoch in which human interventions have a profound impact on planetary systems. The project, which was awarded the 2021 S+T+ARTS Prize, emphasises the need to challenge conventional views of human interactions with the environment and promotes a new awareness of the ocean’s critical ecological dynamics.

Cloud Studies / Forensic Architecture (INT), Credit: Forensic Architecture

Chemicals such as tear gas and chlorine gas are used around the world to suppress protests and destroy habitats. These substances spread as clouds that are difficult to control and can have complex, long-term effects. In the ‘Cloud Studies’ project, Forensic Architecture used cutting-edge techniques such as digital modelling and machine learning to document and analyse such events. Their research shows how state and corporate actors use airspace to enforce repressive measures and create hostile atmospheres. These studies shed new light on the transnational impact of these tactics and call for a rethinking of global rights, especially the universal ‘right to breathe’.

Ciutat Vella’s Land-use Plan, Credit: 300.000 Km/s

Global urban planning and local languages

The Ciutat Vella’s Land-use Plan project shows how innovative approaches can be used to bring about positive change. It embodies a new type of urban planning that utilises extensive amounts of data from open data and big data as well as qualitative citizen participation data. Through the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence, new methods of spatial analysis are applied to design urban orders that preserve the quality of life. The technology-based approach has fundamentally changed the previous masterplan that regulates public facilities, food shops and tourist services in Barcelona’s central district. The project went through several phases, including research, co-creation, proposal development and legal approval, with each step delivering specific results. This approach has not only led to an improved understanding of urban dynamics, but has also created a platform for the exchange and comparison of urban data at a European level. In 2019, the project was awarded the S+T+ARTS Prize Grand Prize – Innovative Collaboration.

Masakhane – pioneering participatory approaches to building African language technologies, for Africans, by Africans / Masakhane (INT), Photo: Masakhane community

Despite the fact that 2000 of the world’s existing languages are of African origin, they are hardly ever used in the technological sector. This marginalisation is due to the influence of colonialism, which has impaired the promotion, preservation and integration of African languages. As a result, their specific cultural and historical contexts are often not represented in the technological sector. The Masakhane initiative aims to change this state of affairs by promoting and advancing research in neuro-linguistic programming for African languages, based on the principles of human dignity, well-being and equality. Masakhane promotes inclusive community building, open participatory research and multidisciplinarity to empower people from Africa to actively shape technological progress. Last year, the African initiative was honoured with the Ars Electronica Award for Digital Humanity from the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs.

This list of projects and initiatives is intended to provide a brief insight into the theme of this year’s Ars Electronica Festival, which will take place from 4 – 8 September at POSTCITY and eleven other locations in Linz. More information about the festival can be found here.

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