Design has the power to change our perceptions. It can reveal opportunities in things that we have always seen as immutable and concrete, and can make us see green where previously there was only grey. Bennie Meek and Vincent Wittenberg are the design duo behind Gewildgroei, a name which translates as ‘wanted weeds’. They’re on a mission to welcome more green into the city by changing the negative perception of a gardener’s oldest arch-enemy. They created an open tile system, ‘Living Pavement’, which allows natural weed growth. By ‘framing’ nature in a different context, we can begin to see a host of new spaces available for green growth within the urban landscape, even on the very pavement that we walk.
We last caught up with you in May, what you have been doing over the summer?
Bennie: This summer we spent six weeks in Taipei for the World Design Capital 2016. They invited us for the designers-in-residence programme.
Vincent: We were exploring the positive impact of nature on our mental wellbeing. I think that that’s one of the benefits of green that you hear about the least. In Eastern countries, it’s actually a well-established concept; they even have a word for it, ‘Forest Bathing’. The idea is that you use nature as a kind of relaxation therapy. With Gewildgroei, we are also working with an environmental psychologist who is researching this. More attention in science is being devoted to it, but the fact that they already have a name for it in Asia says a lot about our different perception of green!
Absolutely! And of course you pitched at Let it Grow Lab’s Selection Day in September, how was that?
Bennie: We had actually both taken part in a special programme called ‘City of the Future’ before pitching that day. During the programme we received some training on how to present and were introduced to the concept of the elevator pitch. It’s only a very small time window so you have to make it simple and clear. Gewildgroei is quite complex and has a lot of different topics and levels, so I tried to make it as simple as possible.
Can you talk us through the different levels of Gewildgroei?
Vincent: There’s ‘Gewildgroei’, which is a movement in which we inspire people to think differently about greenery in cities. To do this, we create all kinds of different stunts or ‘actions’. Our open tile system, Living Pavement, is one of our most important ‘actions’.
Bennie: The Living Pavement tiles visually tell the story that we’re trying to tell with Gewildgroei, in a more direct kind of way. It’s a communication tool. Through this material, consumer product, we can spread the Gewildgroei message.
So even though you are a movement you are also working on getting a product market fit like the rest of the teams in Class 1. What production stage are the tiles in?
Vincent: We just ordered a mould for the tiles that will be able to make 12 tiles every 6 seconds. We’ve already tested The Living Pavement with 500 tiles and our goal is now to bring them to every city in the Netherlands. We created them in the standard 30 by 30 size on purpose, as a reaction to standardized public space. With these tiles we can plug in or ‘hack’ into any pavement.
The concept sounds quite anarchic! But of course, one of your main target consumers are municipalities. How easy is it them to convince them to adopt the Living Pavement in their streets?
Vincent: We have met with progressive council members who have taken a chance on us and we actually now have an order from the city of Enschede. For them, they see our product as a solution to a problem that is high on the political agenda. But at the same time we are trying to change the system in which municipalities work which many people don’t appreciate.
Bennie: It’s difficult to change these systems because The Living Pavement is quite intrusive. The municipality of Amsterdam has the largest and most complicated municipality system in the Netherlands and it’s quite tough to tap into. But there are some loopholes; most municipalities have this rule that you can take one row of tiles out of your pavement, so as a citizen, you can actually ‘hack’ the pavement.
Why do you think that some people are so reluctant to embrace this new way of thinking and how is design helping you with this?
Vincent: Some people don’t understand that Gewildgroei is not about doing nothing. It’s not about letting weeds grow and making streets messy. It’s a design task; it’s about finding a way to work with nature and finding a form for it. There’s an article called ‘Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames’ that researches the aesthetics of wild nature in cities. In this article it says, “What is good might not look good and what looks good might not be good.” So we’re trying to change that with design, by having something that looks good and is good for the environment. We do this by framing nature in a different way and changing the context in which we encounter it in cities.
Bennie: This is a lot harder than you would think. Letting plants grow naturally is the best thing ecologically. But people want to plant seeds and know what results they should expect.
Vincent: And nature also takes time. We like things to be ready from day one. We build something and we want to start using it immediately and we even with nature we do the same by planting already mature trees. With The Living Pavement you might have to wait a year to see results. This can become a problem as most people are impatient.
Bennie: Normally when you design public space you decide what will grow where. You have a sense of certainty. We don’t know what kinds of plants will grow in The Living Pavement. But that’s what we find so interesting. If we lay tiles in Den Bosch then different plants might grow than in Amsterdam.
What are you focusing on during the Incubation Programme?
Bennie: We want to find an easy way of distributing these tiles and finding ways for them to be sold by external retailers so we don’t have to be involved in selling them every step of the way. In this way The Living Pavement will grow more quickly and so with it our message.
Vincent: We’re also working on how to collaborate best with municipalities; which department we reach out to, what they need from us in order to work with us. Now we just show up at their desk and say, ‘Hey we have a nice idea” and that’s not really the best strategy!
You applied to the programme as ‘urban idealists’, but how has the entrepreneurial focus of the programme helped you?
Vincent: We are also becoming entrepreneurs and we like this a lot. In the past we’ve just moved from opportunity to opportunity and we’re more used to working in a Gewildgroei way. Making a product and putting it on the market is not really in our comfort zone but it’s definitely something we want to focus on during Let it Grow Lab’s incubation programme.
Bennie: We now want to build up a long-term business. I think the impact will be much greater if we organize it in this way.