Collaboration opens up new vistas
Experimental collaboration with new partners can substantially enhance the quality of practical research. We spoke with three participants in KIEM GoCI projects about the benefits of cooperating with demolition firms, students and moths.

Using happy moths to reduce textile waste: Natural Cleaners
“The idea of using clothes moths in textile recycling is new,” says Michelle Baggerman of ArtEZ University of the Arts’ Professorship in Tactical Design. “People see moths as troublesome pests because their larvae eat holes in clothing. But they also secrete a fibrous material, like silkworms.”

Baggerman is the research coordinator for the project Natural Cleaners: collaboration with clothes moths. “The textile industry is one of the most unsustainable and polluting sectors, and it also creates a lot of clothing waste,” she says. “Only some of that is reused or recycled. It’s often very difficult to separate different natural and artificial fibres out of a textile blend, which makes high-quality recycling of used textiles impossible. But there are creatures who know how to do it – clothes moths!

“We usually regard clothes moths as a nuisance because their larvae eat holes in clothing, and research focuses on extermination. But it turns out they’re picky eaters: they choose specific artificial or natural fibres. After digesting those fibres, the larvae excrete a protein-rich substance, and possibly other useful substancesthat can be used for new raw materials, such as biopolymers.

“The collaboration on this project is new; the partners have never worked together before. One of our partners is Sympany, a big textile collection company. They see the project as extremely valuable, because for a while now they’ve been looking for better ways of sorting textile materials so more of them can be recycled instead of burned. We’re also working with the Dutch Pest & Wildlife Expertise Centre. This is the first time they’ve seen research on moths that isn’t just aimed at extermination but at finding positive uses for these insects.

“We hope that the research will show that moths are able to separate relevant fibres out of non-rewearable clothing. We’re also curious to see whether frass – moth poo – could provide a valuable new raw material. Hopefully we’ll be able to scale up these biological principles in follow-up research to contribute to the textile industry’s sustainability goals.

“We want to breed happy moths. That is, we want to know what conditions they need in order to flourish. We’re already seeing promising results. We’re very curious about whether we’ll be able to turn the fibres they excrete into something of value. Maybe we’ll be able to mimic their metabolism. In any case, these textile-eating, frass-excreting creatures are fascinating once you look at them in a different light. It’s a small project, but our hopes are high.”

Using AI to accelerate sustainability improvements in housing: Identical Strangers
“The postwar housing stock needs to be made more sustainable,” says Frank Suurenbroek, a professor of spatial urban transformation at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. “And some of it may be demolished for redevelopment. The building industry uses relatively large amounts of materials, resources and energy, and that really needs to change. Between about 1965 and 1990, a great deal of housing was built in a new, industrial way. The components were made in factories, and the buildings were assembled on site. Architectural firms worked closely with construction companies and contractors to build in this way. But in many cases we don’t know who built what when. That means hundreds of thousands of houses could be almost identical.

“It would be too labour-intensive and time-consuming to map out who built what by doing archival research, for instance. And so we’re investigating whether artificial intelligence can help us to inventory the housing stock. We’re building an alternative dataset, using things like Google Street View image recognition, and identifying patterns in identical buildings. We’re also interviewing architects who worked at design agencies between 1965 and 1990 to understand the building culture, which will help us to increase the predictability of the AI.

“It’s an exploratory study, so we don’t know for sure if it’ll work. If it does, though, we’ll be able to massively scale up sustainability improvements. Right now, you still have to find out for every individual house or apartment building what materials were used and what the possibilities are. But if you know the similarities, you could update, say, a hundred in the same way. You could also massively scale up sustainable demolition. At the moment, we don’t know what materials were used until they literally take a jackhammer to the building.

“One thing that’s new for me is working with a demolition company. We’re working with GP Groot, a leading circular demolition firm, and learning more about what we need to pay attention to, such as what questions to ask about construction and materials in the interviews.

“What’s great about a short-term project like this is that you can really experiment and take up the challenge of working with people from a lot of different fields to find promising solutions. The KIEM GoCI call is an innovation engine that lets you quickly and effectively drill down deep enough to see the potential in new types of solutions. You can’t force innovation, but you can try to develop it. You need to be able to go down uncertain paths.”

Closing gaps between communities by getting them to see from each other’s perspective: Bubble Games Pocketsize
“Our goal is to combat negative polarisation in society and narrow the gap between different groups,” says project manager Mariëlle Rosendaal of Fontys University of Applied Sciences. “We did an experiment in which we used virtual reality to bring two groups of community residents closer together – a group of young people who were using a shopping centre in Meerhoven in Eindhoven to hang out in and the people who lived in the apartments above. Our intervention really allowed them to step into in each other’s shoes and see things from the other’s perspective. It turned out to be highly effective in solving the conflicts between the two groups. But the intervention was designed for that specific situation, and it was quite expensive.

“Now we want to use insights from that experiment to develop a tool that can be used more generically. Virtual reality would probably cost too much. So we’re looking into other ways of immersing groups in each other’s realities, such as role-playing and augmented reality-based challenges, a bit like Pokémon GO. We’re doing the project in Doornakkers, a district in Eindhoven that’s experiencing problems between rich expats and poorer original residents, along with other issues. We’re literally going out into the neighbourhood and making lots of contacts – youth workers, the mosque, the youth centre, the local police officer, community liaison officers, the local residents’ association, an artists’ collective. We’re collaborating with Fontys students, local young people and other stakeholders to develop a new tool.

“Students add a lot of value in this project, partly because it concerns young people. Students from three Fontys bachelor’s programmes – pedagogical studies, ICT, and applied psychology – are interviewing young people in the neighbourhood. That’s not only because we think it’s important to involve education but also because we think students are likely to receive more goodwill from the interviewees. They’re their peers, and they’re not affiliated with the government, for example, so the interviewees will probably be more open with them than they would with older researchers and designers. So the chance that we’ll be able to develop a useful, broadly applicable tool will be greater.”