How can we make an impact with the products we make? That was the question Dutch designers Pim Van Baarsen and Luc Van Hoeckel asked themselves when they founded social design studio Super Local in 2012. Frustrated that traditional design was geared towards serving the 10% of the world who could afford it, they wanted to explore what they could do for the other 90%.
A formative university project designing patient-friendly medicine packaging in rural Nepal consolidated this thinking and inspired them with the potential impact of well-designed products in communities where good design is typically not accessible.
After 11 years, the two designers have birthed multiple award-winning sustainable products and services by combining local knowledge and resources with their ingenious and insights-driven design methods. NTS caught up with Pim and Luc, the stars of the first episode of our series Wonderful Waste, so we can share more about their amazing work and sources of inspiration.
NTS: What is Super Local?
We founded Super Local back in 2012 while studying at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. We try to find solutions for global and local issues through design, such as waste, one of the issues that we are really interested in nowadays.
NTS: Who came up with the name?
Pim? We had this huge brainstorm and suddenly Pim got the name. It’s like we’re “finding local solutions for local problems”.
NTS: What are the projects that you’re most proud of?
One of them would be the Rwanda project. That’s one of the biggest projects we’ve done so far. We were based in Rwanda and designed a collection of over 75 different pieces of furniture within one and a half years, which is quite impressive. There’s a lot of traditional craft involved and we work[ed] with so many amazing people hand in hand. The cool thing is that the project continued when we left, and they’re still working with most of the manufacturers.
NTS: That’s amazing. Any others?
Probably one of our most recent waste management projects in Nepal and the Himalayas. Mt. Everest attracts over 80,000 visitors every year to the Khumbu region, and many visitors mean a lot of waste. So, up to 2,500 metres where a lot of these visitors are, there’s almost no waste management.
Packing the bottle caps Carrying the waste down the mountain
Luckily, there is now a local company called SPCC collecting the waste. They separate and put it into one-kilo carry bags for visitors to carry down.
Shredding the plastic Fragments of bottle caps
What we did, we set up a special workshop where bottle caps are being cleaned, shredded, and injected into moulds. There’s now a small business creating these moulds from the plastic waste and profit from this, becoming financially self-sustainable.
Since it’s very common for tourists to take a stone home from the Himalayas as a souvenir, we made similar stones made out of [the recycled] plastic. We also made scale models with the most iconic peaks. On an average trek, when a tourist goes to the base, they drink around 32 bottles of water. And this model contains exactly 32 bottle caps. Not only do they now have a perfect reminder from the adventure, they also ensure that their waste in Sagarmatha National Park is disposed of.
NTS: That was one of the things that was so interesting when we first stumbled on you guys as well. What about any projects that didn’t work out?
We did a project in Uganda and we were so stoked to start working in these countries that we started to get a white saviour complex. You know, people from the West thinking that they can solve all the problems around the world.
And yeah, that project didn’t work out and we knew where it went wrong. We just didn’t have the right mindset. We came there trying to be superheroes instead of going there as listeners, and in the end, it was funny because after the project was finished, we never felt proud of it.
NTS: Was that Uganda project the one that made you guys completely look differently at how you were approaching everything from then?
Yeah, that was a big turning point. Since then, we said we need to change our whole ecology. We need to start listening. We need to start building equal relationships.
We need to be there to really understand the local context because otherwise you design things too much from a Western perspective and you want it to work. You want to have local communities involved.
NTS: What stops you from going back to the conventional design world?
It would be very hard to go back to traditional design. It feels so unnatural to just think about oh, let’s make a new piece of furniture.
We would automatically think, where’s the impact? It’s become so natural for us now to start a project like that.
We both have had a break from Super Local because financially we didn’t have the right business mindset. Running a social start-up is difficult when impact comes first before money.
When we worked for bigger corporate companies, we learned a lot and actually, it was the right decision because when we came back after that, we just had a better skill set. Now we’re much better at making proposals and more aware of the business side of things.
NTS: What is the importance of making sure something is self-sustaining after the two of you move on?
A project or a concept should always be supported by a local organisation who will be able to continue it afterwards. After coming up with these ideas together with the local community, our aim is to hand it over and make sure that our local partner can continue with it.
We always supply them with the blueprints and relevant information, and also involve them from the beginning, so that it’s easier for them to continue on the project later. The project should be something we do together instead of us thinking about a solution.
Photo Credit: Jeroen van der Wielen
NTS: What’s one of the most important things you’ve learnt when working on all these projects?
One important thing in our work is to build up relationships with people, to build trust and involve them into our work and the brainstorming sessions. We are such a small part in the project, there’s a lot of experience and knowledge that comes from the communities that we work with.
We’ve even become good friends with some of the guys from the workshop in Malawi. Exchanging pictures, talking about our children. From every project, there’s people we still speak to.
We wouldn’t say we’re fully designers, but maybe more connectors.
We see a lot of potential in the countries where we work, the local materials that we can use, but also sometimes the unused human potential that’s there. And that’s where the magic happens—when we connect together to co-create a solution that can be carried by the community itself.
Interviewed by Colin Chee, Elizabeth Price, and Luke Clark.
Edited by Claryss Kuan for length and clarity.