Carbon Banks: Towards Furniture Circularity Through Digital Assets
Visual — Zünc Studio
How can we leverage technology to enable more sustainable behaviours towards our furniture? In collaboration with WINT Design Lab and Zünc Studio, we investigate how digital tools can nurture more sustainable product relationships.
How can individuals take a more circular approach to their furniture? And how can brands and furniture producers nudge people towards these behaviours?
Carbon Banks is born from the idea that we take better care of things we feel a strong sense of stewardship or responsibility towards. It is a speculative concept that explores the potential of connecting a physical item — in this case, a wooden chair — with an interactive digital tree that grows more abundant in response to the care we give our physical furniture.
The idea is that digital tools can incentivise more people to keep, repair, trade, and recycle furniture by creating an emotional bond with physical objects — something that is increasingly important in the age of fast homeware, and its consequences for the environment.
According to the European Federation of Furniture Manufacturers, up to 90 percent of furniture waste in the EU is incinerated or sent to landfill. Yet an item of wooden furniture can double as a carbon store for decades, if not longer, if cared for and recycled correctly.
If we wish to usher in a more circular economy, we need to encourage people to keep, trade, repair and recycle their furniture. But responsibility also lies with manufacturers to create end-to-end systems and make better material and design choices for their customers — and to examine how technologies and communications can inspire positive behaviours.
‘The current climate crisis demands that we consider all the tools and technologies at our disposal to move towards more sustainable systems, products, services, and behaviours,’ explains Ryan Sherman, who works in creative and strategy at SPACE10. ‘Can linking the possessions in our homes with those in our increasingly mixed realities provide us with opportunities to relate differently to our material world?’
Up to 80 percent of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product.
Video — Zünc Studio
Carbon Banks examines how a physical wooden chair could be digitised using emerging technologies to help encourage and communicate the benefits of long-term care for the things we own.
These emerging technologies include blockchain, which allows people to register their ownership and trace a chain of custody for an item, and digital assets that embody and represent the item virtually.
Each piece of Carbon Banks furniture is made primarily from wood with minimal additional materials. This ensures the furniture’s longevity and eases the recycling process. On its surface is a unique pattern, either printed or engraved into its wooden surface, which acts as a visual identifier — a key that binds a generative digital asset to the physical object.
Once a person has a chair in their possession, they can scan its unique pattern with their phone, which will authenticate their ownership and unlock the digital asset. This takes form — and root — as a virtual seedling. Much like the virtual pets of the 1990s, the care given to the item of furniture is mirrored by the seedling, which grows over time into an ever-evolving tree.
With an ambition to extend the lifespan of the furniture, this virtual tree helps people to recognise that the longer we keep an item of furniture in circulation, the longer it stores and prevents carbon from entering Earth’s atmosphere.
To explore this potential future, we collaborated with partners WINT, a Berlin-based design and research lab exploring ecological and technological responsibilities, and interaction designer and researcher Anna Schaeffner.
Together, WINT and Anna developed the initial idea and conducted deep tech research, alongside scenario shaping and storytelling. To incorporate research in the fields of sustainability and blockchain into the concept, they conducted interviews with Dr Max Marwede, sustainability strategist at Fraunhofer IZM, and Manuel Polzhofer, a software engineer and blockchain developer.
‘Carbon Banks is founded on the hypothesis that digital scarcity creates value for people. Adding a digital amplifier [asset] means that people become more attached to their furniture over time,’ explains Robin Hoske, co-founder of WINT. ‘This process counterbalances the traditionally decreasing value of purely physical designs. Finding a balance between an object’s digital and physical value — which can gradually adjust — made it a particularly intriguing design challenge.’
WINT’s hybrid research and narrative building, together with technocultural developments, resulted in the Carbon Banks white paper, created with Bakken & Bæck, which frames the concept, unpacks the underlying technology, and situates it within the current landscape of digital assets and connected products.
To demonstrate how a future of phygital furniture — physical items with a digital layer — could look and work, we turned to Zünc. The research-led creative studio translated the Carbon Banks white paper into a visual narrative: taking the key findings of WINT’s research and communicating these ideas through a CGI film.
To create the growing virtual tree, Zünc researched an array of different plant species, experimenting first with giving emphasis to roots, but ultimately arriving on a trunk-based design. Each milestone could then grow out from this familiar base with uniquely twisting branches and different styles of leaves. The resulting virtual tree helps to visualise and incentivise acts of guardianship, with furniture care and maintenance rewarded with new growth and flourishes.
‘We landed on a ‘grafted’ look for the tree, with a mix of species that had some kind of symbolic association with the values and processes associated with the Carbon Banks concept.’
In a future where more and more of our time is spent moving between physical and digital realities, Carbon Banks reimagines how digital life can directly impact our relationship with our possessions. It expands the meaning of ownership, improves transparency, and gives us new ways to express ourselves online.
Taking the wooden chair as an example, owners could view their virtual tree in AR, reviewing and admiring its growth — and sharing it with others. By scanning the trunk of the tree, they can also view its exact age (and that of their chair) while receiving a preview of upcoming growth milestones. Owners can also view metadata about the chair, including origin, materials, and energy consumption during manufacturing.
If the physical chair is later resold or traded, the asset is transferred to the next owner where it continues to grow under their stewardship. Further, the digital asset is designed to be something the owner is proud of. Their tree could be displayed — much like a houseplant — in their preferred virtual worlds or spaces, expressing and representing the circular credentials they’ve achieved through their careful and conscious ownership.
‘With Carbon Banks we saw the potential to do more — not only to connect or mirror the physical and the digital, but to add an experiential value.’
co-founder, WINT Design Lab
New furniture dimensions
As we look to a future of more responsible and considered furniture ownership, Carbon Banks shows how events and connections in digital realities can positively impact how we treat our material possessions.
By correlating the physical with the digital, and creating a dynamic and personalised visualisation of a person’s guardianship over their furniture, Carbon Banks points to how brands and furniture companies can encourage circular behaviours in the long term.
Looking ahead, the Carbon Banks project will begin explorations into prototyping how physical furniture can be connected to our devices, using emerging technologies to bolster care and promote circularity.
WINT is a Berlin-based design and research lab exploring ecological and technological responsibilities. The lab is currently led by Felix Rasehorn and Robin Hoske. Through interdisciplinary exchange and collaborations, they consciously, technically, and economically co-develop projects to pave the way to preferable futures.
Anna Schaeffner is an interaction designer and researcher. Her design practice revolves around the development of new forms of hybrid interactions, which mix new technologies and societal and environmental concerns. Her research focuses on soft robotics and the design of deformation, dynamic material adaptation and expressiveness.
Zünc Studio combines art direction with CGI technologies to create new and exciting speculative realities for brands and agencies of the future. Founded by Therese Detje and Ondrej Zunka, Zünc is based in London and works with a team of global creative talent at the intersection of digital art and motion design.
Bakken & Bæck is a technology-driven design studio based in Oslo, Bonn, Amsterdam, and London. It defines, designs, and develops all things digital. With expertise in a wide range of design disciplines, Bakken & Bæk seeks to bring any idea to life — no matter the complexity.
Ryan Sherman works with creative and strategy at SPACE10, IKEA’s global research and design lab. In his role, he explores the intersection of technology, design and storytelling to create social change. His work aims to progress culture through the people, platforms and technology shaping our lives today.