Headsets on cows? How the Royal College of Art became a hive of sustainable ideas

·4-min read
 (Image courtesy of ZELP and the RCA)
(Image courtesy of ZELP and the RCA)

A headset-wearing cow might not be the first image which springs to mind when you picture the Royal College of Art. But it’s just one of many game-changing innovations cooked up within the walls of the venerable 180-year-old London institution.

Designer Francisco Norris came up with the idea while studying for an RCA masters in Information Experience Design - the ‘wearable device for cows’ helps neutralise climate-warming methane emissions by oxidising them in real time into carbon dioxide, reducing the cow’s impact on the planet. “I come from a family of livestock farmers in Argentina” says Norris, “so I was familiar early on with the issue of of making the beef and dairy industries more sustainable.”

ZELP (Zero Emission Livestock Project) also features a certification system so consumers can know if their milk, yoghurt or cheese came from one of these planet-friendly, headset wearing cows. The concept could soon pop up in a field near you: ZELP technology has just been bought up by Cargill, one of the biggest agricultural conglomerates in the world, which plans to roll out ZELP headsets across Europe.

ZELP was also one reason why the Prince of Wales - RCA patron and a man who has spent the last five decades banging the drum for sustainable farming - was inspired to work with the Royal College of Art on a new sustainable initiative.

Launched last week by the Prince and college Chancellor Sir Jonny Ive, the Terra Carta Design Lab will invite RCA students to devise and submit credible solutions to the climate crisis.

A shortlist will be announced during the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in November, with the winners unveiled next year. The competition follows the launch of Terra Carta, a roadmap unveiled by the Prince in January to help private sector businesses develop sustainable practices by 2030.

The move is a natural next step, says university Vice-Chancellor Dr Paul Thompson, given the RCA’s history of innovation (James Dyson is a former student) and an increasingly urgent pull among students to make sustainability a priority.

“Climate emergency and climate justice are things that are baked into this generation of students,” he says. “They’re not interested in making another piece of furniture without thinking about the embodied energy involved in making that chair - and that’s changed dramatically I would say even in the last five years.”

The RCA offers courses in architecture, arts and humanities, design and communications but Vice- Chancellor Thompson says the real magic happens when students from different faculties come together to incubate ideas.

He cites as an example Olombria, another sustainable start-up conceived by three students who were put together for a project called ‘Across RCA’: “There was a menswear fashion designer, an architect and a student of experience design and they started working on the collapse of bee populations, and how we could pollinate high-value crops like almonds and cherries,” he says.

Their idea was to trick flies into pollinating at greater speed by putting pockets of hormones “which got the flies excited, making them buzz around the orchards cross-pollinating the trees more rapidly than they would typically do,” says Thompson. “The idea that an architect and a fashion designer would be the ones to come up with that - I think this is what the RCA does best.”

Hanson Cheng - one of the RCA innovators who helped bring to life The Tyre Collective, an award winning project which aims to reduce the harmful particles released into the atmosphere through tyre wear - agrees that combining students from different faculties nurtures the best ideas. “What I enjoyed most throughout my time at RCA , as someone who specialised in architecture and urban design, was working alongside people in textiles and product designers” he says.

 (RCA Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson)
(RCA Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson)

In an opinion piece published during the first lockdown, Thompson argued that government support for arts institutions is so vital because of the role they play in nurturing initiatives like ZELP, The Tyre Collective and Olombria: “This is our future - the most exciting things are coming in these more serendipitous ways rather than thinking, ‘this is a STEM solution’. If you mix creative insights with the rigour and methodology of scientists, then you get extraordinary outcomes.”

He hopes the Terra Carta Design Lab project will help foster more climate-friendly ideas - ideas which “sound wacky” but which also stand up to rigorous scientific testing and, with enough development, could help change the world. Like, for example, putting headsets on cows.

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