IKEA's research lab Space10 has developed a concept for connecting a physical furniture piece to an ever-evolving NFT tree, which "grows" through acts of care to incentivise people to keep, repair and recycle their belongings.
In Space10's speculative design project Carbon Banks, the furniture in question is IKEA's wooden Froset chair, while the non-fungible token (NFT) is an augmented reality artwork of a tree that mirrors the item's real-life circumstances.
The tree grows bigger and lusher the longer a person keeps the chair, and it also responds when the chair is repaired, resold or traded for another item of furniture. At the end of its life, the chair can be recycled to trigger one final visualisation – an all-over blooming of flowers.
Space10 created Carbon Banks in partnership with Berlin studio WINT Design Lab to explore the potential for digital assets such as NFTs to build an emotional bond to items in the real world and help us to see them as less disposable.
"We know that furniture waste is a big problem," Space10 creative Ryan Sherman told Dezeen. "Yet an item of wooden furniture can double as a carbon store for decades – if not longer – if cared for and recycled correctly."
"Within the ever-evolving landscape of NFTs, we saw an opportunity to explore this technology as a promising vehicle by which to promote circular behaviours."
With Carbon Banks, which Space10 is currently developing into a prototype, the experience begins when a person purchases a new Froset chair and scans the unique pattern on its seat with their phone.
This action "mints" their virtual tree, meaning the unique digital asset is recorded on a blockchain, after which it can be bought, sold or traded.
The owner would experience this action as the sprouting of a seedling that appears to grow from their chair in augmented reality.
If the chair is traded or sold, the NFT goes with it and the change in ownership is registered on the blockchain when the new owner scans the chair and the previous owner approves the transfer.
These changes add new, unique growths to the tree, as do acts of repair and maintenance. The tree's character is also based on the production journey of the physical item, such as the type of wood used and the manufacturing location.
Creative studio Zünc developed Carbon Bank's visuals, aiming to celebrate the beauty of nature while also giving the tree a more stylised and "grafted" look, mixing species chosen for their symbolic associations to the chair and its story.
"There's a branch with oak leaves – a nod to the oak veneer of the IKEA Froset chair used in the film," said Zünc Studio. "Pine needles are digitally pruned to resemble bonsai arrangements, a practice of care and patience."
"And the ferns that unfurl after the repair of the leg are based on the resurrection fern, which felt appropriate."
While NFTs have developed a reputation for being unsustainable due to the vast amounts of energy needed to power blockchains, Space10 explores how this might be changing on the Carbon Banks website and in a white paper developed with digital design studio Bakken & Bæck.
The researchers note that shifting to a more efficient proof-of-stake protocol – as modelled by blockchains such as Ethereum – can reduce their energy consumption by up to 99.95 per cent.
This opens up the opportunity to use blockchains for purposes other than speculation and investment, they say.
"NFT applications have evolved iteratively," Sherman explained. "First there were 'digital originals' – one example being Crypto Punks – where collectability, community and exclusivity were key values."
"Then we started seeing 'digital receipts': trackable tokens of ownership to physical objects," he continued.
"Now, there's a lot of digital twin work going on: adding a digital original to your physical object like 'buy a pair of sneakers IRL and also wear them in virtual spaces'. It's not that far from the mp3 download code you get with a vinyl record but the mp3s can be unique."
Space10 positions Carbon Banks as the next generation of NFTs, which the studio is terming "digital amplifiers" as the technology is designed to "amplify" aspects of a physical object.
"Digital amplifiers are linked to physical objects via the blockchain and augment the items they are attached to, visualising the history of an object, our relationship with it and encouraging new behaviours," Sherman said.
"It presents a unique time to move away from financial incentives towards care, where digital objects visualise and reward sustainable behaviours in our real world, creating opportunities for new forms of digital self-expression."
Space10 is a Copenhagen-based research and design lab that works with the IKEA brand. It frequently addresses issues of sustainability and circularity with its concepts, prototypes and products, spanning everything from open-source Bee Homes to furniture that would use artificial intelligence to tell owners how it can be updated.
The studio has also worked with architecture studio EFFEKT on a subscription-based collective living proposal called The Urban Village Project, which would bring together people of different generations with shared facilities.