The designs using citizen power to clean up the oceans

For the 2023 Grand Challenge, multidisciplinary RCA student teams worked with coastal communities and the RNLI on designs to clean the oceans and support coastal economies.

The Royal College of Art (RCA) has revealed the Winners of the 2022/23 Grand Challenge: Engaging Communities for Generating Marine Sustainable Economies, a large-scale postgraduate student competition in partnership with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

Aligned with the goals of the UNESCO Ocean Decade (2021-2030), for which the RCA is an Implementing Partner, the competition tasked students with exploring how design can make use of “citizen-led practices for increasing the health and productivity of the world’s oceans”.

Some 97 groups, made up of students across the breadth of the school’s design courses from fashion to service design, partnered with RNLI volunteers to create a network with diverse coastal communities across the UK.

Professor Paul Anderson, dean of the school of design at the RCA, says that for “such a big problem at a global scale, we need to practice, as designers and educators, the understanding that in different regions and different coastlines around the world, of course, things are different.

“We’ve got different communities with different belief systems, different contexts and different struggles around survivability.”

The RCA has already been working on ocean-based research with a project called NEMO, (New Economic Model for the Oceans), which informed last year’s Grand Challenge. Researchers from the RCA were able to put high-resolution cameras and equipment on the ship used by the Extreme E electric car racing team to transport its team around the world. Collecting data throughout it 6,000 nautical mile transatlantic voyage, they wanted to understand “first-hand as designers” what was happening in the ocean’s surface, Anderson explains.

Throughout the Ocean Decade, a research team – led by Anderson with professor Ashley Hall, Dr Bjorn Sommer, Dr Carla Amaral, Dr Elise Hodson and marine consultant Chris Ross – will continue to support co-design activities combining design with ocean science and “stakeholder engagement”.

For this year’s challenge, Anderson says that UNESCO felt it would be useful to have the RCA “fill a gap between high-level marine science and what it means to local communities”.

Rather than “parachute in with new ideas and walk away”, designers need to do something “that’s measurable, sustainable and has impact, but most importantly builds trust with these local communities”, he says.

The judging panel included representatives from the RCA, the RNLI and the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), as well as previous winner and Terra Carta finalist Aura Murillo Pérez.

Assessment criteria considered engagement with the communities and context, designing something “deployable” that could tackle problems “in a meaningful way”, Anderson says, collecting data without causing any harm to marine life.

“It’s easy to sit in design studios and come up with ideas”

For the RCA’s international body of students on the other hand, the training, knowledge from expert partners and real experience is “like getting a booster injection”, Anderson says.

“It’s very safe and easy to sit in very nice design studios in the centre of London, and come up with very creative ideas, but how are they connected?” he adds.

For the school of design “this will be one of our main themes for years to come”, Anderson explains. “It’s a problem that we all agree as multidisciplinary designers not to walk away from.”

Following the competition, he adds, “we’ve got a fired-up group of people here, which I’m immensely proud of”.

The Winners: Sea Seeds

First place was awarded to Sea Seeds, a circular “eco-hobbying concept” developed in Oban, Scotland, that allows kayakers, sailors and others to strategically replant seagrass by dropping the Sea Seeds while out enjoying the ocean.

Seagrass is a vital element of marine ecosystems, providing food and shelter for numerous sea creatures as well as a key carbon sink for the planet; although only covering 0.2% of the seafloor, it absorbs up to 10% of the world’s carbon. However, data shows that the UK has lost 90% of its seagrass meadows.

Existing seagrass replanting methods are laborious and require travelling to the ocean floor. Sea Seeds newly designed biodegradable seed casing, made from seaweed algae and crushed oyster shell, can be easily carried and dropped from ocean surface level.

Team member Sam Royle (MA Service Design) says: “Community engagement is crucial to our concept, and through the use of a brand-new biodegradable seed casing that makes planting significantly more efficient, we can encourage coastal communities to participate in restoring seagrass meadows in an easy and enjoyable way.”

Designed by Hugo Garcia (MA/MSc Innovation Design Engineering), Shenyang Xi (MA Design Products), Shanice Palmer (MA Fashion), Xiaoxu Cheng (MA Textiles), Sam Royle (MA Service Design).


GoWater was designed to help ocean users collect and share water quality data with charitable organisations fighting against the current sewage flooding crisis across the UK.  Designed for use in the Gower Peninsula in Wales, the system allows water sports participants to capture data through a wearable item provided by local watersports rental shops.

The sensor is then linked to a digital water quality map, available on mobile devices and on a billboard in the local town centre. The idea is to build community engagement around the cause, where users can see their individual data and its contribution to the bigger picture.

Team member Tarika Kumar (MA/MSc Global Innovation Design) comments that the projects aims are “empowering individuals to contribute to ocean resilience, developing community identity tied to the ocean, and helping organisations make change at the systemic level”.

Designed by Tarika Kumar (MA/MSc Global Innovation Design), Hanbo Zhan (MA Design Products), Danyi Zhang (MA Service Design), Jialin Feng (MA Fashion), and Emily Trenton (MA Textiles)


Pollenwave is a biodegradable sensor system designed to monitor temperature, pH and oxygen levels in remote ocean locations. The project is a response to the severe decline of wild Atlantic salmon in Stranocum, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland. According to Bushmills Salmon Station, numbers of salmon returning for breeding has reduced from 30% in 1997 to under 5% today, with predicted further drop to 2%. This is largely attributed to climate change and resulting increases in water temperature, reductions in oxygen levels and increases in toxicity.

Autonomous vehicles allow the sensors to be spread across the ocean, providing detailed understanding of environmental changes that impact marine life, with the data published via open-source platforms, to be used for further research and development.

Team member Richard Alexandre (MA/MSc Innovation Design Engineering) comments that the data collected by Pollenwave, can “be applied for more profound technology and innovation development”.

Credits: Designed by Abigail Hoover (MA/MSc Global Innovation Design), Zijin Ling (MA Design Products), Yipeng Wang (MA Service Design), Richard Alexandre (MA/MSc Innovation Design Engineering).

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