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Upcycling the Artifacts of Our Future: A Surefire Tactic for Changing the World

By:  Patrick Dowd Jul 31, 2014
The Millenial Trains Project

EKOCYCLE Teams Up with Millennial Trains Project to Support Pioneering Youth On Cross-Country Journey

What is a Coke bottle? Once upon a time, the only answer would have been: a glass container for a refreshing beverage. Nowadays, it could also be: the source material for a limitless number of 3-D printed objects.

How about trains? A century ago, they were the fastest way to get from Montauk to San Francisco, a gateway to new frontiers. Now, my organization is re-imagining them as platforms for millennial creativity and social innovation.

Because they are part of our shared history, Coke bottles and trains induce nostalgia as artifacts of the past. But they can also be re-imagined as artifacts of our future -- and it’s totally up to us to determine what that future is by being intentional about the symbolism and utility that we ascribe to the objects that surround us.

A shared desire to shape our collective future by breathing new life into old objects is the essence of a new partnership between EKOCYCLETM, an innovative joint venture between will.i.am and The Coca-Cola Company, and the Millennial Trains Project, a series of crowdfunded train journeys for young innovators. The next will travel from Portland, Oregon to New York City this August, stopping in a total of seven cities along the way.

As EKOCYCLE’s curator, will.i.am, has said time and again: “Things don’t have to end, they can begin again.”

I love that idea, and it’s totally true. It’s also an idea that’s integrated into everything EKOCYCLE does, from its new 3-D printer that transforms plastic bottles into usable objects to partnerships with leading brands that integrate recycled plastics into innovative lifestyle goods.

The Millenial Trains Project

Engines of Progress

The changeable nature of objects was a theme I personally explored as a U.S. State Department Fulbright Scholar in India, where I spent a year researching and producing a documentary on the way that electronic waste was being recycled.

I saw mountains of discarded objects that had once symbolized innovation -- computers, televisions, and electronic accessories --  piled up as a monument to the failure of consumer culture to account for the environmental consequences of technological innovation.

What was once new had become old, useless, and toxic. The spirit of innovation had exited the body of these electronics, transforming them into vessels of pollution.

While conducting this research, I received and accepted an invitation to serve as a mentor on a train journey around India for young innovators known as the Jagriti Yatra (“Journey of Awakening”).

Travelling across the geographic breadth of the country, I observed how a rising generation of pragmatic, entrepreneurial idealists was breathing new life into India’s trains -- clunky, old pieces of equipment that would otherwise be considered tokens of a bygone era.

What was once old was being made new because a community of inspired individuals was saying: “Old trains aren’t junk. They’re platforms for creativity. They’re engines of progress.”

Upcycling the Detritus of Conspicuous Consumption

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that this sort of innovation, what will.i.am and other recycling evangelists refer to as “upcycling,” would have originated in India, a country where the idea of reincarnation has shaped public perceptions for thousands of years.

What the next thousand years will look like for our planet will be shaped by the way our generation, the Millennial Generation, upcycles the detritus of prior generations’ obsession with growth and conspicuous consumption. We’re all in this together, but solutions to the problems my generation has inherited will and must come from today’s youth.

The meaning we impart to objects and the way we use them (from cradle to grave, and into their next lives) is one of the most surefire tactics we have for changing the world.

When we fail to employ this tactic with the utmost intentionality, we fall short of our extraordinary ability to protect and improve our world for the benefit, enjoyment, and enrichment of future generations.

New Answers to Old Questions

Needless to say, this message extends beyond Coke bottles and trains. One of the great opportunities that lies before the world’s youth is to create new meaning and utility for the objects (old and new) that surround us and might yet be brought into being.

In the same way that EKOCYCLE and MTP are allowing ourselves to be puzzled by basic questions like “What is a Coke bottle?” and “What is a train?” -- and embracing the innovation that results from the journey on which these questions take us -- we all need to refresh our world by allowing ourselves to be captivated by basic questions like: “What is a city?”, “What is a government?”, “What is a marriage?”, “What is an education?”, and “What is a really good life?”

The answers to these questions aren’t what they were 100 years ago.

It’s up to us to make sure that the new answers to these old questions impart a positive symbolism and contemporary utility to the artifacts of our shared future.

If we do that, we will change the world, and we will be proud of what we leave behind.


Patrick Dowd is the Founder and CEO of the Millennial Trains Project. Learn more about the partnership with EKOCYCLE at http://ekocyclemovement.com/millennial-trains-project/