Inspired by the waste left behind after a Black Eyed Peas gig, the hip-hop star hopes his Ekocycle brand will take recyling to a new level
Hi Will.i.am, how and where are you?
I’m all right. Chilly-chill. I got back from Davos last week and now I’m at The Future, my facility in Los Angeles.
Tell us about Ekocycle and how it happened.
In 2007, I came off stage with the Black Eyed Peas in Costa Rica and saw the aftermath that I was part of: waste everywhere. Soon after, technology to take plastic bottles and turn them into base-cloth was introduced to me. So I came up with the idea of pitching it to Coca-Cola and turning it into a brand by taking the name Coke and reversing it to Eko-c. Eko-community, eko-conscious, eko-consumption … Ekocycle! I did the deck and business plan by myself while I was on tour with the Black Eyed Peas. It took two years to do the deal. Now it’s about to launch in a major way at Harrods.
Sustainable products in the past tended to be ugly and cheap-looking, not designed with awesomeness, prestige or desirability in mind. They were just designed to be green and green is never pristine, know what I mean? (Laughs) So a luxury retailer is a great partner to help us educate people about this technology and create aspiration around these products.
What’s your ultimate vision for Ekocycle?
Ekocycle is the first of its kind but the vision is that in 20 years, that’s normal.
Tell us about your work with 3D Systems.
I hunted them down because I wanted to make a 3D printer. I had the idea of creating a filament cartridge to be able to print new objects from post-consumer recycled plastic. So [inventor] Dean Kamen put me in touch with 3D Systems and we worked hard for 18 months to make that a reality. Now we have an Ekocycle Cube that prints in our fabric, so what was once a plastic bottle can be turned into whatever idea you have. From head to hand in a few hours, depending how intricate your design is. Now I work with 3D Systems as a consultant partner. I ask questions, come up with solutions, think of where else we can take 3D printers and what tomorrow will look like.
You believe 3D printing will be environmentally game-changing?
It will revolutionise society. In 10 years, everyone will have a 3D printer in their house. Your friend will say, “Let’s go, hurry up” and you’ll go, “Wait, my shoes haven’t finished printing yet.” In 20 years, you’ll be able to print a new kidney. You’ll have a machine that prints your genome with proteins that are right for your body. 3D printers will change how we make things, how we fix and heal things. To eat beef and wear leather, you need a lot of land and water for cows. In the next 20 years, we’ll be able to print beef and leather instead. Real talk. It might sound like science fiction but right now, I can take you to a factory in Brooklyn that prints out leather, bro.
And you’re into wearable tech too, with your Puls smart cuff …
We haven’t seen true wearable computing yet. Google did Glass to get out in front and own wearable tech in popular culture, own the verbal space, the real estate. Google Glass is beachfront property. It’s the only house on the beach but there’s no furniture in it. They haven’t figured out how to put all the components for computation on your head without use of a phone, so it’s an accessory. The one we made, the Puls, is standalone – it doesn’t need a phone or computer, it is a phone and a computer. There’s a platform for developers to build apps, taking advantage of the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 4-quad chip that we have. Puls is a house with furniture. And a refrigerator, toilets that work, beds with blankets, cutlery and a maid. (Laughs) You get the idea. It’s fully furnished.
Why don’t kids aspire to be tech entrepreneurs as much as, say, celebrities or athletes?
The answer’s real simple. Because you turn on the TV and – I’m part of this, on The Voice – there’s the World Cup, the Grammys, the Oscars, the Brits. Tell me one show that celebrates or searches for the next Bill Gates. Tell me one school where it’s mandatory to code, do robotics or build apps. Tell me where in popular culture it tells kids to dream about being Marissa Mayer or Steve Jobs.
You’d like to see that taught on the school syllabus alongside English, “math” and history?
I’m glad you ended on history. History’s important but so is the future and it’s speeding up, yet there are no future courses. Electronic engineering, computer science, AI development, deep learning … we should be teaching that too. We’re about to arrive in a future where people are straight-up dumb. There’s a void in learning and that’s down to what we deem as important, who we celebrate, even what we sing about. We should all be walking around wearing freaking Bill Gates hats. Seriously.
When did your love of technology begin?
When I was seven. I’m from the ghetto in Eastside LA but my mom sent me to Brentwood Science Magnet elementary school, 90 minutes away by bus. I don’t know why but I’m so grateful she did. They taught us oceanography, physics, computer lab, anatomy. My anatomy teacher Mr Wright was a big influence on my life. So was computer class with Mr Lipwalk. You’re not learning hardcore stuff but as you grow up, you remember having an appetite or affinity for it in the past. Now I think about it, it’s crazy – everything I’m doing now echoes that school. I’ve been drawn to science ever since. When I first travelled to Boston with Black Eyed Peas, everyone else went to see the Celtics play or the mall but I got off the tour bus and went to MIT, where I met Professor Patrick [Winston, MIT’s longtime AI director] in the AI Lab. Every time I went to Boston from then on, I went to hang out with him.
You visited Cern recently. How was that?
Oh man. That place spawned the world wide web. The machines are mindblowing. The things we can do as people when we focus are amazing.Inspiring.
What else inspires you?
Awesomeness. Anything awesome.
Have you always been an Apple devotee?
We worked on Apple IIcs in third grade and I’ve been an Apple kid ever since. I started making music on Apple computers, designing logos, everything.
Which came first, your name or the fact that it’s a hyperlink?
(Laughs) I came up with my name in 1993. I don’t remember thinking “Yo, my name’s going be a hyperlink” because I wasn’t on the internet then. There was just .com, maybe .org. They hadn’t opened up the web to countries like Armenia for there to be a .am.
Do you see yourself as a tech entrepreneur as much as a musician now?
Music is technology and science. I see myself as a person who follows what I’m inspired by. When inspiration knocks, I answer the door.
How do you keep so many balls in the air?
I don’t do things if they don’t align. So Ekocycle might not seem like it had a lot to do with 3D printing but it does. And 3D printing might not seem to have a lot to do with my philanthropic work but it does, because now my kids can learn to 3D print. We gave Ekocycle Cube printers to the robotic teams that I support. Everything connects.
Is it true that you sleep four hours a night?
Yeah. There’s so much happening, I’m excited to wake up every day. I eat right and take 20-minute naps throughout the day. It only gets hard if I’m in the same place, working in one building like here. I’m like, ‘Darn, I need to go back home to London.’ (Laughs) It’s like a vacation for me there.
You made history in 2012 by being the first artist to stream a song from the surface of Mars. How was that?
That nine-year-old kid from the projects never would have imagined that one day he’d be working with Nasa. was asked by [Nasa administrator] Charlie Bolden to consult on engaging in popular culture and getting kids interested in space exploration. They had the Curiosity Rover project blasting off at the time, so I said: “Can we hitch a ride on that?” It was surreal to be at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, hearing my music beamed back from 166 million miles away.I took my mom along because I remember her sending me on a class field trip to the planetarium. That nine-year-old kid from the projects never would have imagined that one day he’d be working with Nasa.
Ekocycle is launching exclusively in Harrods, London, this month.
March 1975 Born in Eastside Los Angeles
1992 First hip-hop group, Atban Klann, signed, later signed to Ruthless Records
1995 Forms the Black Eyed Peas, debut single released three years later
2001 First of four solo albums, Lost Change, released
2003 Black Eyed Peas single Where is the Love? from the album Elephunk goes to UK number 1
2005 Grammy award with the Black Eyed Peas for Let’s Get It Started
2009 Launches i.am.angel foundation as part of a commitment to philanthropy
2011 Joins Intel as director of creative innovation
2012 Joins TV talent show The Voice UK as a coach, later also joining The Voice Australia
January 2014 Becomes chief creative officer of 3D Systems, creator of the environmentally friendly Ekocycle Cube 3D printe
October 2014 Unveils i.am Puls smartwatch in San Francisco
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