INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS FOR A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY
The University of Stuttgart is a technology-oriented, globally connected university known for integrating engineering, natural and social sciences and the humanities in an interdisciplinary fashion. We call the collaboration of complementary disciplines The Stuttgart Way, by which we want to develop intelligent systems for a sustainable society. One of the basic guiding principles for the realisation of this vision is to consider the ethical, moral, social, ecological and economic implications of research and teaching.1 In this essay I want to highlight three examples that address the need for rethinking the role of universities along these lines in the post-COVID-19 period. In particular, I will talk first, about developing an understanding for taking responsibility in research and teaching; second, on working consistently towards a sustainable society and third, on shaping processes for creating the future in times of climate change.
RESPONSIBILITY: IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH AND DEVELOPING COMPETENCIES
In the academic years 2019/20 and 2020/21, a public lecture series was offered by the University of Stuttgart’s Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning, exploring the question of what responsibility means to various professors in their specific fields of expertise. Issues such as whether people or nature should be prioritised in urban green spaces and responsibility in residential building policy were discussed.
The inspiration for the “Architecture and Responsibility” lecture series was the play The Physicists by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. The University of Stuttgart had chosen his work about the ethics of science – and the notion that discoveries, once made, cannot be reversed – as its contribution to the “One University – One Book” campaign in 2019. This ongoing campaign was initiated by the Stifterverband (Founders’ Association) and is aimed at getting as many people as possible involved in discussions on a given topic at universities throughout Germany.
Durrenmatt’s play is very much about the responsibility of scientists for their inventions. Basically, there are three clashing points of view. The first declares that science is science and that society is responsible for the consequences, not science. The second is of the opinion that science is always carried out in the service of one power or another. The third rejects science and wants to retract certain findings and evades responsibility by taking refuge in an insane asylum.
New perspectives through reflection
The goal of the teaching and learning forum RISING is to initiate reflection processes in all courses of study and to sensitise students to the social implications of prejudiced intelligent systems. This will ultimately bring about goal-oriented progress in their later (professional) environment and enable a new, inclusive and welcoming culture of togetherness, mindfulness and respect. Photo: Maurício Mascaro / pexels
For the participating professors, it became clear that architects and urban planners always bear the responsibility for their work, especially since one clear focus during the discussions following each lecture was the topic on climate change and the role of architects and urban planners in reducing it. Particularly, when it comes to questions relating to the responsible use of construction materials and the goals of architecture, architecture students needed information and were open to discussions. The lecture series led to an inspiring interdisciplinary exchange, exploring the topic from various perspectives and was especially welcomed by the generation of students born after 1995 who are very much aware of their social responsibilities.
Another example for developing responsibility across the University is the “Interchange Forum for Reflecting on Intelligent Systems” (IRIS) research group. Its tasks and course offerings are not limited to the field of research, but also create exchange opportunities both within and outside the University, to discuss current ethical and social challenges ranging from data ethics to informational self-determination and reliable Artificial Intelligence (AI) with partners from the public and business sector. The focus is also on teaching: the “Reflecting on Intelligent Systems in the Next Generation” (RISING) teaching forum teaches students of all subjects how to critically reflect on intelligent systems by offering courses on such topics as “cultural bias” and “open science”. Moreover, teachers can further their own training by applying reflective teaching methods. Most of all, the IRIS forum addresses all disciplines, from technology and engineering to the humanities, social sciences and economics, and unites various competencies.2
BUGA Wood Pavilion
The BUGA Wood Pavilion celebrates a new approach to digital timber construction. Its segmented wood shell is based on biological principles found in the plate skeleton of sea urchins, which have been studied by the Institute for Computational Design and Construction (ICD) and the Institute for Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE) at the University of Stuttgart for almost a decade. Photo: ICD / ITKE University of Stuttgart
INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS: LEARNING FROM NATURE AND INTERDISCIPLINARY WORK
The “Integrative Computational Design and Construction for Architecture” Cluster of Excellence (IntCDC) at the University of Stuttgart aims to utilise digital methods to save resources and make the building industry more effective. The cluster aims to find answers to an alarming development: over the next 35 years, additional urban housing will be required for 2.6 billion people due to population growth and urbanisation. However, the construction industry is already consuming 40% of the world’s resources, partly due to the fact that productivity in the construction industry has been stagnating for years, and the spatial requirements continue to increase rapidly.
The 22 professors within the cluster are relying on co-design to make construction more innovative and efficient. To achieve sustainable planning and construction, it is necessary to fully exploit the potential of digital technologies through an integrative and interdisciplinary research approach.
Two pavilions erected on the grounds of the Federal Horticultural Show (BUGA) in the city of Heilbronn in the summer of 2019, which drew in millions of visitors, demonstrate this new way of thinking. They have attracted worldwide attention: one is a seven-metre high, extremely material-efficient, unsupported timber construction that spans a floor area of 500 square metres; the other is an equally tall transparent glass and carbon fibre dome, which is the first ever construction system to be digitally developed throughout.
Often such constructions are inspired by nature. In this case, the sand dollar, a subspecies of the sea urchin, served as the biological model for the panel structures used in the timber pavilion. The shell structure of the fibre pavilion is based on the wings of a flying beetle. Self-shaping mechanisms are also found, for example, in plants that alter their shapes to release their seeds. For architects, biology serves as an inspiration for network thinking. The challenge is to gain a structural understanding of the principles and functions of nature and to implement them using newly-developed materials and tools. It starts with the preparatory software development for novel construction systems and encompasses the robotic production process and simulations aimed at increasing material efficiency, as well as the preparation of new legal standards, for example, the structural stability certification.
Such a comprehensive approach can only succeed on an interdisciplinary basis. Therefore the Cluster of Excellence includes researchers from the fields of architecture, civil engineering, building physics, engineering geodesy, production and systems engineering, computer science and robotics, as well as from the humanities and social sciences. Together they work on intelligent systems for a sustainable society.3
PRODUCING THE FUTURE: ADVANCED MANUFACTURING AND ENERGY EFFICIENCY
At the University of Stuttgart, we believe that industrial manufacturing must evolve to meet the challenges of the future. The Stuttgart Center for Manufacturing Technologies (PZS) is making some important contributions toward this goal. The scientific work of the Center focuses on the technological processes of various manufacturing methods, production flows and value creation chains. The Center’s objective is to work on future technologies, taking part in corresponding global developments that will eventually be adopted by companies within five to ten years from now. This objective is addressed in three fields of research: the optimisation of value creation chains in a production setting in the context of resilient and circular value creation; the use of AI methods in production; and sustainability, resource efficiency and climate neutrality.
For the last topic above, for example, “sustainable production processes” is an important research topic at the PZS. The Institute of Laser Technologies (IFSW) deals specifically with potential future laser applications for things such as a machining tool, whereby they opt for a holistic approach to developing and researching laser-based manufacturing processes, suitable beam sources and the necessary plant and system engineering processes.
Two other key research fields concern AI in production technology and the sustainability and resource efficiency of production processes. The Institute for Energy Efficiency in Production (EEP), for example, coordinates the “Synergy” Copernicus project, which is part of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research’s (BMBF) largest energy research initiative. The objective of the project is to adapt industrial energy demand to the increasingly volatile supply of renewable energy. Various approaches are being investigated by over 80 partners to specifically manage the electricity needs of the industry without having a negative impact on product quality or delivery schedules. Thus far, a total flexibility capacity in the order of three nuclear power plants has been identified and developed for the German industry.
Potential future laser applications
The IFSW demonstrated a new record in the average power of an ultrafast laser with an emission in the visible spectral range. Photo: IFSW / University of Stuttgart
Increasing energy efficiency is a key pillar in energy transition. The EEP collaborated in the “ACE – Asset Class Energy Efficiency” project with the Baden-Wurttemberg Climate Protection and Energy Agency and the German Industry Initiative for Energy Efficiency (DENEFF) to find out how investments in industrial energy efficiency could be financed more easily. Such investments always compete with strategic investments in actual value creation within a company. The needs and interests of the financial sector, energy service providers and manufacturers were analysed in the course of the project. The project findings are set out in a project planning guide, which the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) will be able to expand upon to increase industrial energy efficiency.4
Another successful example for speeding up the pipeline between excellent research and innovations is the project “Quantum sensors for the future (Qsens)”, which is a collaboration among the universities of Stuttgart and Ulm, the Institute for Microelectronics Stuttgart (IMS CHIPS) as well as different partners from the industry. Their research is aimed in particular at the use of quantum sensor technology in the areas of personalised medicine, mobility, renewable energy and space technology. The QSens cluster initiative has set itself the goal of transferring the recent groundbreaking results from the basic research on quantum technology in Stuttgart and Ulm into products of tomorrow.
Quantum sensors for the future
QSens is a joint project between scientific and industrial partners aiming to develop innovative quantum sensors to market readiness for applications in healthcare, mobility, information technology and sustainability. It researches innovative quantum sensors that can achieve a whole new level of sensitivity and spatial resolution. Photo: Max Kovalenko / University of Stuttgart
Quantum technology is a new field of research which combines the physical foundations of quantum physics with the practical aspects of engineering. The use of quantum sensors in clinical diagnostics, medical or biological research, for example, has the potential to overcome the current limits in sensor technology, analytics and imaging, thus opening up new opportunities in biotechnology and medical engineering. In autonomous vehicles, quantum sensors could improve on traditional sensors to improve vehicle safety, and make some desirable functions possible for the first time. Quantum sensors will also play a key role in enhancing battery technology by making it possible to obtain detailed information about the function, charge state and ageing process of battery systems.5
These are some excellent examples showing how university research and knowledge transfer are helping to support future manufacturing processes. The coronavirus pandemic has led to essential shifts in our thinking and approaches, including how we run universities. At the same time, many of the changes that we see happening now have been developing for some time already. At best, they are highlighted and accelerated, at worst they are only being noticed now. Universities are excellent breeding grounds for innovations and will continue to be important players when it comes to building a sustainable society in times of climate change in our shared world.
What we need are more interdisciplinary collaborations among researchers, consistent use of new communication methods and tools in teaching and research, as well as the optimisation of personal attendance when it comes to meetings and conferences. Scientific knowledge from research has never been more important than today. Let’s work on this together: let’s save the planet!
PROF DR WOLFRAM RESSEL
Prof Dr Wolfram Ressel is Rector (President) of the University of Stuttgart in Germany and Chairman of the Academic Senate of the University. He is also Chairman of the Institute of Road and Transportation Science since 1998, and former Dean of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering Sciences (2000-2006).
Outside of the university, Professor Ressel is currently the Chairman of TU9, an association of the leading technical universities in Germany, and the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council of the Federal Highway Research Institute in Germany. Dr Ressel was also the Chairman of the “Landesrektorenkonferenz”, a conference of the university Rectors of the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg (2016-2018).
- Ressel, W. Introduction, forschung leben, 01/2021:3.
See: Lindig, C. Reconsidering artificial intelligence, forschung leben, 01/2021:17
For these and other examples, see: Mayer-Grenu, A. Programmed elegance, forschung leben, 01/2020:29 ff.
See: Concentrated innovative capacity, forschung leben, 09/2021:30 ff.
For more information: https://www.uni-stuttgart.de/en/university/news/all/Quantum-sensors-for-the-future-00001/