Left to right: Prof. Dr Florian Koch, Prof Dr.-Ing. Thomas Schwotzer, Prof. Dr Katja Ninnemann)

(Left to right: Prof. Dr Florian Koch, Prof Dr.-Ing. Thomas Schwotzer, Prof. Dr Katja Ninnemann), Photo: HTW Berlin

“We hope to see many fascinating projects.”

The new Sustainable Smart City research cluster at HTW Berlin University of Applied Sciences centres on ideas and solutions for smart buildings, smart neighbourhoods and smart cities. The cluster aims to pool various research topics at the university and facilitate and promote interdisciplinary exchange. To find out more about the research network established in May 2021, we talked to cluster spokespersons Prof. Dr Florian Koch, expert for the real estate industry, smart cities and urban development; Prof. Dr.-Ing. Thomas Schwotzer, applied computer sciences expert; and Prof. Dr Katja Ninnemann, expert for design practices and processes for hybrid learning and working environments at HTW Berlin

The research cluster combines engineering and business administration faculties as well as construction, computer sciences, logistics and industrial design. With the Sustainable Smart City cluster, HTW Berlin aims to create a platform for various research, teaching and practical projects related to this topic. The university further aims to strengthen its links to external stakeholders such as companies, citizen scientists, NGOs and politics through user-oriented projects. As such, the cluster will contribute to the national and international discourse on sustainable and smart cities – thus advancing Berlin’s development towards a smart city. To be recognised as a research cluster by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), universities must provide proof of particular research expertise and scientific achievements along with a research agenda shared by the faculties involved. 

Professor Koch, what sets the Sustainable Smart City cluster apart from other research clusters?

Florian Koch: Besides an interdisciplinary approach that combines a range of specialist disciplines, three other aspects characterise the cluster: on the one hand, many of our projects are relevant to research, teaching and practice in terms of application and are carried out in cooperation with politics, administration, business and civil society, in the course of which co-design, participation processes and experiments play a tremendous role. With the research cluster, we further aim to turn the Wilhelminenhof campus at HTW Berlin into a living lab, creating an open field for experimentation in the city. Our focus is on testing, researching and discussing technological and social innovations with differentiated actors. .And last but not least, we want to emphasise and strengthen the link between sustainability and smart cities. Many cities have discussed the concept of the smart city in the past years, and the topic has gained traction in Berlin thanks to the Smart Cities Model Project funded by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community (BMI) and the development of a new Smart City Strategy.   

Speaking of living labs for smart cities: are you already working on concrete ideas and projects on the HTW Berlin campus?

Katja Ninnemann: We are able to implement and test many of the Sustainable Smart City cluster’s projects on the Wilhelminenhof campus. In line with living lab research, we aim to test new technologies and social practices in real time and thus gain new findings on the subject. For example, we have already created new teaching and learning environments for students and have used sensors to measure environmental pollution – and we plan to develop concepts to reutilise some areas on campus as well as in the surrounding Oberschöneweide district. 

Thomas Schwotzer: And we’re not starting from scratch, either. A major telecommunications company has given us an LTE radio cell, for example, which we can use to experiment with LTE/5G on campus. And we have the former Berlin fire brigade command vehicle on campus, which allows us to base our work on new solutions on actual technology.

How does the research cluster benefit the Smart City Berlin – and with it, urban society?

Katja Ninnemann: As the cluster is application-oriented, we aim to create practical added value for Berlin and its residents. One cluster project, for example, involves developing and testing sensors that will contribute to improving urban traffic management. Another project takes a closer look at city logistics and new means of transportation for parcel services. In future, we want to ensure that the research we do on the Wilhelminenhof campus is even more accessible and discuss corresponding smart city technologies with students and Berliners.  

Thomas Schwotzer: We would like the campus to be viewed as an open lab where external parties can work, as well. These might be start-ups, for example, that are on the lookout for tools, an experimental field and interested students – and the professors’ expertise, of course. We are happy to pursue an incubator approach, but we are, of course, open to businesses and non-profit organisations as well. We are an experimental field and a place for discussion in one.

Will the cluster be involved in the Berlin Smart City strategy process as well?

Florian Koch: One member of the cluster, Prof. Dr Olga Willner, also holds a seat on the Smart City Berlin Strategy Advisory Board, and other members took part in the participation process for the new Smart City strategy. The cluster as well as its members are happy to support the ongoing strategy process and the further implementation of the strategy in particular.

Does the cluster cooperate with other universities?

Florian Koch: We are cooperating with other universities on individual projects within the cluster, including the Technical University of Vienna, the KTH Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm and the University of Sheffield. We also cooperate closely with Berlin universities, such as the Berlin Institute of Technology (Berliner Hochschule für Technik, BHT), the Berlin School of Economics and Law and TU Berlin. We aim to expand our contacts to other interdisciplinary clusters in the fields of sustainable urban development, such as the Stadtmanufaktur (translates to “urban manufacture”) at TU Berlin or the Urban Studies Centre at the University of Glasgow.

Has the cluster already started on any concrete, interdisciplinary research projects?

Katja Ninnemann: Yes, it has. One of them is the SpreeX project (link available in German only), where a team of architects, social scientists and engineers is working together to draw up concepts to improve energy and spatial efficiency on the Wilhelminenhof campus.  Many cluster members are also active in interdisciplinary teaching and offer a range of courses on sustainable smart cities for various degree programmes. 

Thomas Schwotzer: We have also re-established the Living Labs module, which is a supplementary general science course offered by the faculty of Computing, Communication and Business. Now in its first semester, it has already been well-received and deals with permaculture and sensor technology. All work is conducted in cooperation with housing associations.

What do you personally hope to gain from the interdisciplinary work within the cluster?

Thomas Schwotzer: Interdisciplinary teaching and research have several effects: students from different faculties come together to work on projects of the future. Which means lecturers also work together, and can start a conversation. We aim to make our campus “smarter”, which will help us engage in a more focussed exchange across faculty boundaries and create synergies.

Katja Ninnemann: By establishing the living lab on the HTW campus and thus using the university’s infrastructures and networks in the different fields more intensively, we hope that new, captivating and above all relevant matters will emerge in the context of applied research. This will allow us to use the power of interdisciplinary cooperation to develop innovative and sustainable products, services and applications that enrich our lives, our teaching and our work. 

Florian Koch: Ultimately, the cluster aims to bring the flowery and slightly vague term “sustainable smart city” to life. We hope to see the cluster initiate and accompany many fascinating projects that will allow us to contribute to making Berlin smarter and more sustainable. (vdo)