Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Bild: PIK/Karkow
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Image: PIK/Karkow

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber is one of the most renowned climate researchers in the world. He is committed to limiting global warming. The building and design sector would be of particular importance in this. An interview about settlements made of wood, cyborganic construction and why “Wicked Problems” are not so complex. 

Interview: Martina Metzner.

We know so much, why are we still doing so little to save the climate? If we go by Horst Rittel’s “Wicked Problems” – complex, interlocking problem complexes – one could say this is a supposedly unsolvable problem because it depends on so many factors …

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber: We are indeed heading for the demise of the world we are familiar with. That’s a flowery way of putting it, but unfortunately, it’s a reality. Now, with the Ukraine war, the emissions dynamic is probably even accelerating. We have known for a long time that we are hurtling towards this wall. Why is nothing happening? Well, because we as humans are almost perfect at suppressing long-term problems. And when something comes at us in the short term, we can react very quickly and very well. But it is extremely difficult for us to plan far ahead and to look at entire systems. Because that is too much for us individually. And also socially. But I can only react to challenges like self-inflicted global warming socially. In this respect, we have both a political and a psychological dilemma. Second point: Wicked Problems. We manage complexity every day. When you leave your house and try to go shopping somewhere, you have to solve incredibly complex problems, like manoeuvring through a hectic crowd. This is a skill we learn throughout life. Also, complex problems where many factors are intertwined often have so-called tipping points. If we intervene in the right place, find a kind of system acupuncture point, then we can get the whole system moving in the right direction. We believe that the building sector is exactly such a point in solving the climate problem.

“Designers should realise that they represent a problem – but they can also be the solution.”

— Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

Then let’s take a look at constructing as well. Together with other scientists, you are calling for a major transformation towards a carbon-free world. What needs to happen in the field of construction and design? 

My friend and colleague Anette Hillebrandt from the University of Wuppertal, who is an advocate of circular building in the existing structures, always says this beautiful phrase: “Waste is a design flaw.” That’s not completely true, but it’s largely true. For instance, it’s perfectly clear that good design is much better at using resources. And she also says that a house should actually be a built store of recyclables. And you should be able to use these recyclable materials again and again. Either for a very long time in the building or in the infrastructure. Or they can often be transferred to new buildings, new infrastructures. We are not just talking about circularity here. When we talk about the Great Transformation, we have to conjugate the various economic sectors, i.e. mobility, electricity generation, agriculture, heavy industry, etc. Can I decarbonise them? In other words, make them climate neutral? And yes, you can. Slowly, often at great cost. But there is one sector that is different, and that is the biggest climate polluter of all, namely the construction and design industry. The built environment, so to speak. And that is the only sector that can go from being Saul to Paul! From climate sinner to climate saint. Which can not only become climate-neutral, but even climate-positive. If we build in a similar way as we did 1,000 years ago: Half-timbered construction with wood and clay, then you can conserve the carbon stored in the timber for many centuries. In the same way, we can store atmospheric carbon in durable products – houses, furniture, whatever. In other words, the building sector has a unique opportunity to become relevant to the climate system and tip the whole thing into the positive. 

We already have a global timber shortage at the moment. So, is this the right solution? 

Bild: Hanno Mackowitz
Clay as an organic alternative to concrete. Image: Hanno Mackowitz

We don’t have a global timber shortage. There is only one bottleneck: there are not enough sawmills. Because the USA, for example, cut back capacities during the financial crisis. I simply can’t get the wood processed. Yes, the forests are currently suffering because of climate change. What is needed is a forest restructuring that produces healthy mixed forests with many age classes. The idea is, of course, that we create, manage, care for, nurture and protect forests in such a way that they offer biomass on a quasi-permanent basis, some of which can also be harvested. In the northern hemisphere, we have had forest growth for decades. But in the southern hemisphere there is a dramatic problem. Not because the forests are not growing, but because we are destroying them for soya beans, palm oil, beef etc. In other words, if we were just a little more sensible with our resources, we would have timber in abundance. Or bamboo. Which would be better in the southern hemisphere anyway because it grows very fast. All this would happen in the next 100, maybe even 200 years. But it will take us just as long to clean the atmosphere of CO2 again. 

Designers and architects are significantly involved in the energy consumption of the goods they produce. 80 per cent of the environmental impact is determined in the design. What has to change so that designers can internalise this and also implement it? 

I think designers should realise in the first place that they represent a problem. But they can also be the solution. In my opinion, they haven’t really dealt with sustainability yet, at least not on a broad scale. Often with the individual product, of course. But in the case of climate, the entire building and design world has essentially exhausted itself in optimising façade insulation. And how to cram as much building technology as possible into a building for “energy efficiency”. That is the wrong way to go. We have to remember again what nature offers us and how we can arrive at simple, robust solutions. 

That’s what you mean by cyborganic construction …

Exactly. That is the combination of high-tech with low-tech, even no-tech. For example, fantastic framework structures made of cross-laminated timber together with artificial intelligence. In other words, natural materials from the region come together with the best cognitive tools we have produced in the history of mankind. That’s what I call cyborganic value creation.

What do you recommend to companies that want to become more sustainable in concrete terms? How can the New European Bauhaus help, for example? What funding opportunities are there? 

The New European Bauhaus as such will not be able to promote much directly. But we recently wrote a report for the European Commission in a group of experts that is probably groundbreaking. It is called the “Nexus Report”. It’s about how the ideas in the New European Bauhaus are supported by research within the framework of Horizon Europe. And Horizon Europe is a 100 billion euro programme! The largest research programme in the world in terms of sustainability. 

Schellnhuber plädiert für Gebäude aus Holz. Bild: David Franck
Schellnhuber pleads for buildings made of wood. Image: David Franck

And to come back to the first question, companies can do two things: they can become part of a lighthouse project themselves. The headquarters of whoever, Bosch, BMW, Bayern München can become a spectacular cyborganic building, for example. So, you build representative or functional buildings, or even kindergartens and hospitals, as carbon sinks. This would not only give you an architecture that is good for people and benefits them, but one that helps them to respect the planetary boundaries. The second is better land use, which in turn generates materials that can be used in construction. Whether as a municipality or as a private company. That’s what REWE is doing. They are currently promoting an exemplary moorland project. In other words, it should be worth something to a company not just to do green washing, but to make genuine green investments. 

Have you become more confident about sustainable life on earth considering the many initiatives towards sustainability, be it in business, politics or civil society, which includes your Bauhaus of the Earth or the New European Bauhaus?

Yes, a little bit. The fact that you as an outsider can help to get a scene moving that has of course had the relevant discourses but perhaps did not yet have a convincing climate narrative is already an extremely encouraging experience. It’s quite clear that the experts then have to take over. The designers. The architects. The urban planners. I’ll give you a metaphor for that. I estimate that the possibility of stopping the climate, climate change, is only ten to twenty percent. That is deadly sad. But take any human being you like. You would find out that he or she has a fatal disease. And there is a new therapy for it that works with ten to twenty percent. Would you then say it’s not worth the money? I won’t even try it? Ten or twenty percent chance is good enough to do anything if everything is really at stake. 

10 years of the German Design Awards, 10 years of design history

For ten years now, the German Design Council has been honouring outstanding achievements with the German Design Awards. This year, for the first time, the award has a focus theme: inspired by the work of the visionary designer and design theorist Horst Rittel, the motto is “How designers think”: How can solutions be found for those challenges for which Rittel, together with Melvin Webber, coined the term “Wicked Problems” in the 1960s; problems that are unclear, contradictory, volatile or even unsolvable – or only appear to be?

In our series of articles, we would like to introduce personalities and projects that deal with Rittel’s thought in their own way.

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