HuaweiHow Germany’s universities can leverage digital innovation to craft a green future

How Germany’s universities can leverage digital innovation to craft a green future

If digitalisation is to lead to a more sustainable future for Germany, universities, businesses and local communities all have a role to play

During a digital roundtable titled “Eco-innovation: how green technology is powering a sustainable recovery in Germany” ­– held by Times Higher Education in partnership with Huawei – environmental experts from academia and industry came together to discuss the country’s sustainable initiatives.

The collective message concerned digitalisation and how this could be leveraged to deliver a far-reaching ecological transformation of the economy and society. 

Stephan Ramesohl, co-head of the digital transformation research unit at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, opened the discussion by admitting that sustainable transformation is not “merely a question of recovery”. Instead, as humanity enters the most decisive decade in its history, it must think and act fundamentally differently.

“Of course, digital technology has a role to play, including developments like 5G, big data and AI, but these will only have an impact if they lead to socioeconomic shifts,” Ramesohl said. “Green tech matters, but it must be embedded into a sustainable digital transformation agenda.”

Miranda Schreurs, chair of environmental and climate policy at the Technical University of Munich, spoke about the role higher education institutions can play in driving eco-innovation in Germany. “If you look at German Environment Agency reports from 2012, it is clear that, as a country, we are exceeding some of our green tech targets,” she explained. “Technical universities are contributing to this trend through public-private partnerships and the development of research on emerging technologies like geothermal energy and hydrogen fuel.”

The panel also discussed the impact that material science can have on sustainability. “We need to develop better materials faster,” Oliver Kraft, vice-president for research at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology noted. “We must also come up with better ways to recycle and remanufacture. Digitalisation, including Industry 4.0, will play a massive role in choosing how to treat each material in the most efficient manner.”

David Wang, a chief representative at Huawei, added that sustainable innovation is increasingly being demanded by customers. “Customer demand is certainly driving our sustainable R&D efforts, but Huawei can only do so much,” he said. “That’s why we are partnering with international organisations, different communities and universities.”

“In terms of Germany’s climate targets, we are moving from a focus on developing renewable energies to a major push on AI, digitalisation and creating new materials,” Schreurs commented. “But I think we also need a new mindset – one with far more interdisciplinarity. We are moving to a post-industrial era, an era with new approaches to education that bring sustainability to the teaching of all disciplines.”

This interdisciplinarity will present challenges, however. “Even if we just look at the urban environment, most buildings have not been designed with sustainability in mind,” Ramesohl explained. “In a decarbonised world, we will still need to satisfy our needs with services, which will present a challenge and fundamentally change how our cities look.”

Another challenge emerges when the cost of some sustainability initiatives is considered. “Our customers will not choose the sustainable option if it is more expensive,” Wang admitted. It’s a sentiment that Oliver Kraft echoed from a business perspective. “We need to think about projects where the ROI behind sustainable initiatives are better,” Kraft said.

Schreurs concluded the roundtable by mentioning how international collaboration would be key to delivering more sustainability – both in Germany and the wider world. “Firstly, regulation can really make a difference,” she said. “We need more work on establishing joint global goals. In addition, green financing, green value chains and carbon pricing are all initiatives that can bring countries together. And finally, it’s worth remembering that a lot of the planet is still without reliable access to energy. We need to help these nations develop while ensuring that they don’t make the same mistakes we did.”

The panel:

  • Oliver Kraft, vice-president for research, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
  • Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Stephan Ramesohl, co-head of the digital transformation research unit, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy
  • Miranda Schreurs, chair of environmental and climate policy, Technical University of Munich
  • David Wang, chief representative, Huawei

Find out more about Huawei and higher education.

Brought to you by