As a student, Jürgen Lehmann read “The Limits to Growth,” and as president of Hof University of Applied Sciences, he tries to implement his ideas on sustainability – in research, teaching and university operations.
Recently, Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. said. Jürgen Lehmann in a greeting “I am someone who has still read Club of Rome”. He thus revealed that he – like many of his generation – was profoundly influenced by the “Limits to Growth” report published 50 years ago. Lehmann has been president of Hof University for 20 years. A good ten years ago, he developed the mission statement of the Green Tech University, which focuses on interdisciplinarity, economic necessities and resource efficiency. He was also influenced by his experience as a lawyer with groundwater protection and waste management. The university’s research marketing department spoke with Jürgen Lehman about design options and personal concerns.
Research Marketing: Professor Lehmann, you were a teenager when “Limits to Growth” came out in 1972. What was it like back then when you read the book?
Lehmann: “Read the book in school. I come from a relatively simple background and, although I no longer experienced the immediate post-war period, it was still a time of relative privation. In the 1970s, I felt that there was slowly an oversaturation. One noticed that not everything can go on in such a way. I came across the book through a teacher, and it actually seemed logical to me: the earth has certain limits and limited resources, so there has to be an end at some point if we keep growing. At that time, it seemed even more logical to me than perhaps it does today, because certain innovative technological developments were not yet so obvious. That was also true of the models in the study. But for all the justified criticism of these errors in thinking, current developments show that we keep running up against limits despite innovations.”
You’re a lawyer. Would you say that as such you read the book differently than a natural scientist, for example?
“I wouldn’t say that. For me, the law is more of a framework in which human action takes place. It’s not so much a matter of writing something into a law, but the question is: ‘can you then implement it?’ My philosophy of green tech back in 2008 was a magic triangle of ecology, economy and social compatibility, a widely held view today. If I put too much emphasis on one aspect, I neglect the rest. This, by the way, came up in the Club of Rome book. The emphasis was on the balance between economy and ecology and less on people, but you can’t do without them, you can’t neglect that. However, the legal system is not the instrument per se for this. Natural science is called upon to offer solutions and the will must be there to change something. The legal system is more downstream. Maybe that’s changing right now, if we think about the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court on the climate protection law or the discussion about nature as a legal subject.”
Would you say that the insights from the book will accompany you throughout your professional life?
“I worked as a lawyer at the district office in environmental and building law. A big issue at the time was garbage. As an association councilor for a hazardous waste incineration plant, I had to deal with highly hazardous waste – defects in the landfill have an estimated 40,000-year impact. It was then that I had the thought – and I still have it today – that we need to be careful not to develop technologies that massively impact our later generations. During that time, I also learned that models do not really capture the complexity of the environment. I have seen assessments, for example on groundwater safety, revised. We should be very careful and keep our hands off hasty conclusions.
In general, of course, I’m interested in ensuring that my children are well off in the future, and that’s why I’m very concerned about protecting and preserving the environment. But people have to accept that. If I impose something on them, if I can’t convince them and they reject it, I won’t get anywhere. At the district administration office, I learned to reconcile the law and people. Talking to people, understanding what they want and reconciling that with what the state wants. Such negotiations don’t go without compromise, and that goes for environmental protection as well. You can’t get your head through the wall – that’s where we’re back to that triangle.”
Hof University was founded in 1994, so it’s half as old as the book. You’ve been president since 2002. Would you say that you can make a difference for your cause in this position?
“Of course, the issues I used to deal with have some influence on my presidency, whether it’s emission control, water or waste. We have a biopolymer institute, biodegradable materials I think are great. The next step would be recyclable materials. To use even less raw materials by working with secondary raw materials, that’s something I promote under all circumstances. I’m currently in the process of initiating the next research group on this.
You can see how the topics of sustainability or resource efficiency affect the university in various places. Take paper consumption. We once built a tower with empty paper boxes to show how much paper we’ve already saved. Or our new Institute for Water and Energy Management building, which will itself be a research object: It will be completely clad with solar panels from the outside and should cover at least half of our energy consumption. We should also use it to charge electric cars. I’ve been dying to install solar panels on all our roofs for a long time. In the past, it wasn’t possible because of the statics. Now it could be done, but we don’t have the money. It would be more difficult to install a wind turbine. That’s also about the acceptance of the university here in the neighborhood.
But if we were to build another new building, wind tunnels might be an option. If at some point there are hydrogen solutions that are feasible for us, we will do that, too. My dream would be to make the university energy self-sufficient to a very significant extent. Unfortunately, my idea of water self-sufficiency is not feasible. The drinking water ordinance stands in our way. But we could manage with the energy. For me, green tech is a philosophy that resonates in the background and is intended to change us bit by bit.”
Since 2011, a good ten years, the mission statement ‘Green Tech University’ has been in place What has it done for the university?
“Initially, the term Green Tech did not cause great joy, on the contrary. Many could do little with it. The computer scientists said ‘That’s just technical, we have nothing to do with that’. But for me, computer science is the cross-sectional science par excellence on this subject. It takes a long time to anchor the mission statement with everything behind it comprehensively at the university. Change processes need patience. But the concept exists and I notice how the employees are dealing with it. When a colleague remarks that environmental topics get relatively few clicks compared to traditional courses of study, she has dealt with Green Tech. For me, Green Tech is a philosophy that resonates in the background and is intended to change us bit by bit.
Our research institutes are very much firing up the topic of sustainability. Whether it’s the Institute for Biopolymers, the one for Information Systems as a cross-cutting function, textile technology and, more recently, water and energy. This research didn’t just fall out of the sky; we’ve been funding it quite deliberately for a long time. In the past, universities of applied sciences were only allowed to conduct research ‘when there was time’. Within our framework, we have given colleagues more freedom to conduct research and have founded institutes to strengthen researchers outside the faculties. The Bavarian Higher Education Act now gives us even more opportunities to do research and even to do PhDs. So there are opportunities for change, but they are tough.”
How do you map the Green Tech mission statement in research? Do you specifically bring projects, people or topics to the university and perhaps deliberately avoid other avenues?
“We’ve had textile technology for years and years. Technical textiles have many applications, think of aircraft construction or wind turbines. We have worked with ESA on a solar sail for space. Others are deliberately steered in the direction of green tech, for example the Institute for Biopolymers. A young colleague moved in that direction, and when I told the university council about it, the external university councilors said, ‘we ought to intensify that.’ Within a very short time, we took this up and pushed it forward with vehemence.
Now we have to link the institutes more closely together. We are a university of applied sciences. So we have to try to break down the complexity of certain topics by linking different disciplines. For example, we could link textile technology and biomaterials to create construction elements that may not exist today. In 3D printing, I could imagine a link with biodegradable materials. Overall, however, we have to stay a bit on the carpet and do what suits us as a small university and our topics. ”
Do you set up certain majors because they fit the Green Tech mission statement?
“Yes. I helped initiate environmental technology, water and similar topics quite specifically. In the goal agreements, I insisted that the topics of sustainability and the environment appear in the degree programs. I am convinced that green tech will bring us student numbers not only now, but especially in the future. The younger generation will have to be more engaged with the environment, and interest will increase. We need to convince our students more about environmental topics in their studies.”
Would you say that the orientation toward sustainability helps the university compete for students?
“I think it does. Take the water management degree program. I fought for that one for a long time. Our foreign students – we are closely networked with India – have a huge demand for it, because water management is a huge topic in their home regions. It’s not as strong here yet, but the students here see the interest and are also becoming aware of the topic. The term Green Tech is deliberately chosen in English. A third of our students come from abroad, and many of our topics are highly relevant to them. Water, energy, resources – these are very big problems globally.
In general, we observe that we need to direct our students more towards environmental topics. In engineering, we have a course generator where prospective students can select subject areas, among other things. We have evaluated this and seen that they predominantly click on classic areas such as mechanical or electrical engineering, and less on the topics of the environment, sustainability or green industry. There are studies that come to different conclusions, but from our observation I conclude that the environment is not as strongly a life-defining issue for our students as one might assume based on the Fridays for Future movement. We need to do a better job of picking up the young people, finding out in dialogue with them where their inclinations lie. Then we can try to convince them that the environment is a very multi-layered issue and has, for example, not only scientific aspects, but also economic and many other aspects. “
What is the argument against making green tech more visible to students, positioning the university more strongly as an environmental university?
“They have to take the university as it is, with all its different manifestations. And they need to take as many people as possible with them. We are located in a rural area, it is not easy to attract students and faculty here. Our region in northeastern Bavaria is severely affected by demographics, which means there are relatively few young people. If we focus only on environmental issues, we won’t get enough students to keep the university going. So we have to make compromises. In terms of content, after all, we want to continue on the “Green Tech” path.”
How is the Green Tech mission statement broken down into everyday university life? Quite a few universities, for example, have anchored the SDGs, i.e. the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or are setting individual themes.
“It starts with the fact that we have planted a relatively large number of trees, that we have environmental management and do environmental audits. We are always questioning what we can do better. We collect rainwater in two large ponds. We have had a climate protection concept since 2016. I elaborated on the ideas for energy and water self-sufficiency earlier. Taken as a whole, it all has an impact. My absolute dream would be the cell phone that I can throw on the dung heap.”
How do we as a university deal with the fact that while recycling is absolutely important, we can’t recycle endlessly, but will eventually need new materials again?
“My vision would actually be that almost everything can be made from biological materials. We are still at the beginning, but let’s take biological fibers: If we link those to our Institute of Textile Technology, we’ll have new building materials that rot at the end of their lives. Today, they can be used in air conditioning systems and in the automotive industry. My absolute dream would be the cell phone that I can throw on the dung heap. Of course, that’s still very, very far away.
I’m thinking of a cycle at the end of which a relatively small amount of material remains. For that, you then need intelligent waste disposal. We are a country poor in raw materials, and we need to use all our skills from science and technology to advance precisely these cycles.”
Hof University of Applied Sciences is located in rural areas and aims to strengthen them. Did this aspect play a role in the Green Tech mission statement?
“Everything we do at the university is intended to have a bit of an impact on the region and help companies to focus on new products or materials and become more efficient. After all, the materials we have so far are not available at will. That brings us back to our biopolymers and textile constructions. Textile technology helps to save materials. However, sustainability would require thinking in much longer phases than medium-sized companies are able to do. For them, it is difficult to estimate today whether a product will really be successful in 10 years. Many companies can’t afford that, I understand that. Individual companies are definitely moving strongly in the direction of sustainability, but it’s not yet the big mass.
In general, I see the problem with universities that we are stuck with our findings. We research and deliver results, but companies lack the resources to actually implement the prototype. We don’t have the energy or personnel to coach the companies to do that. That’s why sales companies, which are envisioned in the university, would be another way to ensure technology transfer. We need to focus on young people bringing sustainability issues from the university to the companies.”
Would you say that the university, with its green tech focus, can contribute to greater sustainability in the region?
“If you thought the university away, it would look pretty sad here. Just the fact that we are educating a lot of young people with academic credentials that are important to companies. The topic of green tech is already present among companies. But one thing is knowledge, the other is action. In many companies, I don’t yet see such a fundamental change. I think we need to focus more on spin-offs and bring other topics into the companies via young people. In that context, the university is an important building block for regional economic change.”
With the climate and sustainability crisis still unresolved, many academics wonder if they should become more political, more activist. How political do you think the university should be?
“We are actually political. We have a social mission, and that also means making it clear to the actors outside that something has to change. In my opinion, doing only teaching and research is not enough. I do think that we have to fight better. Whether we become more politically vocal or more socially vocal remains to be seen.”
Are you personally gloomy or more hopeful about the future? We’re talking at the end of April, at the time of the Ukraine war, but the question relates to the global climate and sustainability crisis.
“I am not a pessimist by nature. For me, there are challenges and new ways to move forward, at the university and also in my personal life. I still hope that people will get their act together at the last moment. It’s going to take time, I’m already pessimistic about that. People need more pressure, they need to experience the environmental impact more directly. But I already believe in our innovative strength, even if it will happen at the last minute.”
Hof University of Applied Sciences, July 2022