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Sustainable megacities

Interview with Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Bullinger

Hans-Jörg Bullinger

Prof. Hans-Jörg Bullinger

Prof. Hans-Jörg Bullinger, president of the Fraunhofer Society until 2012 and current member of the senate at the research network.
Prof. Hans-Jörg Bullinger: “The potential for sustainable restructuring of our cities is far from being exhausted.”

Prof. Hans-Jörg Bullinger was president of the Fraunhofer Society until 2012 and is currently a member of the senate at the research network. In 2013, he was awarded the Hans-Peter-Stihl prize for his achievements in the development of the Stuttgart region.

New York, Rio, Tokyo — how do you explain the attraction these and other megacities hold for millions of people?

Bullinger: In addition to being cultural flag bearers for our society, these cities are also starting points and way stations for global development. The more advanced our technological solutions become, the more efficiently we convert our existing resources into products and services, and the more we become an aging mobile and digital society, the greater the extent to which cities should be regarded as key future hubs. At the same time, there is no denying that metropolitan areas such as Rio, Tokyo, and New York face huge challenges when it comes to issues such as supply, disposal, fine particle pollution, and overpopulation. If we are unable to overcome the challenges of the 21st century in our cities, where will we be able to do so? One example of these efforts is a research project of the Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation. The research team based in Karlsruhe worked on a resource management system to provide the rapidly growing megacity of Beijing with sustainable and scalable water supplies, even in dry periods.

In your 2012 book “Morgenstadt Wie wir morgen leben” (City of the future — how we will live tomorrow), you give an example of what cities could be like in the future. What are the specific differences between these model metropolises and today's megacities?

Bullinger: The vision of the city of the future involves not only further optimizing our current infrastructures and systems but also developing innovative interface solutions. For example, we are seeing an ongoing merging of technical systems that started with the decentralization of energy supplies, the mobile Internet, and electromobility. This process will continue over the next twenty to thirty years. In other words, we will also come to view cities as laboratories where we can test flexible solutions of this very kind and optimize them in practice. To put it in simple terms, then, the city of the future is somewhere that does not so much manage its existing situation as actively shape its future.

Given the current environmental problems faced by a city like Shanghai, such visions appear to be some way off. In your view, what approaches are likely to bring about a change in direction?

Bullinger: One key aspect that our researchers are currently working on in the Fraunhofer joint project “Morgenstadt: City Insights” (City of the future: City insights) is based on viewing individual districts and neighborhoods as areas of application. Concepts relating to micro smart grids, car-sharing systems, or decentralized water supplies are easier to implement at this level and, in some cases, are less vulnerable than in the wider context.

Are some cities already setting a good example when it comes to sustainable development?

Bullinger: The latest findings from our joint project show that Freiburg, Copenhagen, and Singapore are already implementing effective projects in many respects. We also have small bioenergy and solar villages in Germany that already generate a large proportion of their energy from renewable sources. However, the key challenge remains not seeing sustainable development as a means to an end but rather integrating it into current value-added chains as a matter of course. If we are unable to create a business model by investing in sustainable development, the Morgenstadt initiative will not achieve what it set out to do.

Where will the funds required for ecological restructuring with energy-optimized buildings, renewable energy, and electric vehicles come from?

Bullinger: The German government has set the course for the coming decades with a number of future projects such as restructuring our power supplies, and the Industrie 4.0 and Morgenstadt initiatives. In this context, however, it is important to understand that we cannot transform our cities through state funding alone. It would cost several hundred billion euros just to make existing buildings energy-efficient. And it's a similar story with the other urban systems. We need to use the economic dimension, that is to say Germany's huge value-adding potential as a leading international supplier of sustainable urban systems. A good approach here would be to demonstrate this know-how in our cities.

To what extent can global technology companies such as Bosch contribute to the ecological restructuring of megacities?

Bullinger: Technology companies supply products and systems that are used in cities, so they have a big impact on future developments — provided the business models and value-added chains change. As long as companies have to buy batteries or rail vehicles rather than paying a user fee for them, for example, development processes will be unnecessarily lengthened. If, on the other hand, they were able to establish themselves as operators of technology platforms, this would create win-win situations that would pave the way for further investment in ecological restructuring.

As an author and researcher, you have focused closely on solutions for the cities of the future. In your opinion, which one has the greatest potential for sustainably transforming the world's megacities?

Bullinger: Given the complexity of the challenges that currently exist, there is no obvious answer to this question. In times when cities were growing, their appearance was transformed by inventions such as the railways, the elevator, and the car. In Europe at least, cities are now no longer growing, which means that even pioneering technologies find it difficult to establish themselves. We need a greater number of flexible and decentralized solutions. Take the customized smartphone with mobile Internet and built-in sensors — the key to new forms of participation, business models, and sensor networks. This potential for the sustainable restructuring of our cities and the transformation of urban processes is far from being exhausted. At Fraunhofer, numerous institutes involved in the Morgenstadt initiative are already working on such key innovations.

(Interview with Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Bullinger, August 2013)