How can the whole population benefit from technical and scientific advances made in the ETH Domain? This is illustrated by a number of examples from various fields – and a look back to the 19th century, when engineers brought their expertise to civilian society.

The NEST modular research and innovation building on the Empa campus. Photo: Roman Keller

Homo faber is something of a Swiss national hero. One of the few engineers to have achieved fame in world literature. Damien C. Weber, head of proton therapy at the PSI, has another hero. “Have you ever heard of Robert Wilson? He wasn't just a physicist, he was also an artist and a great humanist.” The pioneer in proton therapy for cancer was the founding director of the American ring accelerator, Fermilab. He dedicated his career to classical fundamental research. Others took on the task of proving his assumption in 1947 that protons should be particularly well suited to the precision, localised treatment of tumours. The proof arrived in 1954 with the first treatment.

Today, 65 years later, we are sitting in a rather mundane meeting room in the middle of the PSI campus. But when Weber talks about Wilson, you can hear the doctor's passion in every word he says. He doesn't just see the possibilities of his high-tech equipment, he sees the benefits for his patients in particular. Children also come here, often from great distances, because the qualities of proton therapy are best demonstrated in bodies that are still growing: the proton beam only takes effect inside the body when the protons have lost speed. This means more intensive radiation at the site where the tumour is to be treated and less radiation in the healthy tissue that needs to be protected. This can be crucial for successful recovery. At the PSI, patients are treated with the best proton therapy available worldwide – and it's hardly any wonder seeing as the spot-scanning technique was developed here. And true to their task, physicists, doctors and engineers at the PSI have been conducting continuous research into the use of innovative treatment concepts.

A great success, both in Switzerland and further afield:
thanks to the SLF's RAMMS software, avalanches and debris flows can be calculated by computer.

Engineers possess the expertise, although in the early days of engineering, it was almost exclusively for military purposes. It was not until the 19th century that engineers broke away from this role, and civil engineering took shape. It became all about technical and economic progress that worked for everyone. However, military research continues to be the driving force behind many technologies – such as GPS – which also benefit civil society. Meanwhile, the engineers set out to “rationalise“ land use, surveying it and covering it with all manner of infrastructure. Nature was largely tamed, and a great deal of practical knowledge came together, especially in Switzerland. “We have carried this knowledge over into the computer age,“ says Perry Bartelt, who is in charge of the RAMMS simulation software at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos. “What's happening on the mountain?“ is a question people have asked since the dawn of time. Thanks to a wealth of experience and complex models, there is now often a scientific answer to hand. Avalanches and debris flows can be calculated in the computer and traced in detail on a digital map. Bartelt regards RAMMS specifically as a service to society. The software is a great success, both in Switzerland and further afield. This success could not be measured primarily in terms of much-cited academic articles, but rather through contact with practical application. The close cooperation with engineering offices, in particular, was extremely important: “This was the goal: we wanted to provide the planners with a tool that would enable them to gauge which construction measures would be useful and where.” The simulation is improved continuously through feedback from practical experience and in-house field research.


EPFL Extension School

Digital Skills. For everyone. The EPFL Extension School offers online courses for everyone to learn digital skills. Photo: EPFL

But at times there is a sense that engineers have lost this sense of responsibility towards society as a whole. “Move fast and break things“? The infamous slogan from the early days of Facebook probably still describes the basic attitude of many digital pioneers who have found that success can follow mistakes. Marcel Salathé, biotechnologist and specialist in digital approaches in life sciences, wants to help shape this world from a non-commercial perspective. Why shouldn't digital know-how, which is obviously available at technical universities, be made available to wider society? The EPFL Extension School has been offering online courses on digital skills for about two years now. It's a kind of community college for civil engineering in the 21st century. Since the relevant infrastructure in many jobs is digital nowadays, you have to be able to program websites or analyse and visualise data sets. While the interest is there, the EPFL label is also a “double-edged sword“. Much of the general public was not attracted by the offer, saying that it is not for everyone. For this reason, Salathé is planning a communication offensive: why not run a poster campaign in major Swiss railway stations? And why not expand the model even further, for the next generation? The latest idea from the enterprising EPFL professor is to offer a free module on artificial intelligence for schoolchildren.


DFAB House

The DFAB House in the NEST on the Empa campus is the largest house in the world created using digital fabrication. Photo: Roman Keller

But back to the engineers and planners who design our analogue environment. How do you build a world that is increasingly aware of its fragility and limitations? And in which a “civilian“ society, whatever that may mean, does not simply stop at national borders; another important difference to the 19th century. Matthias Kohler, in a team with Fabio Gramazio, Professor of Architecture and Digital Fabrication at ETH Zurich, stressed in an interview that the team's primary concern was not to try out new forms of construction (he calls it the “liberation of concrete”). Ultimately, it is always about sustainability. Kohler hopes that this will be understood not only ecologically, but also from a social perspective. Apart from making better use of resources, he also wants to bring a certain “sensuality” back into architecture, as a contrast to the “fully rationalised building“ that he sees as an expression of industrial building. However, a “tailor-made version of industrialisation” is being developed using digital methodologies. You can get a sense of this on the way to Kohler's office on the ETH Hönggerberg campus: on the ground floor, large industrial robots work in the world's largest laboratory for robotic fabrication in architecture, and the upper floors, where teaching is also carried out, are full of designs with unfamiliar use of forms. Research and experiments are not the only things that go on here; research findings are also put into practice. One result is on display at the Eawag-Empa campus in Dübendorf; the modular research and innovation building NEST (Next Evolution in Sustainable Building Technologies), which is the only one of its kind in the world.

25% lower energy consumption:

the intelligent heating control system developed by the Empa Energy Hub is a NEST flagship project.

At NEST, pioneering building technologies can be tested in close collaboration with industry. NEST seeks to help these technologies through the difficult transition between the development laboratory and the market, says Enrico Marchesi, Innovation Manager NEST at Empa. The construction industry is one of the largest sectors in the economy, but unfortunately it is also the one with the most sluggish pace of innovation. Researchers who like simulations feel just as much at home in NEST as industrial partners who want to see how it works in practice, says Marchesi. It has developed into a flagship project in little more than three years since opening: it not only attracts great attention from national partners from research and industry, but is also regularly visited by international delegations. One of the flagship projects is an intelligent heating control system developed by the Empa Energy hub, which can reduce energy consumption by a good 25 percent. Its autonomous handling, just as importantly, is also widely accepted by residents. The most ambitious part of the NEST, however, is the DFAB House, the “largest house in the world created using digital fabrication” and the latest unit in which Gramazio Kohler Research, together with six other ETH professors, have taken their concept of digital design and construction to the ultimate level. Around 40 researchers from a variety of disciplines have been involved in planning the NCCR’s “Digital Fabrication“. Many parts, such as the unusual wooden façade timber framework, were even “generated“ by algorithms. Kohler also believes that there has been a paradigm shift here planning processes are becoming adaptive, needs can be continuously coordinated. Building brings many voices together.

“A s an ecologist, I conduct fundamental research, but as an expert, I owe a duty of service to society.“ Florian Altermatt, group leader at Eawag and Professor of Aquatic Ecology at UZH

“In order to overcome the challenges facing us today, it takes the more wide-ranging perspective of an environmental scientist. Technological solutions alone will simply not be enough.” This is something that Florian Altermatt is convinced of. As group leader at Eawag and Professor of Aquatic Ecology at the University of Zurich, he is investigating the state and changes in biodiversity in water bodies. In recent times “we have actually seen extreme changes, heavily influenced by land use“. It would be the right time for a rigorous biodiversity assessment, with new
techniques that he helped to develop such as environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis. At the same time, this knowledge is also of urgent social relevance: “We still have insufficient knowledge about biodiversity and we have important decisions to make.“ With one million species worldwide said to be in danger of extinction, in water or on land, Altermatt believes that a substantial change is needed, “and it cannot be of a technical nature alone”. It won't be an easy task. He expects it to be nothing less than “one of the greatest challenges mankind has ever faced“. But one which can be overcome with the right mix of expertise. At Eawag in particular, Altermatt sees a great deal of excellence in thinking about social conditions in interdisciplinary teams. Nowadays, theory and practice can no longer be separated. “As an ecologist, I conduct fundamental research, but the implementation of this systemic knowledge is extremely important to me and my colleagues.“ As a researcher, he is driven by theoretical insights. As an expert, he feels that he owes a duty of service to society; for example, he recently produced a synthesis report commissioned by the FOEN on how Swiss waters are being affected by climate change.