ZUKUNFTSWERKSTATT at TU Berlin: a project laboratory sets ideas in motion

As Confucius once observed: “Anyone who doesn’t think about the future will soon find they have big problems!” In their project laboratory ZUKUNFTSWERKSTATT, Nele von Schauenburg and Samuel Hummel are seeking to critically shape changes in society and raise awareness of our responsibility. For both students it is important that each individual understands how they can best act and discover creative solutions for the issues of tomorrow. This is why they decided to set up the ZUKUNFTSWERKSTATT project laboratory at TU Berlin. Students are invited to work together to identify the topics of tomorrow from technological, economic, ecological, sociological and above all ethical perspectives, as well as to consider the relationships between these topics. ZUKUNFTSWERKSTATT was launched in October 2020 and will run until September 2022.

A sustainable and socially just future

Nele von Schauenberg (master’s in Innovation Management, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability at Technische Universität Berlin) and Samuel Hummel (master’s in Business Administration at Potsdam University) encourage students from programs as diverse as Industrial Engineering and Management, Educational Science, Landscape Architecture, Mechanical Engineering, and Food Technology to set up their own projects. “We want to examine the creation of a sustainable, socially just future, not just as a theory but as viable solutions capable of being out into practice,” explains von Schauenburg.

ZUKUNFSTWERKSTATT was the idea of von Schauenburg and was inspired by other project laboratories. Von Schauenburg and Hummel considered three phases for the process of identifying topics, describing the issues involved and developing measures. The initial identification phase is all about giving free and uncensored rein to associations without value judgments in order to develop a thorough description of the problem. The Utopian phase which follows focuses on freely contributing constructive ideas, irrespective of how realistic they are. The implementation phase then examines these proposals to see if they can be put into practice.

“After developing the basic idea for our initiative, we conducted further research and came across the methods developed by Dr. Robert Jungk in his future workshop, which we then incorporated into our concept,” explains von Schauenburg. Jungk was a researcher on future issues and was made an honorary professor of TU Berlin in 1970. The participative format he developed in the 1980s looked to involve stakeholders.

The future is unpackaged

Students at TU Berlin can take part in the project laboratory for one semester. At the start of winter semester 2020/21, participating students freely and democratically voted on the topics they wanted to address: plastic waste, climate change, factory farming, resource scarcity, the rise of the global population to 11 billion by 2100, mobility, inequality in the world, and digitalization. They then met once a week to develop their ideas together in the identification and Utopian phases of the project. Some meetings began with an inspirational talk from an invited expert. The implementation phase, during which students either worked on existing initiatives or devised their own new initiatives, began after the semester had ended.

“The chance to participate freely was new for many students and the format elicited a lot of creativity. There was an impressive learning curve for all involved,” says Hummel. “Things worked really well right from the very first meeting where we discussed the problem of plastic waste. Our guest speaker was Sybille Lippert, founder of the plastic-free supermarket “unverpackt berlin”. She told us how she and her husband Steffen had set up the shop to do something about the flood of plastic waste. That was a great way to kick things off and led to a lively discussion with some excellent questions. By the end we were all convinced that we need a future without packaging.”

Every week provided students with a new takeaway

The aim was to have key takeaways at the end of each session, inspired to a large extent by the students’ input. The discussion about the relationship between meat consumption and climate change made a big impact on Hummel and motivated him to shift towards a more vegetarian lifestyle. “During the course of the semester, we gained a broad understanding of the topics and can share what we learned with our friends, fellow students, and families. Pursuing a diverse approach really paid off,” he says.

Ethical dilemmas were also critically discussed. In the case of autonomous driving, for example, decision-making situations arise which require, from a moral point of view, actions that are mutually exclusive: Do you risk running someone over who suddenly crosses the road in front of you when you don’t have time to brake or do you swerve to avoid them and crash into a crowd of people? Developments in renewable energies will increase the role of electromobility in transportation. However, it will still be necessary to reduce the number of cars on the roads as well as the use of cars.”

Guest talks prove inspirational

Next semester will start with a new group of students and the chance to select new themes. “We definitely want to invite more experts,” say von Schauenberg, outlining their plans for the initiative. “We didn’t have as many guest talks as we would have liked last semester.”

“We also want to diversify the tools we use, particularly in the Utopian phase, and try out more methods,” adds Hummel. “Up until now, we have mainly relied on breakout rooms. In summer semester 2021, we additionally want to try out debates arguing the pros and cons of an issue.”

ZUKUNFTSWERKSTATT has proved a success with students. One participant wrote: “Thank you for the opportunity to take part in this wonderful module! I learned a lot about topics which really interest me as well as about the problems involved, which I was less aware of. I will definitely recommend ZUKUNFSTWERKSTATT to other students!” Another student is even considering a start-up dedicated to sustainable tourism.


Interviewer: Christina Camier


Nele von Schauenburg

Master Innovation Management, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability (IMES)


Organization name TU Berlin, Technology and Innovation Management

Samuel Hummel

Master Business Administration (Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship)

Organization name University of Potsdam