• 4/5/2023
  • Reading time 7 min.

Interview with Werner Lang, new Vice President Sustainable Transformation

“The response from the students is gigantic”

Being a role model for sustainable social change – that is the goal of TUM. Prof. Werner Lang, the new Vice President Sustainable Transformation, is key figure in these efforts. Here the sustainable building expert talks about how he found his vocation and where he hopes to lead TUM.

Portrait of Werner Lang Astrid Eckert / TUM
Werner Lang is a Professor of Energy Efficient and Sustainable Building and Planning at TUM. He has been appointed Vice President Sustainable Transformation in March 2023.

Professor Lang, what was your inspiration? How did you become so committed to the issue of sustainability?

Two events had a big impact on my outlook: the first and second oil crisis. As a 12-year-old, during the first oil crisis in 1973, I saw that there were suddenly no cars on the road. We had car-free Sundays. And at 18, during the second oil crisis, I became aware that energy is not unlimited and that this could even lead to wars. That was an eye-opening experience for me. When I was studying architecture I then looked at what I could do about this issue in that profession. I found myself asking a lot of questions. For example: What kind of energy are we using? During the oil crisis, it was obviously not about sustainable energy.

Fridays for Future and the “Last Generation”: young people are deeply concerned about energy issues and sustainability, too. How is this making itself felt at TUM?

We’ve already seen that young people are paying close attention to the ways in which we are addressing sustainability as a university. They are loudly demanding certain things – and rightly so, in my opinion! After all, my generation fought hard against nuclear power stations and the use of atomic energy. For me, personally, that meant thinking about possible alternatives. So I turned to solar power as an inexhaustible energy source. Especially over the past few years there has been an enormous increase in interest in our teaching activities. The response from the students has been gigantic. And I must admit that it’s nice not to be the lone voice in the wilderness.

Sustainability goes far beyond purely environmental issues

So sustainability for you is mostly about energy?

No, it isn’t. That is how it started for me, but energy is only one aspect. Sustainability goes far beyond purely environmental issues such as conserving resources and reducing CO2 emissions. For me sustainability means adopting behaviors that ensure that future generations can have the same kind of fulfilling existence that we have now. By that I mean that people’s needs are fully met – and not simply food and a roof over their heads. What I have in mind is a secure existence, a protected environment where people can thrive and develop.

An ambitious program. Where do you start?

An important step for our university was developing the position paper: TUM Sustainable Futures Strategy 2030. We based it on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN, which by the way also served as the basis for the EU Agenda 2030. We identified action areas for sustainability and environmental protection: in research, in teaching and continuing education, in entrepreneurship and innovation and in campus operations and resource management. But these things can be realized only if we include communications strategies and continue developing our global commitment. And with the right governance! We have already set up task forces to drive the transformation of our various campuses. And to avoid endless discussions about what we “could have, should have, might have done”, we formulated concrete measures.

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Video about the TUM Sustainable Futures Strategy (2022)

What’s next?

The next key step will be to get the entire university community on board. We can only implement this strategy by working together! One challenge will definitely be that most people are already very busy with their own lives without constantly dealing with deadline pressures. But that’s where I’d like to say: sustainability is not a burden – it is a huge opportunity. It is a fundamental task for society that we can – and must – embrace with all of our strength and enthusiasm so that we can continue living the way we do now. And sustainability has enormous potential for personal fulfilment. It presents the opportunity to make a difference to something of the utmost importance.

How can I contribute to sustainable changes to society despite having a full calendar?

Through very basic things such as making conscious use of indoor spaces. Closing windows, intermittent ventilation in winter, turning radiators down or off when they are not needed. Looking at one’s own behavior. Avoiding rubbish, perhaps reviewing our own eating habits or travelling more often by public transportation or bicycle. We can all ask ourselves: How much do I actually need to be happy? When all members of the TUM community – and that means more than 60,000 people – pull together, that will be huge.

Which subject areas at TUM can contribute to a sustainable future?

In principle, all of them. Students of any subject can ask critical questions: are we being taught the right things when it comes to sustainability issues? In chemistry, for example, sustainability might not immediately spring to mind. But this area has a lot to do with sustainability: one can ask about the environmental impact of various substances, processes or the use of materials and what alternatives are available. In health sciences and medicine one can ask about the health impact of pollutants in the atmosphere or in cities.

Environmental Lecture Series

You want to learn more about technical environmental protection, health as well as consumer and climate protection? At the Environmental Lecture Series organized by the Environmental Department of the Student Representation of TUM, you can regularly attend lectures by experts from various fields. The next series starts on April 18, 2023.

TUM sees itself as a ‘Living Lab’ for transformative action. What kind of experimentation is planned?

We at TUM want to embark on a journey of discovery in which we also use the university’s buildings and infrastructure. For example we can take a close look at our campus operations and find ways of sustainably improving our buildings from top to bottom. We can also look at the potential for drastic reductions in energy needs and possibilities of covering the remaining requirements with renewables – to move our university towards a net zero status as quickly as possible. Or the food services. There we can think about what kind of meals are offered, the energy use in cooking and the farm-to-table distances covered by foods. Another area with potential is the greening of our locations – especially in urban areas. The possibilities are endless.

We can all ask ourselves: How much do I actually need to be happy?

Where do you see the biggest challenge?

In the fundamental change in mindsets. Getting away from short-term thinking. Reaching the stage where our decision-making processes are always based on the question of what happens across the whole life cycle. And leaving behind the attitude, “sustainable is expensive, we can’t afford it.” That will mean questioning our values. We need to strike a balance between meeting people’s needs and the limits of what our planet can take.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role?

Working with the many people at TUM who are already excited about sustainability – collaborating with them to make things happen and inspiring others to become our “sustainability accomplices”!

Prof. Werner Lang

Before his appointment to a professorship in energy-efficient and sustainable planning and construction at TUM in 2010, the architect taught at the School of Architecture of the University of Texas in Austin, where he also headed the Center for Sustainable Development. Along with his research and university teaching activities, Werner Lang is the Director of the Oskar von Miller Forum. In 2022 he received the TUM Sustainability Award. He was appointed TUM Vice President Sustainable Transformation in March 2023.

Technical University of Munich

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