Claudia Eckert

The 2018 jubilee professor wants more philosophy in businesses

​Professor Claudia Eckert of Open University in the UK is one of Chalmers four jubilee professors in 2018. For three months she visits the hosting department of Industrial and Materials Science. With a background in mathematics and philosophy together experience from artificial intelligence, fashion and helicopter industries, she wants to help strengthen Chalmers research in design.
Claudia Eckert has a combined background in mathematics and philosophy. Usually she is a professor of design at Open University in Great Britain, but in 2018 she spends three months in Gothenburg as one of Chalmers four jubilee professors. During her visit, her hosts are the Department of Industrial and Materials Sciences, and more specifically, the research group Systems Engineering Design.

The Systems Engineering Design group studies product development processes and has platform-based development as a special interest. This orientation fits well with Claudia Eckert's research. Her research aims at understanding how design processes work and she likes to compare different design areas, from the production of knitted garments in the fashion industry to production of helicopters or trucks. How is it possible to compare such different product areas?

– Looking at the design processes, the similarities are greater than you might think," says Claudia Eckert. Here you are used to vehicle development, but in the fashion industry you also start with an idea, create a concept and go on producing prototypes and test series before running production. I also believe that the fashion industry has a platform approach where design elements and fabrics are reused in different garments to create a brand recognition and to save money. However, the term platform is not used.

The big difference between the fashion design and product development processes in engineering is the time frame.

– The process is much faster. Instead of taking several years to develop a new product, a new garment can be made in a week.

Claudia Eckert looks at processes as a system, or as multiple systems connected with each other. The systems approach is also in line with the research done at Chalmers. She says that the holistic view is necessary to be able to develop products in a sustainable way. Life cycle analysis is a relatively common approach to sustainability aspects of product development, but Claudia does not think that the method is sufficient. 
“It is a bit too narrow. There may be effects in the environment, at a higher system level, that are omitted. “
She gives an example from a German children's program on asparagus cultivation.

– The Germans love their asparagus in the spring. In one asparagus field they warm up the ground to get an earlier harvest. This sounds devastating from an environmental point of view – if you focus on the heating alone. But in this case the heat came from hot water waste that a nearby factory needed to get rid of and the waste became a resource instead.

As a help to see the overall picture and act more responsibly, Claudia encourages more philosophy in the corporate world.

– Yes, I think companies should hire philosophers to get more ethics into the business. It may sound strange, but I think it would help them to make carefully prepared decisions. If there was more philosophical thinking, I think we could avoid scandals like Volkswagen's diesel engines, for example.

Claudia Eckert has divided her stay at Chalmers into two visits. During the first month she has had a couple of open lectures, participated in the daily research activities and made a number of study visits, both at Chalmers and at collaborating industrial partners. But above all, she has prioritized to talk with PhD students at the department about their research.

– I am astonished about how open and close cooperation the department has with industrial companies. From this perspective, I think Chalmers is one of the world's leading universities.

Since the industrial collaboration is so strong, academic positioning is the area where she thinks there is room for growth. By offering the PhD students an academic outside perspective, she hopes to strengthen the quality of their research. She would like to see researchers focusing on issues that create academic debate and more clearly pushes the field of research forward.

Ola Isaksson, research group leader of Systems Engineering Design at Chalmers, was the one who nominated Claudia Eckert as a jubilee professor.

–​ Claudia Eckert is a well-known researcher who contributes with both deep knowledge in product development and a slightly different perspective which is a positive contribution to the dialogue with researchers and PhD students here. We can challenge ourselves in how we look at the research. Not least the philosophical aspect is important. One example is when society and companies are actively looking at Artificial Intelligence in their product development, an area in which Claudia also has worked.

Now Claudia Eckert has left Gothenburg and Chalmers for the first visit but in August she returns and stays for two months. For those who want to take the opportunity to meet her, please contact her host Ola Isaksson.


FACTS

Chalmers jubilee professors
When Chalmers in 1979 celebrated 150 years, the government gave a Jubilee Professorship at Chalmers as a gift. The criteria to be met is that the holders will add Chalmers new skills and that the university's international relations will be strengthened. The chair is usually divided into three or four time intervals during the year and held by different professors. They are designated by the University President of Chalmers.

Chalmers all jubilee professors for 2018:
  • Claudia Eckert (The Open University, UK), Industrial and Materials Sciences
  • Hilary Bradbury (Oregon Health Sciences University, USA), Technology Economics and Organization
  • Paula Caselli (Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany), Space Geo and Environmental Science
  • Keith Hampson (Curtin University, Australia), Architecture and Civil Engineering



Text and photo: Nina Silow

Published: Thu 14 Jun 2018.