EPFL celebrates 15 years of "polytechnic sociology"

LaSUR's team and its director Vincent Kaufmann (on the right). © Murielle Ge

LaSUR's team and its director Vincent Kaufmann (on the right). © Murielle Gerber/EPFL

For the past 15 years, EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory has been showing students and researchers the value of incorporating social-science related concepts into engineering and architecture. We spoke with lab head Vincent Kaufmann about the importance of this approach.

EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory (LaSUR), located within the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), has been breaking new ground in sociological research for a decade and a half. Lab head Vincent Kaufmann spoke with us about the benefits that this type of research has already brought to EPFL and the new areas he is exploring.

What goals did you have for LaSUR when you set it up in 2003?

We wanted to go beyond the strict definition of urban sociology put forth by the Chicago school in the 1920s, which was to study "the man endowed with locomotion". We used that definition as a starting point, then looked at how sociology can be incorporated into the fields of engineering and architecture. This vision, coupled with the work done by Luca Pattaroni and Yves Pedrazzini - both senior scientists at LaSUR - enabled us to come up with an entirely new discipline called "polytechnic sociology". Unlike traditional sociology, our new approach also draws on engineering methods like modeling and architectural concepts like how a space is used. The idea is to look at problems from the perspective of city residents - the individuals who live there day in and day out - to better understand what a neighborhood needs to best serve its inhabitants.

What purpose do the social sciences serve in an engineering school?

Engineering is fundamentally a human science; it can’t exist apart from society. Within an engineering school, the social sciences serve to put the focus of technological development back on the humans using the technology. Buildings and other structures - whether designed by architects or civil engineers - are rarely perceived by their users in the same way as they were conceived and "created" by their designers. As humans, we have an excellent capacity to see things differently and to critique them. Our discipline of engineering sociology aims to discover how architects and engineers can use that capacity to construct more livable cities that are at once equitable and respectful of differences.

What’s it like teaching sociology to engineers?

I had to quickly learn to tone down the sociological academic jargon if I wanted to be understood. That wasn’t easy! But I came to realize that the jargon really isn’t that important - concepts can be explained perfectly well in layman’s terms. In return, I learned more about architecture and engineering and have drawn on those concepts in my teaching. At our lab we have seen that sociology can serve as a link among the various fields taught in ENAC’s interdisciplinary programs, which bring together students from architecture and engineering.

What’s your impression looking back at these 15 years of research at EPFL?

I think the social sciences have played an important role in research innovation at our school. We have published some 600 articles in trade journals for engineering, architecture and sociology. Some of our articles are cited frequently, such as those exploring the concept of "motility." For instance, Pattaroni’s new ways of conceptualizing lifestyles show that people are influenced not only by socio-economic factors but also by the built space around them. One of our former PhD students even created her own consulting firm based on this idea. And some EPFL architects such as Inès Lamunière and Emmanuel Rey have incorporated our findings into their practice. The EPFL Transportation Center we opened with Michel Bierlaire in 2009, and with the help of Michaël Thémans, is doing well; researchers there are looking at how the social sciences can be used to develop mobility solutions for the future. Companies including Toyota, Renault, EDF and SNCF have commissioned joint research projects with the center. However, what we’re most proud of is that many of our former PhD students now work as professors in universities around the world.

Do engineering schools often incorporate sociology into their teaching and research?

NNot really. At MIT, 10% of research funding are dedicated to the social sciences, which is a large percentage. Berkeley also allocates a considerable sum, as do a few engineering schools in the UK. But EPFL is the only engineering school in continental Europe to take a close look at the field - and we are starting to make a name for ourselves. Researchers from other schools have been visiting us regularly over the past few years to learn more about our approach. In 2017, French transportation minister Élisabeth Borne asked us to give her a presentation of our key findings when she first took office. And in December we gave a presentation to Tongji University, since they would like to open a similar lab in Shanghai.

What will LaSUR be working on in the coming years?

We are currently addressing three new research topics. The first aims to develop software that can help architects promote energy-efficient lifestyles. The software is intended to be used in the planning phase of a project. The second looks at "the urban pace of life," factoring in concepts from transportation engineering. The goal is to help us understand why the pace of life has accelerated so much since the 1980s and what we can do to calm things down. The third relates more closely to sociology, and involves studying the different kinds of urban hospitality we have here in Switzerland. That is, how our country’s cities accommodate expatriates, refugees and cross-border workers. This third topic is being sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

Sociology at EPFL

  • 1969 : The Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) was created.
  • 1971 : EPFL appointed its first sociology professor, within its Institute of architecture, and created the Institute of Building Research (IREC) bringing together political scientists, economists, urban planners, geographers, architects and sociologists.
  • 2001 : IREC became INTER, a research institute within the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC). INTER brought together civil engineers, rural engineers, architects and sociologists. It was closed in 2014.
  • 2003 : ENAC created the Urban Sociology Laboratory (LaSUR) , headed by Vincent Kaufmann, within the Institute of architecture.
  • 2004 : ENAC opened Chôros , a laboratory run by Jacques Lévy within the Institute of architecture. Chôros brought together geographers, sociologists, urban planners and architects. It closed in 2017 and reopened as a similar organization in France.
  • 2009 : EPFL professors Vincent Kaufmann, Michel Bierlaire and Michaël Thémans created the Transportation Center (TraCE) , which was initially part of ENAC’s civil engineering Institute and was then transferred to the Vice Presidency for Innovation. TraCe takes a cross-disciplinary approach to transportation issues with a particular focus on sociological aspects.
  • 2015 : ENAC created the Laboratory of Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems (HERUS) , headed by Professor Claudia R. Binder at the environmental engineering Institute. HERUS carries out cross-disciplinary research incorporating a sociological approach.
  • 2016: ENAC created the HABITAT Research Center (HCR) , headed by Professor Paola Viganò at the Institute of architecture. The inter-pluri-transdisciplinarity Center brings together architects and urbanists, civil and environmental engineers, urban ecologists and social scientists.
  • 2017 : Funding of the  HABITAT Research Center (HCR).