“Finding a balance” — an interview with Prof. Lydia Kaiser

© TU Berlin | Christian Kielmann
Prof. Dr. Lydia Kaiser is Professor of Digital Engineering 4.0 at the Technische Universität Berlin and at the Einstein Center Digital Future. Until 2021, the physicist headed the Systems Engineering department at Fraunhofer IEM in Paderborn.

She holds a professorship in Digital Engineering 4.0 at TU Berlin and the Einstein Center Digital Future, she is a member of the German Federal Ministry of Defence’s digital council and, as one of the most significant experts in systems engineering, she is highly sought after as a conference speaker — all in all, Prof. Lydia Kaiser has quite a packed working schedule. Yet she still somehow manages to be there for her three children. While juggling her many roles, she is also fighting to make sure that women no longer have to struggle “to find a balance.” The scientist and alumna of Fraunhofer IEM received recognition for her efforts in 2022, when she won the FTAfelicitas award in the “Vorbild sein. #InspireAsRolemodel” category. This made her the second Fraunhofer alumna to win the award, after Mai Thi Nguyen Kim in 2021 — a real cause for celebration for us at Fraunhofer.


Prof. Kaiser, on top of your formidable workload, you are an outspoken advocate for a more family-friendly professional world. How do you manage this challenging daily routine?

Systemic thinking is the focus of my scientific research. That helps me to understand my family life and my profession as a whole, by asking questions like: What are my goals? How can I achieve them? How can I satisfy the needs of both sides?

Recently, I was surprised when someone said to me: “Since you’re out here today, are your three children alone?” Of course, they’re not! They have a loving father and grandparents. Being able to spend time together is hugely valuable for grandma, grandpa and the children alike. Of course, I’m often busy or out of the house. That means the time I spend with my children has to be real quality time. I am very conscious about taking time to be with them and do not try to multi-task on several activities at once. And if I do have to tend to something, then I do it with my children. In spite of the different tasks on my plate, I find that I can live a more balanced life when I work on tasks that motivate me personally.

We’re talking to you today from your own home via a video call. What opportunities do you see in digital tools?

Naturally, these tools present new possibilities for us, as well as a higher level of participation, visibility and flexibility. One female colleague of mine from Fraunhofer told me that these tools allow her to take part in conferences, which is helping her establish a reputation as an expert. Without these possibilities, a scientist like her would be shut out to some extent, since it is impossible to organize these engagements around children and family life.

On the other hand, organizing virtual meetings involves some extra effort, as well. You have to ask yourself questions like, “Will I be on site?” “Will I attend virtually?” “Is my internet connection okay?” I am lucky enough to have relatives that can provide childcare, which allows me to devote my full attention to my work. I know from experience that there are situations where your mind is not 100 percent focused on the task at hand, for example, when your child needs something. When this happens, women can end up with a double burden — one that remote work and digital tools can’t help with. For example, you might end up being on a call while simultaneously having to look after a child.

You mentioned at the start of our conversation that your professional expertise also helps you in your personal life. What do you mean by “systems engineering”?

We work on technical systems and products, and we do that systematically — that is, in a particular order but also systemically. By “systemic,” I mean that we take a holistic approach, including all stakeholders and perspectives. We don’t just focus on the usage phase, but also consider how the product will be recycled at the end of its life. We account for the issues such as cost and safety — which make products ever more complex — right from the start of the design process. This ensures that they do not have to be factored into the product at a later stage. In general, 70 percent of the costs are determined during the design phase. However, these costs are actually only incurred toward the end of the project. This means the decisions we make in the earlier stages have huge consequences. During this process, we use digital technologies to help us visualize objects and models. If we did not use digital tools, we would have to do this with hardware at a later stage. Digitalization also helps us to design products. 

© Fraunhofer IEM | Wolfram Schroll
In systems engineering, the field of expertise of Lydia Kaiser (on the left in the picture), products or processes are viewed from many different angles and in a transdisciplinary approach.

Where would you place your field in terms of traditional university subjects?

These days, we don’t talk about interdisciplinary approaches but rather about transdisciplinary approaches. We are deliberately taking an integrative approach, in order to break up silos. However, this is by no means easy to accomplish. Silos in companies can take the form of departments, for example, or can emerge through the pursuit of different objectives. Universities also have different “areas.” For the technical products that my work is focused on, we need a wide range of experts such as mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software developers, psychologists and sociologists to help design new processes and products. In a sense, assigning this work to individual faculties only serves as a hindrance.

Nowadays, we encounter interdisciplinarity in many areas of life. Keeping with the topic of knowledge transfer, let’s take a step back: Does the education system adequately prepare students for these new demands?

I think that’s something of an Achilles’ heel. Actually, when it comes to what and how we teach, or even the way that vacations are structured, I see outdated structures that hinder the development of our children. We can even find a “silo” mindset in schools: You have 45 minutes of math, then history — but the lessons don’t deal with the wider context. The way we assess pupils is also a weak point: They’re not trained to achieve as much as possible in their learning — instead, they learn to please someone else so that they can get a good grade. This attitude lasts all the way up to university level. Time and again, students ask me how something will be assessed or what the key focus criteria are, and then adapt their work accordingly.

So the focus is on grades, as opposed to what students can learn?

I was recently visited by a class from Berlin, and I tasked them with designing the school of the future. Children and young people have excellent ideas, but unfortunately, no one asks for their opinion. No one gives them the opportunity to design something themselves. The goal can no longer be to simply impart knowledge. That’s not how we solve problems these days. Children have to learn how to deal with information overload. They need tools and good sources for acquiring knowledge for themselves. 

© Fraunhofer IEM | Wolfram Schroll
Digital tools such as augmented reality play a major role in systems engineering, both in conceptualization and in the design of products. As a professor, Lydia Kaiser passes on much of what was developed in the Systems Engineering group at the IEM to students.

Let’s talk about tools then: Artificial intelligence is adding another layer of complexity here.

AI is set to transform the world of education in a very dramatic way, so we will have to rethink things. Of course, these tools open up a lot of new possibilities, but we should approach this development critically. Take text-based theses, for example. If we include output from text generators in our papers, then we could go one step further and let machines evaluate them too. To me, that sounds absurd — where would it lead us? We should ask ourselves what we want from students. Do we want text? Or should we integrate this technology into our teaching in some productive way? Banning things like text generation tools would be impossible to achieve in a university environment. But a “business as usual” approach is also certain to fail. What we really have to do is rethink the way we teach at university.

In my field, these tools also offer new opportunities. During a project’s design phase, we must ask ourselves: “What are the requirements here?” and “What are the possible scenarios?” In these situations, an AI system could act like an extra colleague that we just pull into the project. We want to make use of this possibility in the future and even work together with students to implement it in projects. It’s sure to lead to some exciting proposals.

What might that look like?

I think that in the context of interdisciplinary methods in particular, AI and other similar tools will create many new technical possibilities. We have developed our methods, tools and approaches based on what was then the current state of technological advancement. However, if we adjust our approach to suit new developments and examine the needs we are responding to or how we can optimize communication, this will create new prospects for the future. Multi-touch display systems, which allow multiple people to work on a single screen, are a good example here. When used in combination with virtual meetings, they could allow on-site teams to collaborate with online participants in a productive way. We need to incorporate this even further into product design — as it stands, applications are still too rigid in this respect.

In the early development and conceptualization phase, when answering questions like “Where do we want to use the product?” and “Who are the stakeholders?” it’s important to be creative and bring different perspectives into the equation. There is no single person that dictates how things should be done; instead, you need to bring together a variety of experts that speak different (technical) languages, think differently and have different priorities. To create a great product, we need these diverse perspectives, and I really believe that having AI as an extra tool could help us in this respect.

How do you think AI will affect our working world?

There will be a shift, similar to the technological leaps we have seen in the past, where certain jobs became obsolete, and new ones emerged. We have a serious shortage of skilled workers and a lot of important tasks to carry out, so I hope the capacity that AI is freeing up will be integrated somewhere else, in a worthwhile way that will create added value for our society. But most importantly, we must remember that we are human beings and not forget that we are social creatures. We shouldn’t either demonize AI or hype it up too much; instead, as a society, we need to understand it and learn to work with it and develop new ideas. But even that’s hard for us. 

© Privat
Lydia Kaiser is Head of Digital Engineerin 4.0 at the Technische Universität Berlin and the Einstein Center Digital Future. She has been a member of the Digital Council of the Federal Ministry of Defense since 2021. She says of herself today: "I am a mother of three and until a few years ago it was unimaginable for me to reconcile a professorship and my children, but it will work out! I would like to see us change the way we work so that women after me no longer have to ask themselves the question of compatibility. I also want to be a role model for other women in science with this dual role and encourage them to do the same."

You were with Fraunhofer for around nine years; how did you find the experience, and what role does Fraunhofer IEM play in your life today?

I was at Fraunhofer IEM from its earliest days, even back when we started as a Fraunhofer IPT project group in Paderborn in 2011. That’s when the institute was founded. The whole team experienced a lot of new things, so it was a formative time. After I took parental leave for the first time, I completed my doctoral studies under Prof. Jürgen Gausemeier — he wasn’t involved with Fraunhofer himself. On the Fraunhofer side, I was able to work with Prof. Roman Dumitrescu, who is now head of the Product Engineering research unit at Fraunhofer IEM.

The team was very successful, and we managed to meet all our targets. And ultimately, we became an independent institute. In the course of these developments, I quickly took on responsibility as a group leader, and after another period of parental leave, I became head of department.

This environment provided many opportunities — we were able to grow in every way possible and formulate our own research topics. Our projects at Fraunhofer IEM were closely connected to and rooted in industry, and that also benefited our research. Many systems engineering approaches are very theoretical or based on abstract methodologies. The benefits of these approaches aren’t always obvious to companies right away. Through engaging closely in dialogue with them, we were able to give an impressive demonstration of what systems engineering can achieve. This increased the awareness and importance of our work, which also spurred us on of course. Maintaining contact with the industry sector also required a high level of responsibility, and that allowed for huge personal growth.

At Fraunhofer, you work on a certain field of research and your own personal development — and that approach still influences me as a scientist today. As a professor of systems engineering, I’m continuing everything we created in Paderborn — though of course, I put my own stamp on it. I am still in touch with my colleagues in Paderborn. For example, I invite former co-workers to my lectures to present projects or talk about their career paths. Currently, we’re designing a women’s networking event for the KOMMIT e.V.network for former and current female staff and other women in the region. We call it “Empower HER: Frauen im Engineering” (Empower HER: Women in engineering). The KOMMIT e. V. association is a network of former employees of Fraunhofer IEM and the Heinz Nixdorf Institute. I am also on the executive board of IWF e.V., the association of friends of the Institute of Machine Tools and Factory Management at Technische Universität Berlin, and I am a member of Fraunhofer Alumni e. V.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Prof. Kaiser.