SNV Story No. 12: As specialists, we’re building our own future

Standards in education are as multifaceted as the professions that deal with them every day. A big thank you to all our interviewees who gave us an insight into their world this year. One common element among them impressed us: how creative, pragmatic and also motivating committed vocational trainers, teachers and lecturers are in imparting knowledge to the next generation. To conclude this year’s series on «Standards in Education», we spoke with Professor Adrian Altenburger, who has been Chairman of the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV) for one and a half years and is also an Institute Head at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts.  

When did you first come into contact with standards and what fascinates you about standardization?
Adrian Altenburger: I’m typically Swiss. I have had a dual-track education. It was during my apprenticeship as a building services technician that I first came into contact with the SIA standards, a small part of the overall standardization universe. I’m convinced that standards help to make our lives easier. They’re the reason why we don’t have to debate every single question. They simplify processes in working life and are a guarantee for efficiency. I’ve been working for the SNV in various functions for over ten years and have learned that standards are very much alive, especially when you help to shape them yourself. I’m impressed by the situation in Switzerland, where specialists develop standards for specialists.

You’ve been Chairman of the SNV for 18 months. Did anything surprise you?
Adrian Altenburger: Having already prepared myself for the office in the role of Vice-President, I didn’t encounter any unexpected surprises. However, there are always new questions that require modern strategies and approaches. Current issues that concern us are our visibility or integration in the European context and beyond. In addition, as Chairman, I’m engaged even more intensively with the question of resources.

What have you particularly enjoyed during these months?
Adrian Altenburger: Above all, that we’re no longer restricted by the pandemic. When I was elected Chairman in June 2021, the meeting was held online. At this year’s D-A-CH (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) conference, which the SNV organized, we had the pleasure of welcoming numerous representatives of the DACH organization to Zurich at the end of August. Our programme, with a the visit to the Lindt & Sprüngli Museum, a guided tour of the old town and a traditional meal at the Zunfthaus zur Waage, was framed by perfect weather. I was delighted to have the opportunity to exchange ideas with all the political and administrative representatives from the countries attending the conference.

What influence does the standardization work have on your personal life?
Adrian Altenburger: We don’t have a standards compendium at home (laughs). That said, standards also concern and interest me as a citizen. A current example is the discussion on energy. Energy issues were one of the main reasons for me to get involved in standardization. And the topic is more timely today than ever before. There are many issues here where we in the construction industry can contribute to the sustainable planning, resource-efficient implementation and effective management of buildings. In addition, I can show my children, who are now grown up, how meaningful our work is for society.

You’re also a lecturer at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSLU). How do you approach standards there?
Adrian Altenburger: As Head of the Institute and Head of the Building Technology and Energy programme, I’m responsible for the Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes. Most of the time I’m busy managing more than 100 people. Lecturing still accounts for about 20 to 25 per cent of the real workload. Here, the main focus is on building technology and energy, where classical technical standards address design issues. But normative principles on issues such as energy efficiency, sustainability and CO2 emissions are also crucial. In project modules, students are required to observe and apply standards directly. This helps them to understand the standardization work and makes it tangible.

Where do you see potential for optimization in the transfer of knowledge?
Adrian Altenburger: Naturally, we mainly deal with principles of standardization that are required as part of the job description. I can imagine that in the future we will be able to show the overall context of the standards even better. Interdisciplinarity and cross-cutting issues are becoming increasingly important. Students in our programme are generally unfamiliar with standards from related sectors. They also lack knowledge about the overall mechanism of global ISO standards, about the significance of EN standards and how they differ from national standards. Here, knowledge of standards could be strengthened across the board at the beginning of the course, also at other universities. As well as an interest in and understanding of standards. I think that drafters or institutions of standards have an image problem, which is not justified at all. Just imagine what would happen if we removed all existing standards from the building industry. I’m sure that today’s critics of standards would then quickly become active supporters of standards. Because positive aspects of regulations are often only realized when they’re no longer there. Or take the example of power sockets when travelling. Since we’re still a long way from international harmonization, we carry around large multi-plugs in our luggage in addition to all the adapters. But it would be great if you could charge your smartphone anywhere in the world with the same plug. A missed opportunity!

In your role as Institute Head, what improvements would you like to see in the cooperation with the SNV?
Adrian Altenburger: It’s already very positive today that we as an organization have, for example, unrestricted access to the set of standards. Students appreciate this very much. As I already mentioned, the SNV could have even more of a presence at all universities. A project chaired by Professor Oya Atalay is already under way. She’s the President of the European Association for Architectural Education (EAAE). Especially where the Master’s programme is concerned, the exchange between the SNV and the students is exciting and adds value. The next generation is brimming with constructive ideas for improvement. In addition, I’m pleased that the attitude of young people to standards is not fundamentally critical, but actually very positive. I always say to the budding engineers that they should share their relevant experience with the committees later on. After all, as specialists, we’re building our own future.

What focus have you set yourself as Chairman of the SNV for 2023?
Adrian Altenburger: Following up on the previous topic, we’re working on becoming more visible in the education sector. Furthermore, we decided in last year’s special closed session that we wanted to critically examine the set of standards with regard to the ESG sustainability objectives. This work is being carried out primarily by sectoral bodies such as Swissmen, Electrosuisse and so on, and is being coordinated by the SNV. In the construction sector, for example, there are design standards that define the thickness of a concrete slab. Concrete production emits a lot of CO2. Here it’s important to be self-critical when assessing whether structural stability can still be guaranteed with a lower height, for example. After all, safety standards like these were often created at a time when sustainability was less important.

Speaking of sustainability, how could the SNV set a good example?
Adrian Altenburger: We have the greatest influence in the standardization process. At the same time, we can alrso set a good example as an organization. For example, we have to weigh up which international conferences still make sense physically and where a digital platform is more effective. As a human being, I’m torn between sustainability considerations and the human need for personal exchange in standardization work.

What is your vision – where do you want to take the SNV?
Adrian Altenburger: We’re currently working on the strategy for the next phase from 2023 to 2027. My overriding principle is that we pragmatically generate added value for the economy and society. Sustainability and digitalization are central topics in standardization, which we want to advance efficiently and profitably in practice.

Which topic matters most to you?
Adrian Altenburger: One topic that concerns me very much and that we haven’t yet addressed is the recruitment of competent minds. Be it in the SNV itself or in standardization in general. In recent years, it has no longer been a matter of course that people in research or the university environment, for example, are given time to devote to standardization, also due to financially tightened conditions. It would hurt me if standards became a «nice-to-have» and only second- or third-rate people worked for us. In Switzerland, we’ve always been strong, in international terms, on not producing standards for the sake of standards. There’s a self-regulating effect because specialists, who will later be users, collaborate on standards: as little as possible, as much as necessary. In order to maintain this, we need the kind of commitment we see in national defence, for example.

What would you like to see next year for SNV members and Switzerland as a marketplace?
Adrian Altenburger: I hope that the global crises such as pandemics, war in Europe, energy shortages and, in their wake, the economic crisis will be overcome in 2023 or that we’ll have learned how to deal with them. So that we can go back to business as usual without any existential danger. Geographically, Switzerland is part of Europe. But we’d do well to also look at the international markets such as North America and Asia. These countries are equal partners, despite some political failings. The arrogant Western claim to the «power of interpretation» that can sometimes still be found in standardization work is no longer in keeping with the times. We have to recognize that former developing countries, given their progress in recent years, deserve to be treated as equals.

What are your personal wishes for the new year?
Adrian Altenburger: I hope that we will continue to promote the culture of beneficial exchange within the SNV and with our members, address concerns from the business community and generate added value. Another important aspect for me is diversity. This has been on the agenda for a long time and rightly so. But I find it a pity that most of the discussion focuses only on the gender issue. We must also uphold diversity in terms of the age structure in the economy and in the creation of standards. I’d like to see a continued and appreciative exchange between the experience of older specialists and the innovative drive of the next generation. As baby boomers retire over the next ten years, the current shortage of skilled workers will become more acute. We can find solutions to our challenges of today and tomorrow only if we work together.

Preview of stories in 2023
Standards are complicated and outdated. Really? Next year’s motto will be «the complex world of standards made simple». You can look forward to a colourful mix of stories.

Adrian Altenburger

Professor Adrian Altenburger has been Chairman of the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV) for one and a half years and is also an Institute Head at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts.

Professor Adrian Altenburger has been Chairman of the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV) for one and a half years and is also an Institute Head at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts.

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