An apprenticeship as a pharmacist, a vocational baccalaureate, environmental engineering studies. Devi Bühler’s path into the academic world was not a straightforward one. That’s why in the Swiss Young Academy she is standing up for the universities of applied sciences, for which she would like to see more recognition. And with her “KREIS-Haus”, she shows how know-how can be applied practically.
Interview | Astrid Tomczak
Devi Bühler, what other language would you like to learn?
(laughs). Greek would be something, I like to go to Greece for vacations, I’ve already been there six times. And in mathematics, a discipline very close to my heart, there are many Greek terms, so it would be cool to know the language that’s behind them. And then maybe an African language as well, because I travel more and more to Africa for work, Swahili for example.
I’m asking because I’ve seen that you have at least a basic knowledge of 7 languages. Where does this multilingualism come from?
I grew up trilingually. English, Dutch and (Swiss) German. At home I spoke Dutch with my mother and English with my father. My father was Swiss, but because he and my Dutch mother had met in Scotland, they kept English as their language. And because I grew up in Switzerland, Swiss German was normal. I learned French at school, and then wanted to get a good command of it, so that I can really speak it. Spanish came later on, during my travels. I learned Hebrew because I was often travelling in Israel and wanted to be able to communicate at least to some extent. On the language course, I realized that it’s not all that difficult to learn a language with a different alphabet. Based on this experience, I then thought my next challenge could be to learn another language with an unfamiliar script – and I opted for Chinese. But that was then a completely different level. After several lessons in Switzerland, I could only barely say one sentence. So I decided to learn the language in China. I really swotted away from morning to evening!
“The way I see things, every decision is an expression of shaping, every e-mail is a switch that you flick.”
According to your self-description on LinkedIn, you are an environmental engineer, researcher and a creative mind. Which of these roles do you identify with the most?
The first two describe my professional activity, but I’m not just that. The creative aspect is much more wide-ranging and describes what I do much better and more holistically. My father was an artist and my mother had always thought I would graduate from art school. I think she was somewhat surprised that things turned out quite differently, but she likes what I do. I feel that I can live out my creativity every day by implementing my ideas through my projects. The way I see things, every decision is an expression of shaping, every e-mail is a switch that you flick. The whole project here (she points to the large site, with the event and guest house, trees, various forms of seating, sheep grazing in the background) is an expression of this, for example. When I actually have time – which doesn’t happen that often – I also do artistic things like painting, knotting or handicrafts.
Originally, you did an apprenticeship as a pharmacist. What motivated you to study environmental engineering sciences?
I wasn’t particularly well supported academically and wasn’t very keen on going to school as a child, so an apprenticeship was the obvious choice. I opted for an apprenticeship as a pharmacist because of the contact it provides with customers and the wide range of subjects. As I was particularly interested in the natural sciences - biology and chemistry – I then took the technical vocational baccalaureate. In the process, I discovered my passion for mathematics. I wanted to do something for the environment as well and it became clear to me that I wanted to become an environmental engineer. For some people, this doesn’t now look like a straightforward path, but I had all the prerequisites for it: I knew a lot about botany, I had the basics in biology, chemistry and even marketing and sales experience. In my studies, I wanted at first to do something with plants, for example urban horticulture. Then I became increasingly interested in renewable forms of energy. That was a male domain, and although at the start there was one other woman in the major, at the end I was the only one.
Did you have to be particularly good as a woman?
Before deciding to major in renewable forms of energy, I did ask myself whether I was capable of it. But I knew it had to be possible because of my track record. When I think back today and reflect on it, I think I shouldn’t have asked myself such a question at all, there’s something wrong with the system.
“That’s when I realized that I would like to be in charge myself, but that in return I would like to do things according to my ideas.”
What was your (second) entry into the world of work like?
In my bachelor’s thesis I developed a tool for evaluating so-called zero-emission buildings, after which my supervisor wanted to hire me right away as an intern. But, first of all, I wanted to enjoy my freedom, to travel and discover the world. But then I received a job offer from a company that sold electric buses and trucks. Initially, it was just a temporary student job, then I travelled to Israel and when I came back, I was able to join this company and assist with and help to shape the establishment of the entire company, including the business plan and the search for investors. My sales experience helped me a lot there and my entrepreneurial spirit was aroused. However, that also led to more and more friction, because ultimately as an employee I was not in charge, yet I wanted to do some things differently. That’s when I realized that I would like to be in charge myself, but that in return I would like to do things according to my ideas.
You then implemented your ideas in Feldbach. What does that look like in actual practice?
I started out with Synergy Village, a meeting-place for local and international visitors. Together with my brother, we then “did up” with a lot of passion and hard work the run-down piece of land on which we had grown up. Today, with the Synergy Village association, we operate an event location, a guest house and work together with volunteers from all over the world.
At the same time as the launch of Synergy Village, I saw from my bachelor thesis that there was a lack of leeway to try out innovations in the building sector in practice. That gave rise to the idea of the KREIS house, which follows the principles of the circular economy as far as possible, from construction through operation to deconstruction. I was able to further develop this idea on my master’s degree course and in my position as a research associate in the Eco-Technology Research Group at the ZHAW. But the road was long and things didn’t always progress at the same pace. In the meantime, however, I was able to set up another research project in South Africa. We are developing there a washing machine that is self-sufficient in water and energy, the so-called “LaundReCycle”. The aim is to combat the water shortage and to give the local people new job prospects.
The KREIS house was finally inaugurated last year – and triggered a broad response. Are you satisfied?
Tremendously. I would never have expected it. At times, I was not sure whether I should really take such a risk and go out on a limb like this. And then even foreign media carried reports about it, I received many e-mails. So, on the one hand, it triggered this huge response. On the other, I had to devote all my personal energy to it, I didn’t have any holidays or weekends for a year – and I had to put all my savings into it. Sometimes that does bother me a little: everyone thinks it’s a great idea, everyone congratulates me, but it was and is extremely difficult to obtain the necessary funding. Many people don’t see that the whole thing also has a social value, which is not free of charge.
“But I am satisfied when I see that I really have been able to contribute something to a more sustainable future.”
What else do you want to achieve with this project?
It’s intended to be a showcase project and provide insights into how one can and should build sustainably. So that the insights can also be implemented on a large scale. What I have invested here can never be offset financially. But I am satisfied when I see that I really have been able to contribute something to a more sustainable future. That my know-how is in demand, that people listen or also ask critical questions and take the ideas further internationally.
That sounds like a full-time job. But your full-time job is as a research associate at the Institute of Natural Resource Sciences at the ZHAW. What are you researching?
At the moment, the KREIS house and the LaundReCycle in South Africa are my two main research projects. In both projects, we are currently collecting operational data in order to further develop the technologies. In South Africa, my vision is that we can extend the concept of self-sufficient water-and energy-supply systems to entire communities or community centres. There is no functioning sanitation infrastructure in many places. Local water circuits that use rainwater and treated wastewater, and connect water and nutrient flows to the cultivation of local foods, are cheaper and more flexible than building conventional infrastructure, and they create more local value and conserve natural resources. In Switzerland, my research concerns mainly the circular economy in the construction sector. Here, too, the closed water circuit is a topic of interest, at both the building level and in the KREIS-Haus. However, awareness of water-related topics is much less developed in Switzerland. The general opinion is that we, as the water tower of Europe, have enough water. But if one considers that a building is ideally built to last 100 years, we have to adapt our construction methods to climate change. In my research, I am concerned, on the one hand, with the technical development of concepts and technologies, and on the other, with the interface with the socio-economic dimension. For the latter, we conduct surveys and collect feedback from the users. Because the goal is to develop solutions that are accepted by the users and are thus well-received in society. These analyses and insights are also part of my doctoral dissertation, which I am completing at the University of Ghent in Belgium.
“I’m something of an exotic member, as I come from a university of applied sciences (UAS).”
You are a founding member of the Swiss Young Academy. What was your motivation to apply to join the SYA?
I’m something of an exotic member, as I come from a university of applied sciences (UAS). It was important for me to contribute the UAS’s viewpoint. For example, we have better employment conditions than at the universities, there’s much less competition, we’re under less pressure to publish and from the level of research associate upwards there are no fixed-term contracts. A different wind blows in the UAS, interactions are rather friendly and constructive, whereas in the universities they are more critical.
But, on the other hand, we can’t do doctorates at the universities of applied sciences, and access to the typical research sponsors, such as the SNSF, is much more difficult, so the question arises as to whether we need to become more academic. What I want to achieve is that we are placed on an equal footing with the universities.
What else would you like to achieve with the SYA?
I think the best ideas emerge when people sit down together. Up to now we haven’t had so many opportunities for face-to-face discussions due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, some good projects have emerged – I was a member of the group “The Future of Human Rights”. We organized an event on Human Rights Day and held a Design Challenge in which the participants visualized the impact of climate change on human rights situations. This year, I’m still working primarily on the post-processing work for the Design Challenge. In June we’re holding a retreat for the members. I am looking forward to the discussions and the development of new ideas and projects there.
Devi Bühler (born in 1987) grew up in a multilingual family: her mother is Dutch of Indonesian descent, her father Swiss. Devi Bühler’s father was an artist, but Devi’s mother was mainly responsible for earning their living as a nurse. Devi completed an apprenticeship as a pharmacist, then gained a technical vocational baccalaureate and studied for a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in environmental engineering at the ZHAW in Wädenswil. Today, she is a research associate in the Eco-Technology Research Group at the Institute of Natural Resource Sciences at the ZHAW and manages projects in Switzerland and abroad that she has built up from scratch. Last year, Devi Bühler's “favourite project” was inaugurated on the Synergy Village site: the KREIS-Haus, a house totally dedicated to the principles of the circular economy and with space to test innovations in practice. Anyone who would like to try out what it’s like to live in such a house can also stay there overnight as a research participant and test it. At the same time, it’s possible to visit “Synergy Village”: a piece of land that Devi, her brother and the Synergy Village association have “done up” and transformed into an event location with a guest house. Devi Bühler is now president of the association. Devi Bühler is a founding member of the Young Academy. She is currently doing a doctorate in Belgium and is active as a board member in other associations, such as Baubioswiss.
House of Academies