On September 1st, 2023, Fabienne Favre Boivin succeeded Daia Zwicky as head of the Institute of Construction and Environmental Technologies (iTEC) at the School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg (HEIA-FR). She shares her vision of collaborative experimentation at the Smart Living Lab, and highlights the importance of synergies in the world of research.
- What is your view of Smart Living Lab, an interdisciplinary R&D center involving three large academic and research institutions (EPFL, HEIA-FR and UNIFR)?
Smart Living Lab can be seen as a scale model of real life. People with very different backgrounds, missions and challenges, working and growing together in a shared space. By offering an experience of complementarity, diversity and mutual respect, Smart Living Lab is uniquely capable of fostering creativity.
- As you step into your new role as head of iTEC, what do you see as the main challenges faced by this research institute?
I am excited to work with a diverse team of passionate researchers, all of whom are experts in their domains. At the same time, managing our multiple missions (teaching, knowledge transfer, research) will be a real challenge, especially for a small institute with only 5-6 FTE dedicated to research at Smart Living Lab. Learning to work more efficiently as a research team by finding synergies and areas of convergence could be the answer. A second challenge is the matter of the institute’s visibility nationally and internationally. And third, I would mention the difficulty of integrating some of the subdisciplines of civil engineering into the objectives of Smart Living Lab.
"I am excited to work with a diverse team of passionate researchers, all of whom are experts in their domains."
- What will you prioritize in the next few months?
My first priority is to sit down with each one of my colleagues to understand their needs. I will then try to facilitate everyone’s work by identifying synergies. In short, I will focus on facilitating collaboration. Like every research institute at the HEIA-FR, iTEC has a wealth of talent; my aim is to foster interactions between talented collaborators, not just internally in order to strengthen our research efforts, but also externally by building bridges with other institutes. I believe that multiple perspectives encourage creativity and innovation. And we all know how important it is in our time to be able to reinvent ourselves.
- What can you tell us about your professional career?
My professional career has led me into civil engineering, a domain I was not necessarily destined for. After earning my degree in rural and environmental engineering from the EPFL, I got a PhD in soil science—soil is the “living layer” of the earth’s crust. For the next 10 years I did fundamental research with a focus on the purifying properties of soils. When I joined the HEIA-FR in 2008, I was fully aware that it entailed a significant change of direction—I was leaving behind the research area I knew so well, along with my established research network. It was a bold step, but I had my experience as a researcher to rely on. More importantly, I could look forward to a work environment that was fully anchored in the reality of the field. Today, I am extremely happy with my choice: application-oriented research is a highly rewarding and meaningful endeavor. Applied research brings with it a wealth of connections in a network that values professional experience. In applied research I found the crucial link between science and real-world experience. It offers a unique vantage point from which to observe the complexity of the world and its challenges.
"In applied research I found the crucial link between science and real-world experience."
- How do you see the future of the built environment and of research in this area?
All research activities regardless of discipline face daunting challenges due to climate change. What I am about to say does not only apply to the built environment. We have to change how we interact with the world and with others so that our societies can coexist peacefully. Human beings have to learn to play a more modest role in our ecosystem. Our research work must double down on a more efficient use of resources and a lower impact on the climate. We have to do a better job of factoring in the consequences of climate change. All this must be complemented by efforts to increase our capacity to live together in a world with finite resources. A paradigm shift is needed whereby users can influence the kind of research we do, so that society can have more control over the direction of change.
- What are you passionate about outside of engineering?
I love experiencing nature and being outdoors, and I love sports—winter sports in particular. I also enjoy playing and listening to music. Most of all, I love the fact that these various activities allow you to meet fascinating people. I love building and maintaining friendships. Last but not least, the causes of equal opportunity and respect for differences are important to me.