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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Press Portal | Topics | Berlin University Alliance

Berlin University Alliance

The decision will be made on July 19, 2019

Freie Universität Berlin (FU), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU), and Technische Universität Berlin (TU), along with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin are applying jointly in the German government’s Excellence Strategy competition under the name Berlin University Alliance. The new, nationwide funding competition, which follows the Excellence Initiative, is intended to further strengthen academic excellence, research cooperation, and the profile of universities in Germany. In the fall of 2018, seven clusters of excellence, i.e., larger research projects, were approved for the four Berlin partners, which permitted them to apply for the excellence title together as a university alliance. The decision as to who will receive the excellence title will be announced on July 19, 2019. In addition to the Berlin University Alliance, 17 other universities and another alliance are in the running. Up to eleven Universities of Excellence will be funded beginning in November 2019. If successful, the Berlin University Alliance can apply for a total of 196 million euros in seven years to implement its strategic plans.


Matters of Activity: Image Space Material

A new culture of material


The idea of separating body and mind cannot be translated into a product more consistently: In the Silicon Valley of the 21st century, the mind, as it were, has gotten rid of the body, and algorithms “live” without an expiration date on constantly wearing hard disks. This model of immortality seems so tempting to some that a start-up company now even wants to transfer it to the human being, the human brain, or rather: its thought activity, by uploading it to the cloud. The body as carrier material of immortal information, arbitrarily interchangeable, or even completely superfluous?

A radically different view of the world of matter can be encountered on Sophienstraße in Berlin-Mitte. The premises of the Matters of Activity Cluster of Excellence, which started its work in January 2019, are located here. Even the name itself shows that here, matter is not seen as something passive that has to function according to an external will and is scrapped in the event of failure, but as something that is governed by its own laws, whose impulses are affirmed and regarded as productive. Wolfgang Schäffner, a Professor of Cultural History of Knowledge at HU, is the spokesperson for the new Cluster. He understands Western postmodernism, whose view of the material he and his comrades-in-arms want to change, as shaped by a culture of conservation. “Change is not intended in our present culture of materials, so the activity of a material is usually to be switched off. A table made of wood should remain exactly as it is and not come apart at the seams over time; iron corrodes, you need corrosion protection.”

Stopping aging processes in favor of an ideal of rigid immortality – in a universe striving for disorder, this is a futile struggle. By contrasting the European attitude with an example from the Far East, the philosopher, literary scholar, and medical historian demonstrates that artefacts can also be thought of quite differently.

“Like many other buildings in this country, Japanese shrines are protected, but are demolished every 20 years and then rebuilt,” reports Schäffner. The researcher refers to a tradition within the framework of the natural religion Shintoism, which, in contrast to most European traditions of thought, focuses on the here and now. “Over there, it is the building process that is preserved, while we preserve the objects of the past themselves like corpses.” A culture of embalming that, at least symbolically, tries to trick death?


Wolfgang Schäffner locates the historical origins of the tendency toward overly durable products above all in the 19th century. “This was the time of railways, mechanics, concrete and steel, of passive, hard, and rigid materials.” Principles of that time were also applied in the 20th century and, according to Schäffner, are still adhered to today. This includes the use of materials that are difficult to recycle and that often consume an excessive amount of energy during production. Material here was considered to be exclusively passive and would have to “be kept still with a control device, like a slave. That ignores an intelligence that is inherent in the matter itself, and thus consumes an extreme amount of energy.” This means that the impact of environmental factors such as solar radiation, humidity, and temperature fluctuations is prevented at a high cost in such designs.

Today, such product design ideas are the basis of a global industry whose profits are growing every year. This is disastrous not only with regard to the constantly growing mountains of plastic waste. “To give a concrete example of this thinking in production: the car is the legacy of the railway, a historical legacy that we carry around with us. We build something that weighs a ton in order to move an object weighing less than 100 kilograms,” emphasizes Wolfgang Schäffner, shaking his head. “And on top of that, it was never meant to be a mass product. It can only be said that current technology has lost the game in terms of design from the outset. In terms of engineering technology, there is a lot of know-how behind it. But Matters of Activity thinks in a completely different direction.

Sustainable: Natural materials operate in an energy-efficient manner


Whereas people still like to pour designs into concrete, natural systems usually work with degradable, adaptive materials. “Things may not go as fast in nature as they do in an airplane, with wood you may not be able to built quite too high, but it’s much more sustainable in terms of energy,” says Wolfgang Schäffner. Highly complex structures in biological systems are often achieved by the architecture of a single material which can be adapted as required, such as a fibrous material like cellulose. The research team wants to investigate such materials and systems, the processes of weaving, cutting, and filtering that take place on and inside them, to better understand their functionality and investigate their adaptability in order to develop alternatives with regard to traditional object design.


A particularly impressive example of an adaptive process being investigated in the cluster is biofilm. This consists of a slimy layer in which microorganisms of different types or the same type live, communicate with each other via chemical signals and, depending on the situation, collectively adapt their behavior. Thus, the microorganisms protect each other from starvation or help each other in the fight against attackers. Almost no watery surface – whether incisor, washbasin, or forest floor – is safe from the lightning-fast formation of such composites. Three-dimensional structure and growth of biofilms depend entirely on the specific environmental conditions. Due to their structural complexity, they cannot yet be described mathematically. “Even a small number of bacteria can build structures that overburden our previous ideas of code and intelligence,” Schäffner sums up, thus demonstrating the great potential of corresponding basic research.


So far, the intelligence of systems has always been outsourced to digital controls. “In nature, however, there is no such separation of work and operational entity. In every wooden structure, in every leaf, there is code – not just in the DNA.” Structure and function connected here cannot be separated from each other. The aim of the cluster is to make the analog visible in its transdigital quality. “Our challenge today is called the Anthropocene. The optimum that we as a global community can achieve in the future is to replace conventional artefacts with equivalents of degradable substances such as cellulose or sugars and thus avoid the further formation of mountains of waste that can no longer be recycled.” The cluster hopes to bring the world one step closer to this optimal future with basic interdisciplinary research on the structure and composition of such transient materials.


Author: Nora Lessing


Spokesperson: Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schäffner (HU)

Applicant university: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Link to the Berlin University Alliance website


Clusters with HU-involvement



How Berlin mathematics is shaping the future


MATH+, the Berlin Mathematics Research Center, is a cross-institutional and transdisciplinary Cluster of Excellence where researchers will explore and further develop new approaches in application-oriented mathematics. Emphasis is placed on mathematical principles for using even larger amounts of data in life and material sciences, in energy and network research, and in the humanities and social sciences. The aim is to boost not only scientific progress, but also technological innovation and the comprehensive understanding of social processes. MATH+ is a joint project of the three major universities in Berlin – Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Technische Universität Berlin – and integrates, both conceptually and structurally, the Weierstrass Institute for Applied Analysis and Stochastics and the Zuse Institute Berlin. It continues the success stories of the renowned MATHEON Research Center and of the Berlin Mathematical School, which has been supported by the Excellence Initiative since 2006.


Spokespersons: Prof. Dr. Christof Schütte (Freie Universität Berlin), Prof. Dr. Michael Hintermüller (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Prof. Dr. Martin Skutella (Technische Universität Berlin)

Applicant universities: Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin


Link to the Berlin University Alliance website




Comprehensive approaches to neurological and psychiatric disorders – from mechanisms to interventions


The neuroscience Cluster of Excellence NeuroCure at Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin has been funded since 2007 within the framework of the Excellence Initiative of the German federal and state governments and can now continue its successful work. Research into neurological and psychiatric disease mechanisms and the transfer of basic scientific findings to clinical application – in short, translation – are at the heart of this interdisciplinary and international consortium. In the future, NeuroCure will focus on projects covering the entire life span – from embryonic development to aging – and establish new innovative modules that accelerate the translational process. NeuroCure is based at Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the joint medical school of Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and cooperates closely with several non-university research institutions including the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbrücke (DIfE), the Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP), and the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). Cooperation with the two translational research centers, the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), also is to be expanded further.


Spokesperson: Prof. Dr. Dietmar Schmitz (Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin)

Applicant universities: Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin as universities with their joint medical faculty Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin


Link to the Berlin University Alliance website



Science of Intelligence (SCIoI)

Learning to understand intelligence


Science of Intelligence, a joint Cluster of Excellence of Technische Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, is focusing on better understanding intelligence in all its facets: which fundamental laws and principles underlie different forms of intelligence – whether it be artificial, individual, or collective intelligence? The scientists from the most diverse disciplines – from psychology, robotics, and computer science to philosophy and behavioral research – want to use their research results to create new intelligent technologies. The cluster’s methodological strategy is a new approach in intelligence research in which all knowledge, methods, concepts, and theories must be incorporated into technological artifacts, such as robots or computer programs. These artifacts serve as a common “language” that is intended to facilitate scientific exchange across disciplinary boundaries.


Spokesperson: Prof. Dr. Oliver Brock, Technische Universität Berlin

Applicant universities: Technische Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


Link to the Berlin University Alliance website



Media contacts


Hans-Christoph Keller

Spokesperson of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Phone: +49 30 2093-2345

Email: pr@hu-berlin.de