Initiatives of theHamburg Kreativ Gesellschaft

How cross innovation can make flying more sustainable

The furnishing of aircraft cabins is currently not very sustainable, as the individual parts are heavy and can hardly be recycled, says entrepreneur Dr Christian-André Keun. He wants to change this - together with designer Sebastian Mends-Cole.

How cross innovation can make flying more sustainable -

Creatives are seen as pioneers in changing working and living environments. With the Cross Innovation Hub, Hamburg Kreativ Gesellschaft is tapping into this innovation potential for other sectors - and bringing creative professionals together as consultants with companies from the aviation, logistics and energy industries. But how does cooperation between the creative industries and other sectors work smoothly? Designer Sebastian Mends-Cole and Dr Christian-André Keun, Managing Director of CompriseTec, provide an insight into the development process of the FAIRCRAFT project. The aim: to make aviation more sustainable with a revolutionary aircraft cabin.

Sebastian and Christian, as part of the Cross Innovation Lab 2021, you have developed a sustainable aircraft cabin together with other partners. But is it really that innovative? Aren't flying and sustainability actually mutually exclusive?

Mends-Cole: Of course, it would be better if we all stopped flying from now on. But this resolution is not really realistic. When it comes to sustainability, many solutions are needed, especially fast ones. Fortunately, when we started our work, we all quickly agreed that we weren't going to develop prototypes for more aerodynamic aircraft models that might only become reality in 2070 or new propulsion technologies that only allow water to drip out, for example. Instead, we have focussed on the cabin because this is where we expect the shortest possible development time within aviation. On average, cabin components are replaced every four to eight years. Ideally, our solution could be in use as early as 2030. And because most of today's aircraft could be in use for around 30 to 40 years, we believe there is a great deal of leverage in terms of resource and environmental protection.

How exactly did you approach your innovation process?

Keun : In order to concretise the idea of a prototype, we first had to narrow down the scope of the project and think about a specific scenario. For example, we started by asking ourselves what would be the shortest route that would still be flown in 2030. In our imagination, this was the route between Hamburg and Zurich. Shorter flights will probably be banned or too expensive for most people due to the high CO2 taxes. We also excluded holiday or long-haul flights, where the target group expects a certain level of comfort and changes to the interior are rather difficult. So we thought of the planes for business travellers, who mainly want to get from A to B and back again quickly and therefore use the plane more like a bus.

What is different about your cabin?

Keun : To understand our approach, you need to know that over the past 30 years, the aviation industry has focussed primarily on reducing weight in order to make its aircraft lighter and save paraffin. And that's the right thing to do. But everything that is currently installed in a cabin is anything but sustainable because the individual parts are virtually impossible to recycle. I don't even want to talk about recyclability.

FAIRCRAFT seats save half the weight thanks to lightweight textiles and the absence of heavy metal frames.
FAIRCRAFT seats save half the weight thanks to lightweight textiles and the absence of heavy metal frames.

Mends-Cole:. .. and that's why we simply turned the principle on its head. We imagined the interior of an Airbus A320 and simply left everything out. We also got rid of the overhead storage compartments and the ventilation systems, and we completely lightened up the entire aircraft. Our seats no longer consist of a heavy metal skeleton. Instead, they are seat shells made of lightweight textiles, which are braced to the ceiling with straps and only fixed to the cabin floor with a few thin plastic or aluminium bars. All in all, we save half the weight of the seats.

And what are the benefits?

Keun: According to our calculations, we save around one tonne of weight on the 60-tonne machine. We have now reached the ninth design version of the seats and still see a little more potential. In addition, the seats and their components are easy to separate at the end of their service life. They can then be processed into new products according to the cradle-to-cradle principle.

That sounds like a very time-consuming development process.

Mends-Cole: But if you compare it to normal development processes in business, it wasn't. The defined processes of the Cross Innovation Lab helped. Because the time frame and the goal were so well defined, the time required was limited. The well-organised workshops were very useful.

Keun : Of course, it helped that the idea for another lighter product made from recyclable material already existed. In retrospect, however, I find it very exciting where we ended up. We only realised that the seat would be a much more interesting and effective solution than the original idea thanks to the methods and external input in the Cross Innovation Lab workshops. So we were already on the right track, but it took a certain constellation of experts and creatives that we wouldn't have been able to organise from our own environment.

In hindsight, how would you rate your collaboration on the Cross Innovation Lab? After all, you never know beforehand who you're going to be working with, whether the different areas of expertise will fit together and whether the other participants will be able to understand your methods, processes and challenges... Mends-Cole:

So there were no convergence difficulties. As a trained product designer, I'm used to working closely with companies and cooperating with other disciplines. But nowadays there are still customers to whom you as a designer have to explain exactly how you work, what comes next, what the goal is.

"As designers, we should be involved in development processes at a much earlier stage. After all, we recognise certain problems at a very early stage."

Sebastian Mends-Cole

But actually everyone is only interested in the price, the rest fades into the background. And then you're only booked for the finishing touches, it feels like you're only allowed to choose the colour and pattern. But we designers should be involved in such development processes much earlier. After all, we recognise certain problems at a very early stage. That's where the Cross Innovation Hub comes in: Because others take over the steering aspects, explain and moderate the creative process, we creatives can concentrate fully on the content.

Keun : From an entrepreneurial perspective, I also found this structured support very helpful. The other partner companies and I found it very helpful to see how precisely the creatives involved were selected in advance according to their individual skills and strengths so that they could really help us. The innovation process as such took a little more getting used to: the fact that you alternately open your mind completely in the individual phases so that you don't just think in your own niche, and then focus on a sub-aspect again, was a certain challenge - especially for our partners from Autoflug, who specialise in aircraft seats and suddenly had to deal with completely different parts of the cabin interior. In some cases, we had to put all our expertise aside so as not to be biased and find alternative approaches.

Mends-Cole: That's exactly the exciting thing about a creative process like this: the fact that you don't know where it will lead. It's not the destination that is defined, but the path.

Keun : Still a strange feeling. We engineers are usually given very concrete specifications and then try to find the cheapest and simplest solution by the shortest route. The Cross Innovation Lab was very different. It was about a problem that we didn't even know yet. But the strong input from outside helped there too. Other creative minds from the Cross Innovation Hub were brought in again and again. They showed us many other directions in which we could think. For example, filmmaker Claudia Rinke, who is developing the entire customer journey around the FAIRCRAFT, wrote the story about our fictional passengers Holger Kraft and Charlotte Business. Even though we are still very focused on the technical implementation, this perspective always helps us to keep the needs of the passengers in mind.

What key competences or framework conditions are needed to ensure that such development processes with different stakeholders are really successful?

Mends-Cole : Basically, more decision-makers like Christian need to take part in workshops, labs or similar formats. After all, we're talking about solutions that are truly forward-looking, that harbour real potential and that companies can really benefit from. Employees can never decide, for example, whether a product will actually be further developed and launched on the market.

Keun: But that would mean that medium-sized and large companies in particular would be excluded from such processes. It is very difficult for them to ensure that the main managers are always available for such workshops..

Mends-Cole:... but perhaps that is precisely the explanation for the slump we are currently experiencing in Germany. Innovation is actually a matter for the boss. But there are hardly any decision-makers, not even at middle management level, who take part in programmes like the Cross Innovation Hub. Other things often seem to be more important.

Keun: That's true. It takes a lot of persuasion. Perhaps it would help if companies increasingly joined together in clusters, as we have done. At FAIRCRAFT, there were seven companies that wanted to solve a similar problem, but from completely different perspectives and with completely individual ambitions. It probably takes many parties to get an innovation like this off the ground.

About the people

Sebastian Mends-Cole is a product designer and founder of BFGF - Büro für Gestaltungsfragen. He has been a member of the German Design Day's Council for Sustainability since 2021. The principle of "circular design" is important to him and his work, as it takes a holistic view of the entire life cycle and environmental impact. Mends-Cole analyses challenges critically but optimistically and looks for positive solutions. He also motivates others and provides clear perspectives. He is currently working with partners to found the Circular Design Hub Hamburg, a space in which visions for the future can be shaped and put into practice.

How cross innovation can make flying more sustainable -

Sebastian Mends-Cole

Co-Founder BFGF GmbH

After studying mechanical engineering in Hamburg, St-Etienne and St Petersburg, he completed his doctorate at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg. This was followed by a position as head of the research and development department of a large plastics processing company. Christian Keun finally founded Comprisetec to realise a product idea.

How cross innovation can make flying more sustainable -

Dr Christian-André Keun

CEO CompriseTec GmbH

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