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Five questions for new CDH director Frédéric Kaplan

UNIL-EPFL dhCenter member Frédéric Kaplan, who has succeeded Béla Kapossy after four fruitful years as College of Humanities Director, describes his vision for the humanities and social sciences at EPFL.

Frédéric Kaplan has been a professor at EPFL since 2012. In addition to leading the Lab for Digital Humanities, he is also currently the head of Digital Humanities Institute. He took up the post of College of Humanities (CDH) Director for a two-year term on August 1.

Here, Kaplan talks about his plans for humanities research and education at EPFL, and why digital humanities and design both have key roles to play.

1. CDH: What should be the place of humanities and social sciences at an engineering school like EPFL?

Frédéric Kaplan: The scientific discoveries and technological innovations that are being developed at EPFL will enable us to build the world of tomorrow. But outside the laboratory, scientific objects behave differently, and innovations do not always meet their intended audience. Differences in cultural contexts, political and economic forces, and the technological environment itself shape the future of what EPFL researchers discover and invent. For this knowledge to have an effective impact, it is necessary to associate it with knowledge developed in humanities and social science fields.

For the past 20 years, EPFL has been developing an ambitious teaching and research program in the humanities and social sciences, in partnership with the University of Lausanne and several other institutions in the Lake Geneva region. It is now time to intensify this commitment to develop a new form of knowledge capable of giving EPFL innovations an effective impact on the world, and serving as a bridge between this research and society.

2. CDH: What are some obstacles to this convergence of skills from scientific and humanities fields?

FK: The trajectories of these different disciplines bifurcated in the 19th and 20th centuries, when much of the funding in the rapidly growing American higher education system was put toward science and technology, to the detriment of the humanities and social sciences. For example, C.P. Snow argued in 1959 at the “Two Cultures” conference in Cambridge that in order to ensure global peace and prosperity, we needed to train more engineers and fewer historians, philosophers, and literary critics. The result was deep frustration and, paradoxically, claims by some humanities researchers that their work was socially and practically irrelevant.

Today at EPFL, we are trying to demonstrate the crucial importance of knowledge developed in the humanities, and to transform it into something directly usable. We must break the political myth of the “Two Cultures” to bring about a convergence at the crossroads of defragmented disciplines.

3. CDH: What has been the role of digital humanities in this evolution?

FK: The digital humanities first tried to show that certain computational methods, including recent advances in artificial intelligence, could have significant effects when applied to humanities and social science problems. Very promising results have been obtained for the massive processing of archival sources in the history of art, music and science, and urban history.

But above all, the digital humanities have started opening up knowledge. They have initiated a bridge between humanities data and civil society actors who could make relevant use of it, notably through the establishment of large, open databases that allow us to structure representations of the past according to the challenges of the present.

4. CDH What is the role of art and design in the development of this new knowledge?

FK: The place of design is central and the knowledge and methodologies of designers must be more strongly integrated into research and training. Today, design raises questions of the complementarity of physical and digital experiences, and of how to think of objects as services rather than goods. Collaborations between designers and engineers must be strengthened so that knowledge flows in both directions.

When it comes to artistic techniques, one only has to look at contemporary artists – such as those selected for CDH’s Artist-in-Residence (AiR) program or those participating in the EPFL Pavilions exhibitions – to see that the boundaries between art and engineering are becoming increasingly permeable. In these rare moments, where art, science, and technology converge, great discoveries and inventions can take place.

5. How can EPFL offer training that gives students the full range of skills needed to tackle the world’s challenges?

FK: We have excellent specialists in these issues at EPFL, notably at CDH, the College of Management, and the School of Architecture. We must continue to recruit researchers who excel at the intersection of these disciplines and develop absolutely original approaches. We are also fortunate to be surrounded by the University of Lausanne, the University of Geneva, the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (écal), HEAD (Haute école d’art et de design) Geneva, IMD Business School, and the Geneva Graduate Institute, with whom we have must continue to strengthen our ties.

The challenge of creating a new body of knowledge from the defragmentation of humanities and social sciences is of such societal importance that we also need to develop national and international alliances with major academic institutions.

Above all, we must train engineers with hybrid profiles in both technology and the humanities. We need to help them discover the fun of creating solutions at the crossroads of these fields. If we look at the biographies of those whose ideas change the world, it is common to find this hybridity and holistic vision of knowledge.

This article was originally published on 01.09.2022 by Celia Luterbacher EPFL CDH.

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