The future of urban cities: Empathic buildings and intelligent mobility

Prof. Nikolaus Hafermaas, Managing Partner Creation of the Berlin agency Graft Brandlab, on the sustainable development of architecture, urban planning and mobility

By Prof. Nikolaus Hafermaas, Graft Brandlab

Volocopter Brand Graftlab
Premiere of the world's first Vertiport for Volocopter, the air taxi pioneer, designed by Graft Brandlab | © Raphael Olivier

Author: House of Eden

Making brands tangible in a multidimensional way is the goal of the Berlin innovation agency Graft Brandlab, which operates at the interfaces of art, design and technology. Rico Zocher, Managing Partner Business, and Prof. Nikolaus Hafermaas, Managing Partner Creation, run the agency, which was founded in 2014 by Graft Architects. Their projects are on the development and implementation of branding strategies in the form of multimedia branding, communication, architecture and mediatecture.

At Haus von Eden, Nikolaus Hafermaas speaks about his vision for the future of urban cities, shaped by an intelligent infrastructure, empathetic buildings and work-life-fusion.

"Even the most sustainable building is a waste of energy and time if nobody feels comfortable in it and if it remains unused. This applies not only to buildings, but to all products, services and design: People should take the center stage, we call it the human-centered design approach. "

Professor Nikolaus Hafermaas | Managing Partner Creation, Graft Brandlab

Resilient cities need an intelligent and connected infrastructure

The last year and a half has made clear, how critical it is about the existence of our planet, our health and the existence of future generations. The Fridays for Future initiative brought Climate protection on the political agenda. Then there is the pandemic, which has forced us to change our mobility and consumer behaviour for months now. The effects are becoming clearly visible. They are still gradual, but at least they are the first steps towards a new behaviour, be it for ecological, economic or social change. At the same time, the global population in cities is growing exponentially, and with this the demand for new living spaces and intelligent infrastructure solutions.

All of this requires the development of resilient cities, like Oona Strathern-Horx from the Zukunftsinstitut calls it. With sustainable concepts, they will make a significant contribution to the climate protection. In addition, they must be prepared to deal with sudden disrupting events, such as a pandemic or natural disasters , to protect the population and to offer a safe living space. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has the concept of Anti-fragility which describes systems, that can react flexibly to stress factors and therefore become resilient. This is what a successful city of the future will look like.

E.ON electric charging infrastructure from GRAFT and Graft Brandlab | ©

The local comes to the fore in urban planning

In regional planning, city quarters are becoming more important, as the radius in which a person can and must travel is significantly reduced in such situations. Local living development comes to the fore again. Paris is already leading the way with such kind of short distance city models - in the future, all daily requirements should be reachable within a 15 minutes' walk in the urban division.

Surely, this has a major impact on our mobility behaviour. Sharing concepts have already become established in large cities and are being accelerated by the electric mobility . But we are only at the beginning here. We will develop new CO2-free fuels, create e-cars that produce excess energy and computing capacity and thus are able to realise their own energy cycle. In addition, these vehicles will generate unimagined amounts of data about the state of our cities and their inhabitants, which in turn can influence various variables of the urban infrastructure in real time.

Architecture in the sense of human-centered design approach

If we look at the architecture of modern cities, everything stands under the light of sustainability, climate protection and diversity. Our partners GRAFT Architects have been developing plus-energy houses as well as for a number of years been realising Cradle-to-Cradle projects. Being resource- and energy-efficient is of high importance in Architecture and plays an essential role in urban planning. Wood is currently experiencing a renaissance as a natural building material. In the Arup agency podcast on climate neutral cities, Philipp Bouteiller, Managing Director of Tegel Projekt, explained that timber construction is also being used on the former airport site in Berlin.

Study of a zero-energy media facade | © Graft Brandlab

As an innovation agency, we develop future-oriented concepts with an understanding of sustainability, that go far beyond the ecological footprint. Within our holistic view, economic and social effects are also considered as part of sustainability. Because we mustn't forget one thing: At the end, we as humans have to feel comfortable with the measures taken. Even the most sustainable building is a waste of energy and time if nobody feels comfortable in it and if it remains unused. This applies not only to buildings, but to all products, services and design: People should take the center stage, we call it the human-centered design approach.

Redefine the design of buildings through empathy

In addition to the trends mentioned, such as timber construction, cradle-to-cradle, plus-energy houses and so on, we are primarily seeing a change in the approach of how to use architecture. We deal with in depth customer journeys, more precisely with the expectations, needs, fears, desires and behaviours of people in spaces, be it tourists in adventure quarters, employees in headquarters or people in need of care, for example in retirement homes. Only those who have an empathic understanding of people's needs, worries and behaviours are able to redefine and design buildings, which are optimised for every individual. We see great potential in this area, which above all improves the quality of life as well as the quality of the construction.

Digitisation is a development that connects the world. Data is collected and exchanged - but then remains largely abstract and visually hidden. Technical tools, such as apps, are processing this data and turning it into individualised applications - however this happens only to a limited extent on our smartphone or laptop and our physical environment is being mostly ignored. This is where the potential of mediatecture lies.


eFLOW - Interactive Mediatecture Sculpture | © Ivan Cruz

Mediatecture stands for the fusion of digital media and architecture. For example, it can visualise data in created realities and thus define shared experiences in spaces, in contrast to the more single experience of virtual reality. During my time in California, I implemented architectural and artistic installations, for example in airports, which make various data streams and content, such as weather and air traffic data, tangible on spatial sculptures in real time.

In the battle for new talents, for example, the design of workspaces is becoming increasingly important. If you consider a building and all the activities that take place in it as a connected organism, then it is extremely exciting to visualise its energy status, the ECG of the company's headquarter so to speak. This creates a new holistic understanding of the company and its employees, interpreted as a central mediatecture sculpture.

The interface between digital and physical presence offers potentials for sustainability

There is an existent awareness for sustainability in products and services. Where we still see a great potential, is primarily in the interface between the digital and physical presence. A very simple example: During lockdown, online channels have been booming, be it for products but also for food orders. All of these products can be produced sustainably and the packaging can be made of recyclable materials - but still the transportation is the bottle neck in terms of emissions.

Mobility, transportation, logistics, infrastructure: We have to rethink all of it. In the long-run, urban air mobility will definitely change the way we live. Until then, however, the focus will be on the paradigm shift from combustion to electric. This requires a redesign of our infrastructure. Some of our project examples that promote this transition are, for example, a project for E.ON, in which we developed an electric charging infrastructure together with our partners GRAFT Architects, which now needs to be rolled out globally.

For Volocopter, an electric vertical take-off air taxi, we developed an award-winning take-off and landing infrastructure, called the VoloPort. A great value add considering the positive carbon footprint of electric cargo drones. Last but not least, we designed the adaptable implementation of a trade fair concept, where local producers can work out a trade fair identity in our full absence, via a digital design tool. Away from design sovereignty to co-authorship.

Humans in focus of the modular and flexible exhibition concept of the Hyundai Motor Company | ©

Work-life fusion: Transforming mobility behaviour

With the hybrid models or let's say the compatibility of home office and attendance time, our mobility behaviour will experience a transformation - which will possibly also affect regular traffic jam times. The workplace will be characterised by flexibility and dynamism. Headquarters and offices will turn into meeting places where employees can exchange ideas and brainstorm. Focus work can then take place anywhere, in the office, on the park bench, in a café or at home. The number of permanent jobs will be reduced. Mobile, flexible workspaces, on the other hand, will increase.

Our homes will also adapt to this new way of working - flexible furniture and walls will come to fore to create private areas. We then no longer speak of work-life-balance but of a work-life-fusion. And then, of course, the regained importance of the urban quarter and its services plays a role, which people now spending more time at home should reach within walking distance.

How will the future like?

Aside from mobility and connectivity, we mainly see developments such as intergenerational design, we-culture, glocalisation or food cities, which will influence our lives. We are currently working on a number of new projects in the area of mobility, workspace design and mediatecture, all of which are still confidential, but we are looking forward to present the results in the near future.


Always informed about the latest lifestyle trends, architecture, design & interior, as well as current technologies around sustainability.

[ninja_form id = 3]

Related topics
Artificial intelligence
Priorities, myths and realities of AI in the luxury sector Experts from the Luxury Institute shed light on the most important applications, expectations and myths surrounding AI in...
Learning apps
Learning made easy: The top 10 learning apps for quick success From languages ​​to meditation to classic brain training: Here are the hottest learning apps to get smarter ...
Circular cities: The future of urban spaces As urbanization increases, so do urban planning challenges - One possible solution...