Hasso-Plattner-InstitutSDG am HPI
Hasso-Plattner-InstitutDSG am HPI

Neurodesign Lecture - Fostering Human-Nature Empathy through Digital Innovation (Wintersemester 2023/2024)

Lecturer: Dr. Julia von Thienen

General Information

  • Weekly Hours: 2
  • Credits: 3
  • Graded: yes
  • Enrolment Deadline: 01.10.2023 - 22.10.2023
  • Teaching Form: VL
  • Enrolment Type: Compulsory Elective Module
  • Course Language: English

Programs, Module Groups & Modules

IT-Systems Engineering MA
Data Engineering MA
Digital Health MA
Cybersecurity MA
Software Systems Engineering MA
  • Professional Skills
    • HPI-PSK-DT Design Thinking


- Preliminary course description, details to be decided -


Neurodesign Lecture: Fostering Human-Nature Empathy through Digital Innovation

Join us for an engaging exploration of the intersection between technology, empathy, and sustainable design in the Neurodesign Lecture, building digital support for human-nature empathy.


Course Details:

  • Starting Date: October 16th, 2023
  • Schedule: Mondays, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm
  • Location: Room K-1.03
  • Format: The lecture will predominantly be held in person. Additionally, session slides will be shared on the class's Slack channel.


HPI-MIT Collaboration: This course is a collaborative offer by the HPI Neurodesign and Connected Healthcare groups, in partnership with the MIT Tangible Media group. Taking the lead in organizing this class are Julia von Thienen and Cato Zantman from HPI and Jean-Baptiste Labrune from MIT. The course is part of the Telesymbiosis project in the MIT-HPI Designing for Sustainability program. 


Course Overview:  

In this course, you will have the opportunity to practice your skills in designing and executing a pioneering IT project. You will be provided with input from the fields of neuroscience, empathy studies, and sustainability to fuel your project.

From a neuroscientific standpoint, you will delve into how individuals comprehend one another and the potential pitfalls in this process, including biases that hinder mutual understanding. You will uncover how shared traits among individuals facilitate empathy, while challenges arise when attempting to empathize with those perceived as markedly different from ourselves. This phenomenon extends to cross-species studies, where humans exhibit greater empathy towards biologically similar species, such as mammals and especially primates, compared to more evolutionarily distant animals like reptiles or insects. This dynamic poses a challenge for design and innovation strategies reliant on empathy to achieve optimal outcomes, particularly when the goal is to achieve sustainable design. While it may be straightforward to empathize with the human user of an intended product or service, how well can you empathize with the implications the product and its production process may have for ecosystems involving other species, such as insects?

This course commences with an exploration of the neuro-psychological foundations of empathy between individuals, a well-established field of study. It encompasses theoretical frameworks of empathy, examinations of biases rooted in the similarities or differences among individuals, and an overview of measurement approaches for assessing empathy and compassion. Moreover, the course delves into cross-species research on empathy, as well as an overview of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations, and design thinking, discussing their relation towards empathy-driven design. You will also delve into the fundamentals of neuroscience research, enabling you to critically evaluate neuroscientific findings and draw inspiration for innovative IT solutions.

As in all courses offered by the neurodesign group, a significant portion of your coursework will involve a one-semester creative IT project, where you will have ample freedom to chart your own path. This hands-on project will serve as the cornerstone of your learning experience, allowing you to apply the concepts and insights garnered throughout the course to craft an innovative IT prototype of your own choosing.  

The overarching theme for the semester is "Enhancing Human-Nature Empathy through Technological Innovation." In your semester project, you can choose to focus on one or more of the following design and research areas:

  1. Empathy Analytics for Sustainability: Develop metrics or tools to measure people’s empathy towards non-human stakeholders. You might also explore how accurately this "ecosystem empathy" predicts whether people will engage in sustainable behaviours or achieve environmentally-friendly design results.
  2. Eco-Inclusive Product or Service Design: Create a more inclusive, new design methodology that encompass diverse human and non-human stakeholders, working towards empathy-driven solutions for all.
  3. Nature-Integrated Data Displays: Devise innovative ways to visualize, sonify or otherwise display nature-related data for people to interact with, fostering empathy by enhancing their understanding of complex ecological systems.
  4. Bridging Cross-Species Understanding: Develop interfaces or platforms that facilitate communication and understanding between humans and other species or even ecosystems, bridging the empathy gap.
  5. Nature-Inspired Interaction Design: Draw inspiration from nature's intricate designs to develop novel interfaces and interactions that evoke empathy towards both the environment and its inhabitants.
  6. Sustainable Behaviour Encouragement: Design applications or tools that encourage sustainable behaviours by promoting empathy towards the broader ecosystem and its sustainability challenges.
  7. Biofeedback and Empathy Enhancement: Explore biofeedback mechanisms to enhance empathy by connecting users with feedback that mirrors natural processes.
  8. Serious Games or Storytelling: Develop an educational game to foster a deeper understanding of ecological dynamics, and to encourage sustainable behaviours. Or craft digital stories that evoke empathy towards nature, driving emotional engagement and awareness.
  9. Virtual Ecological Experiences: Create immersive digital environments that simulate natural settings, fostering a sense of connection and empathy with the natural world.
  10. Nature-Infused Aesthetic Exploration: Infuse elements of the natural world into digital aesthetics, evoking a sensory connection and prompting empathetic responses.

Throughout the semester, you will receive guidance, mentorship, input and feedback by experts from diverse fields. Your project outcome will reflect your creative vision. It will shed light on IT opportunities in the evolution of empathy-driven design practices directed at a more sustainable and mutually beneficial coexistence between humans and nature.



Overall, the course spans a wide spectrum from science to art, ranging from data analysis over functional design to pioneering explorations and speculative inquiry. The lectures delve into empathy and sustainable behaviour from neuroscientific and psychological perspectives, covering theoretical frameworks, measurement tools, and empirical research findings (Cato Zantman, Dr. Irene S. Plank, Dr. Massimiliano Palmiero from the University of Teramo, Italy). It conducts a thorough review and critical examination of fundamental concepts in the field, including empathy-based design, perspective-taking, and human-nature interaction (Dr. JB Lbrune, Dr. Julia von Thienen). The course considers practical applications, highlighting the critical role of healthy ecosystems like forests in human well-being (Prof. Andreas Michalsen). It also provides examples of how to work with ecosystems - such as soil, sea, or air - whether from an artistic, practical or tech-avantguard stance (Prof. Alexandra Toland, Prof. Myriel Milicevic, Dr. Clemens Winkler). Artistic approaches are explored to enhance nature awareness and foster appreciation for diverse ecosystems (Diane Barbé, Julius Holtz, Sveva Antonini). In the spirit of exploration, the course also offers live experiments to examine how tangible interactions with elements of nature, compared to interactions with technology, influence human movement patterns, empathetic responses, and caregiving tendencies (Nitsan Margaliot).

For those interested in a more in-depth exploration of course themes in relation to audio-technical applications and their practical implementation, we recommend the Sonic Thinking Seminar. However, both courses can be taken independently of each other; it is not obligatory to register for both classes.


There are no prerequisites for attending this class. 


Your major grading-relevant contribution in this class is your own creative project (3/4 of grade).
You can pursue this project alone as well as in teams.
You have great creative freedom to choose and design a project that is of deep interest to you, while meeting the following requirements: (i) Your project needs to be an application of digital engineering. (ii) Your solution takes inspiration from neuroscientific insights on empathy. (iii) Your solution is designed to enhance human-nature empathy through technological innovation.
You can pursue one bigger project across the Neurodesign Lecture and the Sonic Thinking Seminar.
You can continue to work on a project begun in an earlier neurodesign or sonic thinking class, if some empathy and nature aspect can be elaborated.

  • 1/4 of your grade is based on your first project presentation.
  • 1/4 of your grade is based on your final project presentation.
  • 1/4 of your grade is based on a homework (up to 1 page) where you critique a neuroscientific article on empathy research.
  • 1/4 of your grade is based on some brief documentation of your project including code (or other digital engineering prototype) due March 31st, 2024. The project documentation can be an amended version of your PowerPoint slides from the in-class presentations.

You are welcome to look into the course. In case you decide to step back, you need to resign by contacting the Studienreferat and/or writing an e-mail to Julia.vonThienen [at] hpi.de by Dec 3rd, 2023. On Dec 4th,  the first grading-relevant presentations are held in class.


Please stay tuned for the latest program updates.

16.10.23 Empathy-Based Design vs. Sustainability: How to Bridge the Gap via Digital Innovation? (Julia & Cato)

23.10.23 From the Basics of Neuroscience to the Neuroscience of Understanding Others (Cato Zantman)

30.10.23 Shifting the Baseline: Exploring Environmental Awareness through Sound Art(Diane Barbé)

6.11.23 Layers of Perspective-Taking: From Cognition to Interspecies-Empathy (Dr. JB Labrune) & Empathy and Perspective-Taking in Primates (Cato Zantman)

13.11.23 Tangible Intactions with Nature vs. Technology: A Workshop on Materiality, Movement, and Empathy (Nitsan Margaliot)

20.11.23 The Neuroscience of Empathy (Dr. Irene S. Plank)

27.11.23 Introspective Garden: A Mindfulness Exploration of Sound in Cultivated Nature (Julius Holtz)

4.12.23   Your turn: First student presentations

11.12.23 Eco-Art: Exploring Ecosystems through Artistic Approaches (Dr. JB Labrune)

18.12.23 Animal-Nature Interaction and Design (Cato Zantman); The Development of Creativity & Design in Human Pre-History (Dr. Julia von Thienen) & Beyond Romanticism: Rethinking Human-Nature Interaction in Art and HCI (Dr. JB Labrune) 

8.1.24 La Pistona: Exploring Nature Rights and Creativity from the Perspectives of Law, Art and Science (Sveva Antonini)

15.1.24 Nature-Based Therapies and Forest Ecosystems: Nurturing Human Health in Healthy Forests (Prof. Dr. Andreas Michalsen)

22.1.24 Unlocking Team Potential: The Impact of Design Thinking on Trust and Empathy (Cornelia Schlott)

29.1.24 Measuring, Predicting and Cultivating an Eco-Mindset (Dr. Massimiliano Palmiero)

5.2.24  Your turn: Final student presentations