(F)Innovation in Helsinki

Hot Spots / by Jussi Rosendahl /

The new Aalto University in Helsinki merges business, technology, and design.

Famous for its public education system and a culture of risk aversion, the small Nordic state of Finland is recasting three major universities in Helsinki as a global hot spot for innovation.

This year, the Finnish government will merge three top universities in three diverse fields: Helsinki University of Technology, Helsinki School of Economics, and the University of Arts and Design in Helsinki. At first called Innovation University—sparking some debate about its relationship to the industrial sector—the new institution has been named Aalto University, after the legendary Finnish architect and designer, Alvar Aalto.

The goal is for Aalto to join the exclusive ranks of top universities around the world that approach innovation with a multidisciplinary tack: Stanford University’s D.School, an institute that assembles experts across the campus, integrating human, business, and technical approaches with “design thinking,” has led the way. Design London was established by the Imperial College of London and Royal College of Arts in 2007, and smaller-scale projects have appeared in Germany and the Netherlands.

Given growing global competition in the field of “knowledge production,” Finland needs innovation (like rethinking forestry in the face of declining global demand for paper), but it also needs people—even Helsinki, in the south of the country, endures long, dark winters that tend to deter top researchers from abroad. Nokia, the Finnish technology giant, is affiliated with the University of Technology, one of its neighbors, and is hoping Aalto will be “a leading innovation hot spot in mobile technologies and systems.” It recently opened a lab in the Tech campus to establish joint research programs and interaction between the cell phone maker and university researchers.

Tuula Teeri, president of Aalto University. Courtesy of Aalto University

According to Aalto’s first president, professor Tuula Teeri, who was inaugurated at the beginning of April, the goal is to build a globally recognized trademark that will help lure top people to do research in Finland.

Teeri is emphasizing basic research in Aalto’s approach to innovation. “It’s very hard to place an order for innovations. They require adequate grounding in the volume and quality of research, and can be stimulated with cross-disciplinary co-operation,” she says. “The Aalto concept has the right ingredients for innovating, with everybody having a role of their own in the value chain.”

Teeri left the vice-presidency of the Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, to take on the development of Aalto. Other top appointments at the university include the president of Boston University, Robert A. Brown, and MIT professor Bengt Holmström, both on the seven-member Aalto Foundation Board.

Professor Jayanta Chatterjee from the Indian Institutes of Technology calls Aalto “a fascinating prospect,” and says it’s the first truly multidisciplinary university. “In a sense, that’s a university’s true mission,” he says. “Ancient universities were actually highly multidisciplinary.”

Chatterjee, currently in Finland on a joint research program of product and service development, adds that it’s not only the multidisciplinary concept that appeals to him. He also believes that Aalto could create a new type of academia, where “we’ll possibly see a seamless connection between the different areas that constitute socially meaningful innovation.”

Dr. John Kao, the innovation author and the chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation in San Francisco, is equally impressed. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he contends that Finland is becoming a global center for innovative design. Kao sees the Aalto merger as a good example of Finland’s “large-scale, holistic approach to innovation” that enjoys “strong governmental stewardship.”

Legally, the foundation-based university, which is still raising nearly $1 billion in new funding, needs an amendment to its charter that would allow Finnish universities greater financial autonomy from the government. The new curriculum, with programs available for all students and researchers across the three previous campuses, kicks off next fall. By that time, the remaining serious work of transforming the organization and establishing further detailed strategic guidelines will be complete.

Nevertheless, the first multidisciplinary projects have already begun. The first joint workshops—or “factories”—are bringing teams of students, researchers, and companies together to develop products and services and immediately transfer that research into curricula.

Most ambitious is Aalto’s proposed brain-research program, which draws on expertise from all three constituent universities. Combining the low-temperature laboratory, famous for brain imaging and systems neuroscience, from the University of Technology with those in neuro-economics from the School of Economics and neuro-cinematics from the University of Arts and Design, the program plans to use modern brain-imaging methods to examine social interaction, financial decision making, and how the brain processes the experience of cinema. The research is set to deepen our understanding of risky behavior and the relationship between reason and emotions, and provide comparisons of how we experience the world. Further research is looking at how new technologies and the resulting change in social environment affect the mind over time.

Project director and neuroscience professor Riitta Hari is intrigued by this stage of the field. “As new methodologies evolve, brain imaging is becoming a kind of melting pot of different disciplines,” she says. “Arts and science have started to talk to each other.”

But with all the visions of strong multidisciplinary education and research, the Aalto merger still faces organizing challenges.

“Giving the people involved, spread over a large area, a sense they belong in a single organization will be very tricky,” says professor Keith Devlin from Stanford University. “It tends not to sustain in the long run.” Devlin knows this firsthand, since he’s the executive director of H-STAR Institute, Stanford’s interdisciplinary center. “Ten years from now they will probably want to split again,” he says, “but that’s not an argument for not merging today. It’s the process of change that provides the most benefit.”

Originally published May 12, 2009

Tags design innovation technology

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