The University of Innovation

  • Publish On 7 October 2021
  • Kalevi Ekman
  • 11 minutes

The urban challenges of the Urbanocene have brought back into the spotlight the complexity of cities as a milieu and the lack of relevance of siloed knowledge and protagonists within modern urbanism. We must develop new approaches and foster urban innovation—but how can the protagonists making of the city of the future be trained to address this challenge? Aalto University, and, in particular, the Design Factory, headed by Kalevi Ekman, point towards a new approach. Born from the merger of three universities in Helsinki—in Technology, Art and Design, and Business—, it encourages cross-disciplinary tracks, entrepreneurial mindset, and prototype-based learning.

You work at Aalto University in Helsinki, considered a university of innovation. What is your involvement in its unique educational process?

My position at the university is as a professor of product design and development. I am an engineer by education, originally coming from the School of Engineering, and product development has been close to my heart for several decades. I have been running project courses around this topic from the beginning—at start mostly for mechanical engineering students. However, in the late 1990s, by happy coincidence, another professor at the university I was working at, the University of Art and Design, asked me if his design students could join my course. That turned out to be a successful experiment, and ever since we have tried to encourage an integration of engineering and design students. In pursuing this approach, by observing the type of challenges or problems that students faced, we saw the contradiction between the expectations and demands of students and the resources that the university gave them. One philosophy behind the Design Factory is that we have long tried to develop solutions for problems that we have discovered. Several rationales for the Innovation University in general were successful programs and courses that did already exist since 1995. IDBM, the International Design Business Management program, was another one. That was a joint program by the three former universities. We were lucky to have experimental level courses and minor programs that were tested. And we had some evidence showing that this type of activity makes sense.

This experiment within the University of Art and Design influenced the rector of the same university to propose the merger of three universities: the University of Art and Design, the University of Technology, and the Helsinki School of Business. The idea of such a merger was originally introduced by Yrjö Sotamaa in 2005, in his opening speech for the academic year. To be honest, I don’t think there were many individuals who really believed that this would ever come to fruition. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, the Ministry of Education and industry leaders were attracted to the idea and made it possible. The leaders of three state universities started the preparations for the merger into the new Aalto University. Still, most people never thought that the universities should merge physically, and, when it started in January 2010, we still had the same three campuses as previously—one in Espoo and two in Helsinki. Then, everything started to move to a single campus, built by the famous architect Alvar Aalto, hence the name of the university. The new university raised a lot of curiosity and meant hosting almost 10,000 visitors each year. I have to admit that I had doubts about this type of merger because they usually end up failing. But I think what made the difference was that Aalto was not aiming at cost savings or any kind of bureaucratic administrative rearrangements. We also had remarkable investment from both the public and private sectors in the country to set up this kind of education.

In Finland, the university has always been part of the state system, so the Ministry of Education is the boss. That said, Aalto was the first university to have a slightly different governance model, as it is managed by the Aalto University Foundation. The foundation raised a remarkable amount of funding at the time of the merger. The amount is in the ballpark of a billion euros today. However, this structure also means that the board is not a collection of Aalto professors. All board members are external. That setup is something really new for a university. Before 2010, there was no university in Finland whose board and director were not chosen from among the university’s professors. This promotes change, self-renewal, and agility.

The term innovation, in general discourse, often repeated by politicians or other leaders, is part of a common belief that interesting things happen at the boundaries of various disciplines. I have a lot of experience in this field, having practiced it with my students. I understand that these are not things that just happen with a snap of the fingers. It can be a very painful process. The term PBL commonly stands for ‘problem-based’ learning or ‘project-based’ learning. What we have also identified here at the Design Factory is a new PBL—passion-based learning. I like this perhaps more than the word ‘innovation,’ because passion describes both sides of the coin. It describes the enthusiasm and commitment as well as the pain, suffering, and inconvenience. And that is exactly what innovation typically entails. The Innovation University was the working title that was used in the beginning, before the name Aalto was established. This was to correspond to the expectations of the leaders of industry as well as the investors.

France is in the middle of Europe. Finland is not. Most of the major industries make more than 80% or 90% of their turnover elsewhere because the Finnish domestic market is next to nothing and Helsinki is just above the 60th parallel north. We are very far from any real center. We can’t compete with cheap labor costs. We have no oil. The only thing that can help us be internationally competitive is innovation, based on good education, and the ability to do things in a unique twisted way. The challenges of our economy and the challenges for our companies in Finland are not the same as in many bigger countries. Our graduates must be able to compete with graduates from famous universities in the United States, Korea, France, and elsewhere.

But how is this possible? By working harder? Students in China or Korea may work even harder. Is it a question of talent? I don’t think so as, by definition, talent is something that only a minor percentage of the population has. The only way forward is to do things a bit differently and be better at avoiding waste, for example—material waste, human resource waste, and waste of money. Interdisciplinary work and learning to respect others through teamwork are important methods, which take away the forms of fear that can hamper innovation—the fear of saying things, even if they are not always positive, and the fear of not being good enough and pretending to be something else than what you really are. This avoids unnecessary waste in any type of organization.

Locaux de l’Aalto Design Factory, Espoo, Finlande, 2019 Photo by George Atanassov

Slideshow: Aalto University campus and Aalto Design Factory premises, Espoo, Finland, 2019 and start-up presentation day, Aalto Design Factory, 2014


In concrete terms, what form does transdisciplinarity take in the teaching at Aalto University?

We have classes from kindergarten to doctoral studies mixed together on the same campus. We now have three high schools on the university campus—with some classes held on the university premises, as the high schools don’t have enough space for all the students. We also host the Espoo International School for elementary classes and we have a kindergarten, which is next to the Design Factory. In Finland, we have serious issues with mouldy buildings, and schools are no exception. According to YLE (the Finnish Broadcasting Company) more than 48,000 children are studying in evasive premises because of this.

For this reason, the idea of school as a service was actively developed, as an opposite way of thinking of a simple financial investment for schools. It was a way of thinking about smarter ways of fulfilling the objectives of education.

The city of Espoo is very active in these programs and has replaced three schools on our campus in the past five or six years.

I would be unable to list the number of courses that each student could take at Aalto. The starting age of studies on the national level is at 19–20 years. All undergraduates, whether they study engineering, design, architecture, or business, are together in one building which they share. Then, of course, as they continue their studies, they start working in their own school facilities. But already at the bachelor level, some courses are specifically designed for the inter- or trans-disciplinary approach. Most courses are open for anyone, and students are free to choose a complementary course to their study program. It is possible to go outside one’s own field and take joint programs between art school and chemical engineering, for example. It is a combination that does not seem obvious at first but has been a real success. The students are exploring how bio-based fibers can substitute cotton as material since, as we know, cotton-growing takes up land and requires a lot of water. This process is also a very good match with recycling old textile materials. So there are several smaller or bigger initiatives. We even have a Master’s program called Created Sustainability, which brings together courses and activities for anyone who has a special interest in this topic. Every teacher is asked to show the connection between her course and the United Nations SDG’s. This applies to every single course that we have at the university now.

One thing to mention is that the younger generation often comes from an urban background so we don’t have that strong tradition, as we used to have in the good old times, when young people had practical skills through farming, repair, and DIY. Today, we cannot expect such skills. Most students have never had the chance to build a prototype or seriously play with physical objects. That’s why this is one of the main design factors we strongly encourage. We invite students to do, not just plan or sit behind their computers and make models with software, but to build things to understand how long it takes, how expensive it is, and how poorly ideas can sometimes turn out.

Project presented during an annual product design development gala of the Aalto Design Factory

Have you ever had the opportunity to work at the urban scale with the Design Factory? How can design products serve urban design?

Students from all backgrounds—including architecture—are welcome at the Design Factory. For example, we have architecture students who needed to do something they couldn’t do anywhere else and that is the main reason they seek us out. We have the machinery and space they need. We also hosted architecture and urban planning courses. Of course, they have their own school and their own premises, but the Design Factory has a unique operational environment that facilitates action and learning. Here you can do things much more effectively than anywhere else.

The major part of the funding for the Design Factory comes directly from the university. But on a grassroots level, for example, the product development project course that I run is also sponsored by companies. In terms of urban design, the difficulty for my course is about the tangible product development, which is of little interest to cities. Other programs dealing with immaterial topics, such as IDBM, International Design Business Management, have more freedom to form partnerships with cities or other organizations. The urban scale is well suited for their student projects. But as the product development project by nature always has something to do with tangible products, we have difficulties in defining good topics that cities could offer.

Slideshow: Construction workshops, Aalto Design Factory


However, we have had some opportunities to work with cities. The cities of Helsinki and Espoo have been our partners, our clients. We recently closed a year-long development project in which our four-person team developed four collections of smart street furniture for a consortium led by Nokia. The company is no longer making phones but networks, and 5G is the next big thing. It also means that in cities we will have a lot of technology: video surveillance, driverless robotic buses, drones, and so on. However, a city is only “smart” when technology serves the people and not the other way around. So our team has not only worked on this topic at a theoretical level, they have also built products. They built a six-meter high smart lamp pole and a smart bench with a touch screen and phone charging points. They also built a life-size bus stop model that is four by five meters. At first, Nokia and other companies said that they would be satisfied with 3D models and virtual reality models. At the end they also understood, how essential real-scale models are to get a full idea of such large objects. Prototyping to see, touch, and feel is generally the way of the Design Factory, which has a philosophy of not only doing things in theory, but also to bringing those ideas into practice.

It may be surprising, but even in engineering, many students lack this kind of experience. They are very good at solving problems on paper or the computer. However, I’m afraid that, generally, part of the problem is that the employer or the company often feels that the qualities of a young graduate don’t match the requirements of practical working life. It takes a long time for them to get further training to be competent in any position in the companies.

That is what we don’t like and we want to change. The more you play with the real world by testing and building, the more you become aware of your own skills and abilities, and that also gives you a lot of professional courage. When we talk about innovation and entrepreneurship, it is like an outside environment. Unfortunately, many of the university buildings and lecture halls are so sterile that there is no room for meaningful ‘contamination.’ For me, the Design Factory is the place where the risk of contracting the virus of entrepreneurialism is highest. And maybe it doesn’t mean you’ll become an entrepreneur by yourself and set up a company, but maybe you’ll at least have the entrepreneurial mindset. And even if you choose to move into a big company, you will be one of the troublemakers who will cause positive change.



Cover image: project exhibited at an annual product design and development gala, Design Factory, Aalto University






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