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Finland’s model for an innovation university
03 May 2011

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Finland has set out to create a university that has innovation built into its foundations, merging three institutions into one along the way.  Is Aalto a model for universities in other countries?

It’s a brisk autumn afternoon in Finland and managers from 19 companies have just arrived on the wooded Aalto University campus near Helsinki in search of young innovators. Each manager will have five minutes to convince students to tackle their real-world engineering and design problems. “We’re looking for challenges that are a ‘mission impossible’ – where the risks or the costs are too high for anyone else,” says Kalevi Ekman, professor of engineering and director of Aalto’s Design Factory, which hosts the annual matchmaking event.

Aalto’s hands-on Design Factory is a showcase for Finland’s bold new experiment in higher education. Officially launched in September 2010, Aalto University merges three major Helsinki universities in technology, art and design, and economics. Its mission: a radical shift toward multidisciplinary learning. Finland is betting by 2020 Aalto’s self-proclaimed “open-minded and boundary-smashing approach” will help the university to a place among the world’s top universities – and seed a new generation of innovators.

The centrepiece of a radical education reform in Finland, Aalto was created to groom graduates for a world transformed by technology, information overload and global competition. “We need to teach students how to be critical and solve problems,” says Tuula Teeri, president of Aalto University. “Building more lecture halls is not the way to move forward in an information society.” 

Above: Aalto University

European Union Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has lauded Aalto as a model for Europe to bridge the gap between academia and business and produce graduates with skills that better match industry’s needs.

In Kalevi’s one-year master’s course on product design, 140 students in engineering, design and business form 15 cross-disciplinary teams to tackle the “mission impossible” innovation challenges posed by companies. The 4,000-square-metre Design Factory is their extended classroom – a hub of innovation, meeting rooms and a cutting-edge prototyping laboratory with everything from computer-aided design to an electrical workshop.

Exactly what business needs

Students are free to seek out experts across Aalto’s three campuses in everything from industrial design and architecture to computer science and electrical engineering. They also choose the problems the want to solve: companies that don’t make a convincing elevator pitch won’t get a team.

At the same time, Aalto researchers have set up shop in Design Factory to study innovation in progress, while companies are free collaborate with professors on projects. “Aalto is exactly what business needs – it doesn’t need more programmers. It needs people that work in global teams and get over the silo mentality in organisations,” says Bruno Lanvin, director of INSEAD’s E-Lab research centre in Fontainebleau, France. “Aalto’s cross-disciplinary approach addresses so many things that are missing in European universities. It’s a huge learning opportunity for Finland.”

Companies like the model: nearly 20 firms line up each year to engage student teams despite a €15,000 sponsorship fee, which covers the cost of the research but does not include any guarantee of success. Last year’s class developed 13 new products including a portable terminal to gather weather data in extreme under extreme conditions for Vaisala, a Finnish weather forecasting company.

The idea for a Finnish “innovation university” was first broached in 2005 by Helsinki University of Art and Design Rector Yrjö Sotamaa, who argued integrating technology, business and design was vital to driving technology-based innovation.

Finland’s primary and secondary schools already lead global rankings on excellence in education, but the country’s universities were small and weak in international comparisons. Finland’s fragmented university landscape lacked the critical mass in research.

Radical concepts for web search

Sotamaa won over the rectors at the Helsinki University of Technology and the Helsinki School of Economics. The three launched a manifesto for university reform, arguing that the country’s system of higher education had become a bureaucracy driven by civil servants, and was in danger of sapping Finland’s competitiveness. The manifesto sparked two years of heated national debate on university reform. 

Finally in 2007, the government voted to back a national innovation university and a new statute for public-private universities. “We were looking at global developments in China, India and elsewhere and thought if we stand still, we will be left behind,” Heljä Misukka, state secretary in the Finnish Ministry of Education.

With the mandate to reinvent university education, a working group of rectors, professors, students and Finnish companies benchmarked the best universities in the world, including Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Cambridge University. They also met with global technology companies to understand what would make Finland’s new innovation university an interesting partner for business. 

In June, Microsoft Research agreed to fund two projects. One will focus on radical new concepts for web search at home. “The idea is to break with the office orientation – in the home there are different ways of sharing and searching for information,” says Giulio Jacucci, professor of design research at Aalto and a professor of computer science at the University of Helsinki who will lead the research team at Aalto.

The study involves design, computer science, anthropology and sociology, and the Aalto team will collaborate with researchers at the Microsoft laboratory in Cambridge. “We need to break the rules about how we think web search works. Maybe we don’t need a computer to do search at home,” says Jacucci.

Fabrizio Gagliardi, director of external research for Microsoft in Europe, Middle East and Africa, says Aalto’s joint expertise in computer science and design is unique. “The EU can absolutely benefit from this kind of multidisciplinary approach,” he says.

Mastering design innovation

A key element of the reform spearheaded by Aalto is a voluntary shift in higher education to a public-private funding model. With founding capital of €700 million – €500 million from the government and €200 from private sector – and an annual budget of €368 million, Aalto has critical financial mass to hire top researchers, provide a competitive tenure track, and fund new programmes.

The Finnish experiment in cross-disciplinary innovation is already is inspiring universities around the world. This spring China’s Tongji University set up a joint Design Factory with Aalto in Shanghai based on the Helsinki model. The buzz about Aalto’s Design Factory started in 2008 when it was set up as a forerunner programme, two years before the three universities merged. Now a dozen universities from Australia to Brazil are seeking to partner with Aalto to create Design Factories of their own.  

Above: Aalto University students in Shanghai. Photo by Ville Tajamaa.

“China produces half a million masters in engineering a year.  We produce 500.  For Finland to be globally competitive we need to go beyond technology and combine disciplines, mastering the design side of innovation,” says Ari Rahkonen, general manager of Microsoft Finland.

Several challenges remain. Aalto needs a more international student body. Only ten per cent of Aalto’s staff and student body come from outside Finland, despite many courses and degrees being offered in English. The Finnish government aims to measure the success of Aalto by tracking a number of criteria, including Aalto’s ability to draw a growing number of foreign students and leading foreign researchers. 

Teeri insists the key ingredients for innovation are freedom and talent. “The challenge in Europe is to stop planning, stop making structures and spread good ideas. It’s important to have the best people and let them do what they want.” Aalto has already got that lesson down. 

This article was originally published in Microsoft's Futures Magazine. To access the full PDF click here.