Kalevi Ekman
© Financial Times

Across the world, business people, creative types and technology geeks struggle to understand each other. Their education and training, even much of their work, is carried out in separ­ate silos, with exciting collaborations the exception rather than the rule.

Now Helsinki’s business school, art college and technology school have come up with a radical plan: a three-way merger to create what they claim will be a unique, integrated seedbed for innovation. The new institution, Aalto University, will offer joint courses later this year and will be open fully at the beginning of 2010 as the flagship project in a national shake-up of higher education.

The government, academics and Finland’s business community, which is strongly represented on Aalto’s board, are hoping to capitalise on the country’s record in industrial and product design and to create an internationally competitive, business-focused institution that takes inter-disciplinary working to an extreme not seen anywhere else in the world.

Pilot projects already hint at the benefits that faculty hope will flow from the imminent full merger.

For example, when Helsinki’s University of Art and Design found it could not manoeuvre a four-metre-long, computer-controlled knitting machine (pictured) into the textile department, the machine was found a home in the new “design factory”. The factory was opened in September in a former laboratory complex in the Helsinki University of Technology to encourage collaboration between industry, the students and researchers of these two schools and the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration. In this experimental working space, set up with the financial backing and day-to-day participation of staff from Nokia and Kone, Finland’s large corporate groups, the monster knitting machine attracted the curious attention of passing space scientists, marine engineers and others.

Now the art school has a host of new contacts in the business world and a long list of projects and pro­posals.

The new university has been named after Alvar Aalto, Finland’s pioneer designer and architect. He died in 1976 but his furniture, textiles and glassware are still appreciated by fans of the Nordic modernist style and its clean lines.

However, the project’s working title was “Innovation University” – an indication of its central role in formalising the links and working practices that allow new ideas to flourish and be marketed effectively.

“There are certain fields of technology, design and business where we cannot live without each other and this has been true for the last 15 years or so,” says Kalevi Ekman (pictured), vice-rector of Helsinki University of Technology. “And the merger is based on the good experiences we have already had through co-operation.”

The three universities boast high employment rates for their graduates and already enjoy close working ties with companies. It is hoped the new multi-disciplinary environment will lead to greater inter­national clout and attract industrialists wanting a source of ideas and recruits and an incubator for their research and development.

Finland has 20 universities, of which three specialise in business and economics – a small but significant number considering the population is only 5m.

The creation of Aalto follows another merger that established Oulu University in northern Finland. Another is planned in Turku. These moves to concentrate funding and academic efforts come at the same time as laws to introduce more efficient, more business-dominated governance for universities and more freedom for institutions to raise money from outside sponsors.

The first rector of Aalto, Tuula Teeri, appointed from her current job at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, is viewed as something of an exciting outsider who, together with Kone Oyj’s president and chief executive officer, Matti Alahuhta, chairman of the university board, will bring a strong “real world” influence to bear.

For Prof Ekman, overseeing progress in the laid-back, cross-fertilising, experimental space of the design factory, the small size of Finnish society and a lack of hierarchical thinking are aids to business innovation.

“We are so small, so far away; we have a bad climate and no treasures in the earth. We don’t have anything except intellectual capital and good education.

The knitting machine
© Financial Times

“It is often said that Finland is not really a country, it is a club,” he says. “Here, if a student is working on a project for Nokia, they can pick up their mobile phone and have a chat with the CEO.”

The merger has its critics: opposition politicians and disgruntled other regions fear that Aalto will attract a disproportionately large chunk of both state and external funding, and there are those who argue that some fields of research, as well as teaching and learning, are better left to their own devices.

But the team is convinced that, alongside their mainstream activities, most disciplines can benefit from the happy accidents that result from random, circumstantial encounters with different worlds.

For the students, says Prof Ekman, there will be a real world pay-off in learning through project-based, problem-solving study to respect and communicate and co-operate with professionals who have different mindsets.

“We can’t really explain what will happen at Aalto because we don’t know,” admits Prof Ekman, with frank laughter. “But we are trying to build something unique here.”

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