May 25, 2011

Where science & art meet technology & business – Yrjö Sotamaa interview

Professor Sotamaa had a major influence on the Finnish University Reform in 2010 when a global precedent was set - the Aalto University was created through the merger of three leading universities in Finland: the University of Art and Design Helsinki, the Helsinki School of Economics and the Helsinki University of Technology. That is how the unique interdisciplinary University of Science and Technology Alvar Alto, that will educate experts for the future, was founded.

Finland was among the first to successfully implement the strategic approach to the integration of innovation and design in every aspect: academic, legislative and economic. Our collocutor Yrjö Sotamaa was its initiator and one of the main creators of the  User-driven Innovation Strategy of the European Union and the Finnish National Design Strategy Design 2005!. Professor Yrjö Sotamaa has been involved in art and design education and research for over forty years, he served as President and Professor of the University Art and Design Helsinki (TAIK) for twenty two years. During this period TAIK became one of the worlds leading art and design universities.

The Finnish Design Year 2005 celebrated design in Finland with events and a campaign. The aim was to improve the recognition of design, promote business opportunities and push the use of design as a competitive edge for businesses.

He is currently Professor and Advisory Dean in College of Design & Innovation at Tongji University (China) and Executive Vice Director of the Sino-Finnish Centre at Tongji University. But he also serves on the Boards of the Danish Centre of Design Research, the Finnish-Swedish Academy of Industrial Design, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation and the Helsinki World Design Capital 2012 and the Arts-based Research Program PEEK of the Austrian Science Foundation. He is member of the Scientific Committee of the Japan-Finland Program, the Court of the Royal College of Art, the Editorial Boards of Asia Design Journal (Korea) and All Design Magazine (PRC) and the Steering Group of the China Culture Export Program.

Yrjö Sotamaa. Photo: Pentti Sammallahti.

We are shifting toward socially led and human-centric innovation


In some governments there is still low awareness of the value of design and the contribution of the creative industries to the country’s economy. By „low“ I mean no adequate strategy, and therefore, no vision nor appropriate budget. How would you describe the contribution and the future of the creative industries regards national competitiveness?

Yrjö Sotamaa

I have been very happy to see how the awareness of the potential of design has been spreading in the world in recent years. The successful examples of Finland, Denmark, UK, Korea, New Zealand, Brazil and many others have encouraged new countries to create design policies and strategies. The Innovation Union, which EU recently adopted, will create greater awareness of the potential of design and spread the thinking in the EU. Once the awareness grows, the resources will follow.

Design thinking is a key asset of the new innovation paradigm, in the shift from technology led innovation to socially led and human centric innovation thinking. It will also play a key role in exploring the new possibilities of the digital era, where opportunities for immaterial design grow rapidly. The 21 century will be an era of design thinking.

Visualization of the project's process. Photo: Aalto U.

Cooperation is the key of prosperity


During your lifetime work experience you have influenced major changes in Finland’s economy and society as an academic leader. Please, disclose the secret behind all these successful cooperations that resulted even in a recent university reform in Finland and Finnish national art and design strategies.

Yrjö Sotamaa

I learned from my mentors and collaborators Victor Papanek, Buckminster Fuller and Antti Nurmesniemi that it is our obligation to take reponsibility of the future development of our societies and the planet. Papanek told us to ask «do we use our resorces for solving the right problems», Fuller told us to «think globally» and Nurmesniemi tought us to «understand the great potential of design in building better societies».

Students at Aalto University. Photo: Aalto U.

Universities should not be monasteries in isolation, but powerful participants in the society. They should use their material and intellectual resources for creating a better world. As a University President and Professor I was always building an active cooperation with industries,  NGO’s, ministries, research institutions, cities and other universities. My lifetime mission was seeking creative cooperation with others and through cooperation make others understand the enormous potential of design. Design is too often misunderstood only as a decoration.

Union of Innovation&Design in Finland


As you worked on the EU User Driven Innovation Policy and the reinforcement of the position of design in the Finnish Innovation System, the obvious connection between design and innovation came to the surface. Please, describe us what kind of platform have you created in the strategies to make this symbiosis workable in the real world.

Yrjö Sotamaa

Design policies can be divided into two categories: promoting the past or creating new knowledge and insights. In many countries the policies are aiming only at the promotion of good design (the aesthetic outcome), without explaining the benefits or impact of good design or the ways design can help companies to become more innovative. The aim of the Finnish Design and EU Design Policies have been to promote design thinking as an important innovation driver.

Lecture at Aalto University.

Harvesting from a network of “bridges“

The key idea in the Finnish Design Policy was to invest into the creation of new knowledge through high level research. The Finnish National Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation TEKES,  the Academy of Finland and the industry have invested 30 million euro into design research (Design 2005 Program). This is a massive amount of money. Maybe more important than the money itself are the networks of universities, companies, design consultancies, research institutions and researchers, which have been built to implement the research programs. These networks are extremly valuable assets for developing design. An important element in the building of these policies was my long time cooperation with one of the most experienced Finnish industrialists, with whom we were able to build a bridge between design, innovation and competitiveness.

Classes at Alvar Aalto University. Photo: Aalto U.

University born for Innovation – „Alvar Aalto“


It is well known that old mechanisms are hard to change. You have been building bridges across Finnish society and among different disciplines for years. How did you succeed in activating change in the academic fortress, thus creating Alvar Aalto Univesity?

Yrjö Sotamaa

Antti Nurmesniemi spoke often to me in the sixties of his frustrations in working with engineers and business people in industry. Innovation processes failed often because people did not understand each other. I have launched several interdisciplinary programs with the University of Technology and the Helsinki School of Economics to create a better understanding between different disciplines as to improve the innovation processes. The most famous of these is the International Business Management Program IDBM, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary. Several times IDBM has been ranked by Business Week magazine to be one of the top design programs in the world and praised by students to be their best learning experience.

The great success of the interdisciplinary programs like IDBM encouraged me to think beyond single programs and consider strategic cooperation between universities. The future will be very different from the past and the problems we are facing are very, very complex. This means that we need to cluster resources, we need totally new competencies and skills and a capability to integrate different types of knowledge in solving the wicked problems (environment, energy, food, diseases, unemployment, crises, etc) and in creating new opportunities (the digital era, sustainable growth, etc).

The Aalto University was created through the merger of three leading universities in Finland: the University of Art and Design Helsinki, the Helsinki School of Economics and the Helsinki University of Technology.

Merging Three into One

Universities need to rethink how they teach, do research and become aware of what kind of problems they are engaged with. The urgent need for change and my positive experience of the interdisciplinary programs encouraged me to think bigger: merging three excellent universities into a new «innovation university». The time was right for a radical new idea and we were able to use the «window of opportunity». For the first time universities, the government, the industry and various organizations worked side by side to build the flagship of Finnish University reform. I am sure that a similar idea would not be possible today. Times have changed.

Practising photography at TAIK (Aalto U.).

Tradition of a good team playing


Was the cooperation between the academic, state and business world always present in Finland or was it perhaps triggered by some events in the society?

Yrjö Sotamaa

Finland has a long tradition of good team playing. A small country where people know and trust each other. And we are especially good in creating new strategies and playing together at hard times. But still the cooperation between the academics, the state and business in creating Aalto University was unique. It is rare that industry and government decide to make a huge investment (700 million euro) into a new university. In most countries governments are cutting budgets. It is also rare that the goverment gives the universities a high amount of authonomy. Aalto University is a private foundation.

Tatjana Bartakovic

Tatjana Bartakovic

Editor in Chief of Design Agenda. Works as Design curator and writer but mostly living from the work in public relations, branding and content marketing.

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