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Inspiring people to think laterally

Aalto University
Aalto University was founded to open up new opportunities for multi-disciplinary teaching and research. Developments in one area can easily trigger and inspire work in others. Inspiring people to think laterally like this is also the philosophy behind the university’s MIDE programme.

Aalto University was created in 2010 from the merger of the Helsinki School of Economics, the Helsinki University of Technology, and the University of Art and Design Helsinki – which have come together to form six schools, all leading and renowned institutions in their respective fields and with a combined 300-year history behind them.

The name Aalto was chosen to symbolise change – it is the Finnish word for wave – and as a tribute to the architect Alvar Aalto, a true renaissance man in his own right and the creator of the street plan and main buildings of the university’s Otaniemi campus.

Aalto is a foundation-based university, funded primarily by the state but with donations from individuals, companies, and other foundations, accounting for over a third of its revenue. The university currently has close to 20,000 students enrolled and around 340 professors on its staff. Its four schools of technology account for the large component, and have a total of nearly 14,000 students.

Aalto’s ambitious goal is to be one of the leading institutions in the world in research and education in its disciplines, by leveraging the individual expertise of its six schools – the School of Economics, the School of Art and Design, and its four Schools of Technology: the School of Engineering, the School of Chemical Technology, the School of Science, and the School of Electrical Engineering – and encouraging collaboration between them. Proactive cooperation with other universities, research institutions, companies, and others is also given high priority.

By realising the full potential of its multi-disciplinary identity – and its strengths in computation and modelling, materials research, design, and ICT and media – Aalto believes that it can tackle pressing global issues in new ways and through new types of research environments, such as its factories. Aalto’s Design Factory, Media Factory, and Service Factory act as platforms to combine the expertise of different Aalto schools in these fields and facilitate new forms of collaboration between academic teams, researchers, students, companies, and communities.

Encouraging people from different disciplines to work together in new ways is central to the philosophy of both Aalto University and the MIDE programme, says Tuija Pulkkinen. A specialist on research in the near-earth space environment, space plasma, and the Aurora Borealis, she joined Aalto at the beginning of this year. Photo: Peter Herring.

Focusing on digitalisation and energy

The Multidisciplinary Institute of Digitalisation and Energy (MIDE) research programme predates the creation of Aalto University, as it was launched in 2008 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Helsinki University of Technology.

“While it predates Aalto, its philosophy is a perfect fit for Aalto’s, according to Tuija Pulkkinen, Dean of the Aalto School of Electrical Engineering, one of the schools particularly closely associated with the programme.

“MIDE is based on two broad themes and 11 competitively selected projects that range from carbon nanotubes through hybrid machinery, LED lighting and fuel cell electronics to 3D virtual worlds. While these represent some very different areas of research, they’re all linked by the cross-disciplinary way that they’re organised and their focus on synergies, not least with industry.

“The breadth of the different subjects being covered in MIDE also reflects the interconnections that exist within a single field today, such as energy. And it's designed to engage the potential inspiration and enthusiasm that can come from bringing people together from different specialities and getting chemists to talk to electrical engineers and programmers to talk to social scientists and so on.”

The underlying aim of the five-year programme is to strengthen the competitiveness of Finnish industry, research, and training on the global market, and benefit education in the fields concerned. MIDE’s focus on digitalisation is designed to explore the potential that ICT offers in generating new ways of thinking across virtually all fields of technology, while its energy focus is designed to address more basic areas of research linked to improving how efficiently and sustainably the world generates, stores, distributes, and uses energy.

Helping turn good research into good business

Good progress has been made on the various projects, says Pulkkinen, and the programme’s first doctorates are expected soon. Positive progress has also been made on extending synergies with the business world through the Bit Bang course on entrepreneurship and services for doctoral students. This is being run within the MIDE programme and is concentrating on building skills such as teamwork, global perspectives, and foresight.

“Good research does not result in good business automatically. Nor should it, necessarily,” continues Pulkkinen.

“But what’s important is that people in the research world have a better grasp of what’s needed to turn good work into viable business opportunities – if that’s the way they want to go and it’s the way the research is taking them. After all, of the thousands of students that pass through a university like Aalto only relatively few stay in the academic world after graduating.”

Aalto University’s School of Electrical Engineering specialises in areas such as automation and systems technology, electronics and information technology, power engineering, wireless communications engineering, and bio-information technology.
> Written by Peter Herring for Aalto University
(Published in HighTech Finland 2011)