Finland’s Aalto University (est. 2010): institutionalizing interdisciplinary thinking for innovation in the knowledge economy

Yesterday’s Financial Times included an informative story (‘Merger with innovation at its heart‘) on the development process of Aalto University in Finland.  Aalto University is being created through the merger of three existing institutions – the Helsinki School of Economics, the University of Art and Design Helsinki and the Helsinki University of Technology – and will formally open in January 2010.

As the FT puts it:

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.

tuulateeri1The website for Aalto University (named after Alvar Aalto) suggests that the new university will have (based on aggregate statistics from 2007) 19,200 students (1,140 of them foreign) and 4,150 staff (53% in teaching and research), with an annual budget of EUR 296 million (61% from the Ministry of Education, 39% from external financiers). The first president will be Professor Tuula Teeri (pictured here), currently Vice President, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden.

This approach to higher education formalizes and institutionalizes (at a scaled up level) what some programs or schools are currently attempting to do in many countries (see, for example, Susan Robertson’s entry ‘A creative combination: adding MBAs and art schools together to increase innovation‘). Yet there are also historical precedents: one of my European Commission colleagues noted, for example, the similarity of Aalto University’s development agenda to the origin ideas behind the MIT Media Lab.  And I can’t help but think that the merge will also reposition these universities (or, university) in the European and global rankings exercises…while not the reason to ever do anything as bold as a merger, the rankings factor is unlikely to be irrelevant.

While the development process for Aalto University will probably not be as seamless as the FT article implies, despite being guided by a well thought through “Transformation Organisation“:

aaltotransformationorg

Aalto University is shaping up to be a fascinating experiment; one well worth examining, and also comparing to smaller scale initiatives in other contexts, or different foci initiatives such as the new (built from scratch) King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

Finally, see below for a 22 page slide show produced by Aalto University, which is available here in PDF format.

Kris Olds

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