Co-creative ecosystems of research, innovation and entrepreneurship — the key to sustainable future

Tuula Teeri, President, Aalto University, Finland discusses the role of education and sustainability.

Oftentimes we focus a great deal of attention on teaching students what is already known, and place far too little emphasis on teaching students creative and critical thinking. I believe we should rethink education towards co-creative ecosystems, where students have the freedom to design their own curriculum and to drive innovation together with faculty and industry, collectively building a better future.

If you are looking for a model example of a win-win situation, industry-university partnerships fit the bill.

Evidence from several countries suggest that sustainable growth is best achieved through close, long term cooperation between industry and universities. Likewise, various indicators show that investments into research and collaboration between companies and universities have positive economic impact for businesses, boosting corporate turnover and employment. Many governments cherish this approach, trusting that technology innovation will drive national economic growth, with universities as the incubators of this national capacity.

National investments to create incentives for university-industrial partnerships will continue to have considerable future impact.

At present, the UN estimates that our global population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. We all know how tragic the outcomes of this scenario may become, unless we discover exceptional solutions for sustainable food production, smart energy, housing and transportation. I believe that building co-creative ecosystems of research, innovation and entrepreneurship is the key to finding solutions to the grand challenges our societies face.

In the Nordic Countries, collaboration between governments, universities, and corporations has long-standing tradition, and has played an essential role in escalating economic prosperity and societal wellbeing. However, sustainable growth requires a steady inflow of investments and continuous knowledge generation and innovation.

Regrettably, Finland is becoming an alarming example of how sudden and large governmental cuts into education and research will lead to rapid decline in innovative capacity.

Aalto University is a major force presently building competitive edge and aspiring to revamp Finland’s stance as an innovative society. To reach this, we believe in the power of combining knowledge from different disciplines — bringing together science, art, technology, and business. Our campus is becoming a thriving innovation ecosystem even from a global perspective. Every year, 70 to 100 new companies emerge from Aalto’s innovation ecosystem. These companies have created a significant number of jobs, innovations, and entirely new industries.

Industry partnerships at Aalto University take many forms. We cooperate with industry especially in endeavors to improve competitiveness, ranging from joint research ventures to course cooperation, industrial Ph.D. students, endowed professorships and exchanges of experts. Our multidisciplinary platforms, shared infrastructures, open innovation initiatives, and the thriving Aalto start-up scene all drive industrial co-creation, as does our partnership in the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT).

Industry partners help Aalto University enrich our educational curricula, and provide front-line corporate insight via guest lectures, student projects, internships, and thesis projects. Corporations win excellent access to future talent through successful recruitment fairs and to continued capacity building e.g. through Aalto University Executive Education. For the university, close industry partnerships play a vital role in ensuring support and resources for frontline research and education.

The innovation ecosystem around Aalto is now growing and constantly evolving. We aim to scale up our industry partnerships, to attract more companies to operate physically on-campus, and to share with companies our research infrastructures and technology, such as proto shops and IoT-competence. We also aspire to increase long-term strategic partnerships with both Finnish and international corporations for mutual benefit to boost economic growth and to generate new jobs.

Our work fostering co-creative ecosystems has not gone unnoticed: MIT’s Skoltech report highlights Aalto’s university-based entrepreneurial ecosystems as one of the top five emerging leaders in student-driven entrepreneurship and innovation.

In 2015 Aalto ranked #14 globally in the CWTS Leiden Ranking for industrial collaboration, and a recent report by Damvad consultancy showed that companies collaborating with Aalto University are highly productive, export oriented, knowledge intensive — and create more jobs than their average peers.

Aalto University’s innovation hub is set apart from many others by the active contribution of our students. Young people are often astoundingly apt in progressive thinking and coming up with alternative solutions. At Aalto, we see every day how important it is for students to work in multidisciplinary project teams in an environment that encourages entrepreneurship and corporate collaboration. A great example of the impact of our grass roots student initiatives is SLUSH, one of the largest start-up events in Europe and well known globally.

I urge all universities to foster co-creation that pulls together your students and researchers, established corporations and start-ups. Alumni are often key drivers in establishing corporate collaboration and entrepreneurial activity. For example, our student driven entrepreneurial activities are strongly supported by alumni coaches. Great interactions with alumni and industrial partners also create opportunities for building new capacity through donations and by helping to advocate new governmental initiatives. We must create bolder visions of industry collaboration that engage students, researchers and a broad range of industries — and use our time-tested ability to share scientific knowledge to also pass on our expertise in building university-industry partnerships.

CASE has an astute vision: Advancing education to transform lives and society. I think we would all prosper from taking this notion to heart — and when I say we all, I am referring to humankind.

Tuula Teeri is President at Aalto University, Finland. Tuula received the 2016 CASE Europe Leadership Award for her role as a leader who succeeded in creating a multidisciplinary university where science and art meet technology and business.