Collaboration and continuous learning
Risto Sarvas educates socially aware and agile digital experts. Anna Mikola integrates wastewater treatment into the circular economy to create a growth platform for new innovations. Their five-year professorships have both been established with donations received by Aalto.
‘The workplace of the future needs multi-skilled people who can adapt to change and are not afraid of uncertainty,’ says Professor of Practice Risto Sarvas. He leads Aalto University’s Information Networks study module, which combines business and IT expertise with understanding of societal phenomena.
Sarvas is a respected and award-winning teacher who is continually developing new teaching methods. In the Information Manipulation course, students play the bad guys from James Bond movies and think about different ways to disrupt society using information technology.
‘We learn to better understand how to influence with information when we spend some time pretending to be the bad guys lurking online. At the end of the course, students come up with ideas for combating the villains’ evil plans,’ Sarvas says.
Sarvas opens the doors between the university and working life. Approximately 40 companies, public actors and organisations participate in the teaching. There are many forms of cooperation, ranging from practical project work to student mentoring and visitor lectures.
‘Ideas are exchanged and bounced around by all those involved,’ he says. ‘The students are the university’s treasure trove and the experts of the future. They also have a lot to offer to people who are far on in their careers. Recruitment becomes easier too when students get to know prospective employers during these courses.’
Some courses operate with an open door policy. The course in Facilitating Change was so popular that the sign-up had to be closed once the number of workplace representatives grew to hundreds.
Learning must be maintained
In his teaching, Sarvas emphasises that entities must be understood as a whole, and that the ability to act in the midst of uncertainty is very important. ‘The future is shrouded by fog. So the ability to handle uncertainty is an important work community skill.’
It is also essential to understand how to organise and act as part of a larger group. ‘Social skills are not just the icing on top of technical engineering skills, but rather a core competency in themselves,’ says Sarvas. ‘You can’t read everything from books. You also need to get your hands dirty and work on something together with other workplace representatives.’
Learning does not end with a degree. Companies and organisations live in the midst of changes brought about by global challenges. ‘From the point of view of company competitiveness, it is essential to maintain staff competence and organise oneself around continuous learning,’ he says.
‘The young people in our degree programme are just the best,’ says Sarvas. ‘It’s great that every year we get to send out into working life dozens of socially and ethically aware Bachelors and Masters of Science in Technology.’
‘Risto genuinely listens to students to try and understand how they experience instruction and to develop the courses continuously. I got some very good personal support from Risto for my Bachelor’s thesis,’ says Ilona Rahnasto, student of Information Networks.
‘In his teaching, Risto utilises plenty of his knowledge about working life. Guest lecturers, project topics and course teachers have come from around the corporate world. This strengthens students’ experiences of their own identities and enhances their future employment prospects.’
New technologies for wastewater treatment
Sewage treatment plants are becoming versatile resource plants. Before, wastewater was just purified, but now valuable nutrients and energy are being recovered too.
‘The fight against climate change is strongly linked to the way societies handle their water. New technologies can reduce the carbon footprint of wastewater treatment and promote the circular economy. At the same time, new business activities are being created in the field,’ explains Anna Mikola, Professor of Practice for Municipal Wastewater Treatment. ‘In the research projects being carried out, even a small waterworks can effectively achieve big things when the university, companies and waterworks join forces,’ she says.
One part of Mikola’s research is the removal of contaminants such as microplastics and pharmaceuticals from wastewater. ‘In addition to harbouring antibiotic residues from the human body, wastewater also ends up containing bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The risks of the growth of these bacteria must be brought under control,’ says Mikola.
Improving the world
The NPHarvest process developed at Aalto produces recycled fertiliser from wastewater and saves both energy and natural resources. The technology has been piloted in Finland and will now be tested out in the circular economy district of Helsingborg, in Sweden.
Processes for recovering phosphorus from wastewater are also being developed in Paris, a city of over 10 million inhabitants. This Aalto-led project involves a number of companies and includes waterworks from both Finland and France. ‘If Finnish companies want to succeed, it is important for them to understand the needs of other countries. This insight needs to come as early as the research stage,’ says Mikola. There is plenty of demand for water sector experts. Even today, almost 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is discharged directly into the environment. Aalto is equipping world-class experts to combat this.
Mikola never has any second thoughts about the meaningfulness and significance of her work: ‘I am in my dream profession, one where I can truly make the world a better place,’ she says. ‘What’s more, the fact that the treatment of wastewater combines expertise from so many fields makes the work even more fascinating.’ In her teaching work, she always takes great pleasure in seeing how a student’s eyes light up when they get enthusiastic about something, such as their own Master’s thesis. ‘Every year, I get to see freshly graduated Masters of Science in Technology setting out to continue developing their field,’ Mikola says.
‘Anna’s professorship of practice played a decisive role in my coming to Aalto as a doctoral researcher,’ says doctoral student Maria Valtari.
‘She is a recognised figure in the field and a true professional who is endlessly interested in new trends and in developing the field. Her extensive networks provide excellent starting points for conducting meaningful research to the benefit of all parties involved in the collaboration.’
Text: Marjukka Puolakka
Donors for Risto Sarvas' professorship
Accenture, Accountor, CapMan, The Boston Consulting Group Nordic AB, the City of Espoo, Futurice, Inventure, KPMG, Reaktor, Sofigate, and the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation.
Donors for Anna Mikola's professorship
Helsinki Region Environmental Services HSY, the Land and Water Technology Foundation, the Development Fund of the Finnish Water Utilities Association, HS-Vesi, Vaasa Water, Mikkeli Waterworks, Lappeenranta Energy, Kuopio Water, Porvoo Water, Jyväskylä Region Treatment Plant, and Turku Region Treatment Plant.