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Annukka Svanda: It's important to challenge yourself to do hard things

Annukka Svanda, PhD researcher at the Department of Design, talks in a ‘Walk in My Shoes’ interview about Competence Centre for Highly Educated Immigrants, the impact of the government's new policies, and how she believes that all capable people have a responsibility to make the world a better place.
Annukka Svanda, photo by Linda Lehtovirta
Annukka Svanda near her favourite place on campus, a pen and paper shop called Aalto Pahvi. When writing doesn't seem to be going well, you can pick up some more colourful pens at the stationery shop! Photos by Linda Lehtovuori.

How did you get into your field?

I first applied to Aalto to study industrial design in 2000. I wanted to support the accessibility of quality design. For me, that means making everyday life smoother through inventive usability. I wasn’t admitted to Aalto, so I started a career in clothing. I studied for a degree in tailoring at what is now called Stadin AO, Helsinki Vocational College and Adult Institute, and worked in luxury clothing in Paris.

But I had to return to my original idea of making the world a better place, so I applied to Aalto again. I started my undergraduate studies in 2013, and now I have been working on my PhD for almost three years. The dissertation is about leveraging service design to support social justice. 

When I started, I had ethical and fair design equality or quality accessibility in mind. Pretty quickly during my undergraduate studies I realised that it is possible to design services and public services. It struck a chord with me. In my work, I specialise in the inclusion of special user groups, such as the elderly, families with children, people with disabilities and, later, people with foreign backgrounds. There are so many special user groups, depending on the situation, and at any given moment anyone can need something special in terms of accessibility.

Can you share a story about your work?

I work with people, and my dissertation is in cooperation with the City of Espoo's employment services. We originally set out to investigate the inefficiency of matching: why were there open vacancies and unemployed people with qualifications at the same time?

Highly skilled immigrants are the most underemployed group. They are also often in jobs where the job content does not match the level of education. Then we are talking about ‘brain waste’, whereby the economic benefits to society are not used - let alone the impact on the well-being of the individual. Espoo has one of the largest and fastest growing immigrant populations in Finland. In less than ten years, probably a third of the residents will be of non-Finnish or Swedish-speaking origin.

The aim is to investigate what can be done in the employment services of the City of Espoo to increase the employment rate of highly skilled immigrants. As the first in Finland, we have developed together the Competence Centre for Highly Educated Immigrants (Koske). In its first two years of operation, it has employed more than half of its clients in a job in their field – that means hundreds of people.

Service design involves participation and inclusion - the best usability is achieved through co-design. The Koske service was designed with the involvement of its users before it was launched. By users, we do not only mean unemployed migrants, but also service providers, city planners, employers, and educational institutions. So, it took a very wide range of perspectives to achieve an outcome that benefits everyone involved – the employment outcome speaks for itself.

To quote the city people, we saved years of work with participatory planning. Instead of guessing what people need, we asked them directly in interviews and workshops how they see it. The City of Espoo has been a truly wonderful partner, a place to work and play. Espoo representatives are supportive and enthusiastic, and we have a lot of fun together. Now, in October, the City of Espoo will join us for a panel discussion on the social impact of design at the European Academy of Design conference.

Annukka Svanda, photo Linda Lehtovirta.

I had to return to my original idea of making the world a better place, so I applied to Aalto again.

Annukka Svanda

New government policies have to do with employment of immigrants. Is this a cause for concern?

The government's guidelines are proposals for changes over the next four years, including changes to residence permits that are against to the EU's fair integration measures. Whether these changes will happen is another matter, but people's concerns are understandable. At the same time, there has been a phenomenon that has empowered many to say out loud: this cannot go on. For example, companies with many international employees have been involved in demonstrations against the suggested government policies.

We have been working with these politics for many years in developing services for migrants. It comes to the surface in different ways and in different forms, which can be shocking. Injustice, racism, and discrimination are present in Finnish working life. When these issues are brought to the surface and made visible, they become easier to work on. For example, in terms of fairer recruitment methods, we can consider whether a starting employee needs to have a full command of Finnish or not at all.

The fact is that Finland will not have a so-called native Finnish population to keep the Finnish economy stable or growing. The economy will decline if the immigrant population is not considered in employment in a sustainable way. This means offering the immigrant population the opportunity for equal participation in working life. And this is precisely what I’m looking at in my thesis: how equal justice is or is not achieved, and how the right kind of support can be given to achieve it.

What’s it like to walk in your shoes?

I choose to do exactly what I’m doing. I could still be in Paris selling expensive suits to rich people if that was my choice, but it's not. Doing a PhD is also a choice - there are a variety of jobs available for design graduates from Aalto. Thanks to Tuuli Mattelmäki for sparking my interest in pursuing this important topic.

I believe that those of us who can and are capable have a duty to work to make the world a little better place all the time. For example, we can try to improve the situation of those who are not so well off. I’m part of the service design teaching team and I feel a moral responsibility for the things we should try to promote. When students choose a topic for their master's thesis, they can go on to work with a large corporation or a service provider for people with disabilities, for example. It’s a conscious choice.

It's important to challenge yourself and do hard things. Doctoral research is not a Sunday picnic, but it doesn't have to be painful either. If you work on important and meaningful issues, it is motivating. Academic research is its own kind of mystical jungle - perhaps it can be approached a little more lightly through the motivation of work.

Annukka Svanda, photo by Linda Lehtovuori.

I could still be in Paris selling expensive suits to rich people if that was my choice, but it's not.

Annukka Svanda

What do you think about belonging in the Aalto community?

We are always interacting with our environment. I feel that people at Aalto are basically quite capable, knowledgeable, and skillful. It is the responsibility of Aalto to create opportunities, but the individual person is responsible for the experience. People can express if they don't feel a sense of belonging. But whose responsibility is it to create it? People should have the motivation, the ability, or the means to say, I want to take this initiative to support the sense of community. I do not want to say that it is people's fault if they do not feel that they belong. That is not the point.

Culture impacts this experience. Culture is not just about what country you come from, but whether you are, for example, a mother or an introvert. For example, the Aalto community should work to support an environment where both extroverts and introverts are considered.

I have invited colleagues to my home for dinner and to the cottage to garden. I have also organised events and helped people to take initiatives. We have organised discussion groups in our research group. Often the problems are related to a variety of issues, such as job descriptions or funding. If there is a problem with the sense of community, it may not be solved in one discussion.

For many, the years of pandemic increased the sense of loneliness. I've looked at what we have to offer to support the Aalto work community and have taken part in mindfulness sessions through Zoom, for example. There was also an Oasis of Radical Wellbeing event in our research group. The aim was to bring wellbeing and support services to everyone's attention.

What do you do in your free time and why is it important to you?

I’m with people because I’m a social animal and all social interaction is interesting. I have two children, friends, and family. I can't really avoid them.

We have held an art exhibition with another researcher, Markéta Dolejšová, about the relationship with food. For one week, we took people via Zoom to different places where food is being produced. The broadcasts were part of the Pixelache festival, and after that we have been planning to produce a cookbook called something like ‘how to relate to food’. The aim is to raise people's awareness of where food comes from and create a debate about their own relationship with food.

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Walk in my shoes

If you would like to share your story for the Walk in My Shoes series, please contact Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne. Walk in my shoes is part of the Aalto Cultural Development project led by Carita Pihlman.

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