China wants the most skilled

Yrjö Sotamaa and Aalto University have succeeded where others are still trying.
China wants the most skilled.

They have established their place in relation to the economic giant whose education system is undergoing rapid reform.

In 2007 Yrjö Sotamaa received a phone call which fundamentally reorganised his plans.

'I had done a lot of cooperative work with Japan and Korea, but I didn't have any plans to go to China. Out of the blue I received a call from Shanghai, from Tongjin University, asking me to lecture on Finland, design, and the meaning of design. And then I received from them the task of gathering an international team of experts and planning the world's best school of design, which would be part of their university', Sotamaa recalls.

His plans made an impression on the Tongjin University President, Mr Pei, and the work began in earnest. Then the phone rang a third time.

'I was requested to come and help run the school. I considered the matter together with my wife, we took a visit together to get to know Shanghai, and then we decided to accept the offer', says the Aalto University professor emeritus with a smile. He has now been living in Shanghai since 2009.

From copying to innovation

The world's best design school is part of China's comprehensive plan to make the shift from sub-contracting industry to innovation industry. The education system was created according to the Soviet model, and it is not now capable of educating the modern-day experts desperately need by the country unless some fundamental renovation work is carried out.

Sotamaa mentions his surprise at how smoothly and quickly things move forward in the five-thousand-year-old culture.

'Chinese people are very pragmatic. They look for the most talented people, listen to their ideas, and seize hold of those that seem good without delay. In Finland, on the other hand, a group is always established which then ponders every possible opportunity and threat, worries about funding and makes extensive calculations. When everything is ready, new matters have already arisen which should be taken hold of. The Chinese start to act straight away – funding is found and problems are solved along the way.'

Sotamaa and his group were give a free hand in the planning of the school. There were two important principles: focusing on the large social questions and attracting the best people.

'Enabling sustainable development is the most important issue. This, as with anything else, does not happen without the right people. The success of any university depends of them: the talented and ambitious teachers and students. The recruiting process is always challenging; it isn't possible to find all the required skills from inside the country. Nor is it a self-evident matter that good students will be obtained. Young people in China are very much aware of the impact of a university's reputation on their career, and their parents are particular about which university they will put their money in. We have gradually succeeded in building our reputation, which then helps to attract talented individuals, which then further improves our reputation', Sotamaa concludes.

Rather like a dating relationship

Yrjö Sotamaa acts as Professor and Advisory Dean at Tongjin College of Innovation and Design's, and is actively involved in the school's development. One important task has been the strengthening of cooperation between Aalto and Tongjin. It is no coincidence that the first stage in the expansion of the Aalto Design Factory network involved Tongjin University.

'This is a bit like any dating relationship', says Sotamaa with a smile.

'First we get to know each other, and then as trust grows we start to do great things together. We already have a double degree program, professor-led cooperative projects, and both student and teacher exchange programmes. We have also planned a joint design and innovation institute, separate from Tongjin University. This institute's activities would be founded on double degree programmes and doctoral training. This is one of the key projects for China's and Shanghai's Innovation Driven strategy', he reveals.

Cooperation with Aalto is highly regarded in China, and local businesses have also been actively participating in the development and funding of education programmes. Yrjö Sotamaa emphasises that a functioning relationship does not just develop by itself. After all, everyone is now knocking at the door of the Chinese. This is no surprise: the focus for world development has shifted to Asia, Africa, and South America, and China is the driving force in this. Cooperation offers many opportunities to Finland, but what's needed is the ability to take hold of them.

'We have a tendency in difficult situations to turn inwards, when we should be doing exactly the opposite', Sotamaa stresses.

'China faces large environmental and energy-related challenges, and there is demand for Finnish skills in solving such problems. But the matter is not just a financial one. China is about so much more than communism, commerce, and corruption; we can learn from China a lot which will help in the development of Finnish society and its future.'

Aalto University Professor Emeritus Yrjö Sotamaa acts as Professor and Advisory Dean at Tongji College of Innovation and Design.  He worked as President of University of Art and Design Helsinki from 1986 to 2008, and as the Executive Vice Director of Tongji University's Sino-Finnish Centre from 2010 to 2014. Mr Sotamaa received in 2014 the Chinese Government Friendship Award, the highest recognition given by the Chinese Government to foreign experts.

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