Feelers out for the future

The university of the future is a competence centre that functions in ever-increasing interaction with society and the economy.
The illustration of the article presents three works of photographer Nanna Hänninen’s serie Life//PAINT which reflects the relation between photography and painting.

The university of the future is a competence centre that functions in ever-increasing interaction with society and the economy. European competitiveness, the creation of new jobs and innovations, increasing prosperity – these are big and difficult challenges that universities are expected to respond to. But how? We talked to three experts of science and research with practical experience on the matter. 

“Universities have never played as big a role as they now do. And it will just continue to grow because knowledge and expertise are becoming more and more significant. The university of the future will be a competence centre, like a church in the centre of town,” says Björn O. Nilsson, President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences IVA.

Interaction between universities and society will increase enormously, Nilsson predicts. This means that collaboration between teaching, research and other parties must evolve at universities.

Nilsson says the relationship between universities and new business is often seen as linear.
“The thinking is that first you research, then publish the findings and start to think about how to commercialise the results after that. This is a mistake that I've myself been guilty of in the past.”

A better analogy would be that of, say, a cloud, a uniform culture or ecosystem. This is because research has demonstrated that ideas, which generate fresh business activities, do not necessarily come to life within universities.

Close to universities, not in them

“Researchers at Stanford University have discovered that 80% of new business ideas come from somewhere else than actual university research. However, universities play an important role in nurturing the competence of their students. And new ideas are often born in the vicinity of universities, at startups launched by former students, for example,” Björn Nilsson sums up.

The Spanish ESADE Business School is an example of a university that aims to support the creation of fresh ideas. It offers dedicated training programmes that focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. In addition, interaction with the world of business is promoted by the spin-off company Creapolis, which leases premises to firms next to the university.   
“A modern university is complex and cross-cutting. Inter-unit boundaries must be shunned to the greatest extent possible. People from different walks of life, entrepreneurs, researchers and business leaders, need to be brought together to create a mix that enhances results,” ESADE Dean Alfons Sauquet says.

Professor Yrjö Neuvo has successfully navigated between the academic and business worlds. Today, he is in charge of the Aalto Energy Efficiency Research Programme. He, too, sees the relationship between universities and the world of research as one of interaction.

“Dealing with industry gives rise to ideas for research: aha, that's how they do it – could it be done in some other way? Teaching also becomes more relevant when teachers understand the needs of commercial life,” Neuvo says.

Basic research is a foundation

Björn Nilsson says it is the task of universities to produce excellent basic research, educate talented students for various roles in business and the public sector, participate in innovation hubs and train students for entrepreneurship.
Yrjö Neuvo agrees with Nilsson about the importance of basic research: state-of-the-art, internationally competitive research is needed.

“You need to keep your feelers out for the future, to have a feel for where the world's headed. Basic research is barter trade, an exchange of ideas instead of money. Knowledge is traded in talks with your peers, but you have to contribute something to the discussion,” Neuvo emphasises.

Neuvo leads a multidisciplinary basic research programme, which also strengthens cooperation within the university. Nine research projects, all of which involve researchers from at least three Aalto schools, are ongoing at present.

Examples of their research subjects are how to use cleverly-designed material nanostructures to losslessly retain heat for an infinite time or how to construct a heat insulating material that is better than vacuum.  

“The Aalto Energy Efficiency Research Programme improves the university's ability to respond to truly major challenges. Even if just partially successful, these projects would be revolutionary. Many of them go deep into physics, chemistry and materials science, but commercial and architectural viewpoints are often encountered at very early stages as well.”

After the basic research phase, the goal is for outgoing, more practically oriented studies to emerge. The aim is to get, for example, businesses, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation and international partners involved in this.

No need to master everything

ESADE's Alfons Sauquet underlines that universities should acknowledge their own strengths, the factors which generate added value for their partners.

“We're not so good in design or technology, but we understand how to manage innovation. And we cooperate with experts of other fields. For example, the Pasadena Arts Centre in California is amazingly good in design thinking,” Sauquet says in praise of this ESADE partner.

Pioneers are found in different corners of the world. Even though Silicon Valley is starting to become a somewhat worn out example of cooperation between businesses and universities, Björn Nilsson points out its strengths.

“More than half of Stanford University's faculty is involved in some form of business activity, for example as owners or board members. It is in fact expected of them, and people will wonder if something is wrong when a teacher does not participate in a business,” Nilsson says.

Sauquet says that interesting things are also happening at New York's Cornell Tech.
“They offer multidisciplinary degrees in two or three interesting fields, a post-doc programme in entrepreneurship and everything incorporates the digital aspect,” he lists.

Other research experts are looking towards Asia. Nilsson says that Sweden aims to increase research spending to two percent of GDP from the present level of around one percent.  

“China has recognised the importance of academic research and they are already at two percent and intend to raise spending to 2.5% of GDP,” Nilsson says in comparison.
Neuvo also has experience of China's willingness to invest.

“Over there, it's no problem to engage 100 or 200 researchers with doctorates in a single project. I visited a wireless telecommunications project in Shanghai. They built an entire telecommunications system of the future, starting from the microcircuits all the way to a functioning testing environment. Whether or not this investment translated into profits is another story, but they are certainly learning and constantly going forward over there.”

A model country with scarce resources

Yrjö Neuvo notes that Finland is a model country of cooperation between universities and society, especially if the results are viewed realistically in proportion to available resources.  

“Cooperation with businesses is more natural and diverse than in Silicon Valley. In addition, we're experiencing a magnificent startup boom that can be compared to the Valley – we're steaming ahead quite nicely.”  

Nilsson and Sauquet confirm the good reputation of Aalto University.

“Aalto has discovered a new way to stimulate students also after graduation with, for example, its startup activities,” Nilsson says.

“We at ESADE are prepared to copy things and will try to learn from the best. An example of this is the Startup Sauna – we're attempting to replicate it on a smaller scale,” Sauquet says.

Pictures: Nanna Hänninen from the series Life//PAINT

The original article has been published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 12. (

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