Fighting the flames – better together

The fundamental questions of sustainable development are integral in our business research as well, says Professor Minna Halme.
Professor Minna Halme. Photographer: Veera Konsti.

At the end of 2017, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a chilling warning to humanity: the amount of available freshwater has reduced by 26% over the last 25 years. The polluted and anoxic areas of the oceans have expanded by up to 75%. Almost 300 million hectares of forest have been converted to agricultural use. Population growth is up 35%. Carbon dioxide emissions and the average temperature are growing constantly. The numbers of different animal species are down by up to 58%.

When, on top of this, you hear that some four billion people survive on less than five euro a day, that two to three billion are expected to rise to the consuming middle classes by the end of the 2030s, and that the number of urban residents is going to increase manifold, as will energy consumption, natural resource exploitation and climate-burdening emissions, you start to pay close attention to what Professor Minna Halme has to say. She is Professor of Sustainability Management at Aalto University and a Finnish pioneer in researching sustainable innovations. Halme actively promotes the objectives of her research area also in practice.

“Cooperation is what’s missing from this equation. Picture a burning house, where someone is trying to put out the fire with a squirt gun, somebody else with a toy bucket and a third person using a shovel, all the while trying to convince onlookers and the building’s residents about the superiority of their own method,” she says.  

“Our attitude towards sustainable development is like this burning house dilemma. We are aware of the threats of climate change, species extinction, poverty and inequality, but we are trying to resolve them using narrow and insufficient means. One person believes that sustainable development will be achieved if we just invent a carbon-dioxide-free technology for burning wood. Another will swear by a financial solution: all we need is a system where the ecological externalities are included in prices. I, however, hold the view that the complex challenges require collaboration and very serious and involved multidisciplinary research that has a societal impact.”

Market of scarcity

Sustainable business is about new types of ecologically-efficient service concepts, which don’t so much aim to produce specific products as to examine the needs that target them.

“We create and research ecologically-efficient and sustainable operating models, but not products per se. Our goal is to get the teams fighting the Earth-destroying fires to cooperate with a greater objective in mind: find out what needs to be done so that fires don’t get started in the first place,” Halme says.

The story of the common light bulb provides a good example of ecologically sustainable service provision. Back in the day, light bulb manufacturers discovered that their profits increased when they shortened the service life of their bulbs. But today’s pioneering illumination vendor sells light instead of bulbs! The service concept guarantees that the customer has access to functioning lamps. And when the lamps needed to produce light are durable, the vendor also benefits. This is a win-win scenario – with nature winning as well.

The New Global project

Halme says new types of ideas are needed especially for low-resource, but developing markets. This is what she has been working towards in recent years in the New Global project, which brings together four schools of Aalto University. The project researches business-based and poverty-reducing water, energy and housing innovations that are suited to resource-poor environments. This project, which has opened doors for Finnish companies, has also developed new ways to conserve nature – and natural resources – particularly in Tanzania, Kenya and India.

Among other things, Minna Halme’s research group has provided assistance to a project by Ahlstrom, a Finnish company which manufactures fibre materials in Tanzania, that focuses on water purification. The Nanomaji filtration solution is based on a nanotech-filter and requires no electricity. For households, it is cheaper than boiling water and does not create health-detrimental particulate emissions like the current practice of boiling water using charcoal fuel.

For its part, Finnish company Slidetech has frugalised its saws to the needs of Tanzania’s small-scale forest industry. Slidetech’s equipment enables an 80% increase in plank yield from logs when compared to the poor-quality Ding Dong sawblades commonly used in Tanzania.

Indian solar power company Boond has cooperated with Aalto energy researchers and the New Global project to develop intelligent solar energy metering for poor villages in India.

“The innovations of scarcity, so-called frugal innovations, get started in situations where there is little money and materials. They are resource-efficient, simple, easy to use, durable, empower individuals and communities, create jobs and help alleviate poverty,” Halme describes.

A good example of an innovation of scarcity is the Nokia 1110, which only performs the original basic functions of a mobile phone. It is in great demand on the African markets.

Many companies around the world are seeking new markets, and many firms already operating in the developing countries want to improve their business practices in a more sustainable direction. Several European countries are ahead of us in this process. In Finland, debate concerning the role business can play in alleviating poverty has, according to Halme, only gotten started in the last few years. With this in mind, Halme and Sini Suomalainen have co-authored a guide that instructs Finnish companies on how to innovate for the developing markets.

Hub helps grasp totalities

At the start of 2018, Aalto University established the Aalto Sustainability Hub to promote and enhance the effectiveness of interdisciplinary research and teaching in sustainable development. More than 50 professors and researchers participated in the creation of the Hub, which now brings together some 300 Aalto experts whose work involves sustainable development. Professor Halme serves as its director.

The Hub approaches the challenge of a sustainable society through innovation and entrepreneurship. One goal is to integrate responsibility into all of the University’s teaching by 2020. Key pillars of the Hub’s activities are the circular economy, creating things together and using the campus as a living laboratory.

“We emphasise producing solutions in an inter- and supradisciplinary manner: through cooperation between researchers of different fields and in collaboration with other societal actors.”

Among other things, Hub researchers consider the reuse of materials, create solutions for producing clean water in conditions of scarcity and explore how poverty could be alleviated as well as what it would actually mean to create an economy that aims for this in conjunction with, for example, climate funding.

The Otaniemi campus serves as a living lab for researching sustainable energy solutions. Some of the buildings utilise geothermal heat. The NPharvest water research project studies the recovery of nutrients from fluid waste. It utilises the water and environmental technology lab’s expertise and equipment in the recovery of phosphorous – among others things by installing separating toilets at some campus properties. 

The three theses of Minna Halme
1.    The ecological and social problems of sustainable development can be viewed as sources of innovation. By radically renewing their products and business models, companies can contribute to the solving of these problems and thus discover new markets.
2.    The circular economy sees the world as a system in which humanity and nature intertwine in countless ways and where systemically balanced solutions should be promoted.
3.    Frugal innovations empower individuals and communities, create jobs and help ease poverty.

Text: Eeva Pitkälä. Photo: Veera Konsti.

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 22 (issuu.com), April 2018.

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