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Kari Tammi: When we are lean enough, we have time to think without rushing

In this ‘Walk in My Shoes’ interview, Kari Tammi says it's hard to find size 49 shoes, let alone motorcycle boots, but they're good to walk in. The new dean of the School of Engineering believes that Aalto’s rules are just right for an odd and absent-minded person like him.
Kari Tammi, photo by Kalle Kataila.
Photos: Kalle Kataila and Kari Tammi.

You started as dean of the School of Engineering in July. What path have you taken to become dean?

In Otaniemi, I did a major in mechanical engineering and a minor in electrical engineering. After graduation I worked at CERN, and from there I moved to VTT. I did my licentiate thesis in mechanical engineering and my PhD in automation and systems engineering. I was also a postdoctoral researcher in the US. I came to Aalto in 2015 as a professor of mechatronics. Mechatronics combines mechanical, electrical and computer engineering.

Can you share a concrete story about your work?

The development and brainstorming day for the whole staff of the school went beyond my expectations. We asked the staff what works well and where there is room for improvement. So many people came, and I was impressed – even moved.

We came up with a total of 900 ideas, and it’s impossible to take them all forward at once. Three hundred of them were things that work well and six hundred were ideas for improvement. The ideas focused on issues such as operations, hybrid working or improving school facilities.

After the development day, we had a month to prototype our ideas and then we met again. Once again, we had a huge turnout. The people were also engaged and in good spirits, and the quality of the ideas was good. The feedback will help to develop the school.

Kari Tammi, photo by Kalle Kataila.

Why do you think people turned up in large numbers?

Well, we did spam quite a lot by email. But I would like to think that this was the first event of its kind in the history of the school. I doubt that in the past ideas would have been solicited from the whole staff. The experience was so encouraging that we might consider organising it every year.

What particular emphasis will you place on in your work as dean?

At the development day, I launched the concept of ‘leaning actor in global challenges’, with the elements ‘lean’, ‘excellent’ and ‘happy’. Happy in this context means having sufficient confidence that the work will go well and won’t be done in survival mode.

The growth in student numbers has been huge, and we have to make sure that the workload is fairly distributed. I feel that many rapid changes, such as a change in the number of students, doctoral or international students can cause a big fuss. We need to be lean or agile enough to cope with change without outside help. We need to have enough slack time. Otherwise, even a small disruption, such as illness, can cause problems. When we are lean enough, we have time to think without rushing.

Based on staff surveys, we're doing okay, but maybe people could be a little happier. That would fuel excellence and innovation. It would allow us to see beyond the task we are doing currently.

As for student well-being, I would argue that well-being is to some extent contagious. If a teacher is relaxed, it will be transmitted to the students. I believe there is potential for a positive spin, even though there are many things that I don’t understand and perceive in the context of the larger phenomenon. However, rush and hecticness aren’t good, especially for a young person.

Kari Tammi, photo by Kalle Kataila.

Can you describe yourself as a leader?

Perhaps it would be better if someone else described it. But maybe I'm just odd and absent-minded. Fortunately, there are pedantic people here to support me. My own thinking is far off, though I don't know if I'm particularly visionary. But I do tend to plan further ahead rather than closer.

You do beekeeping and study energy efficiency. Are they related in any way?

My father was a beekeeper by profession, and bees have been kept on the farm since the 1920s. When my father died, I thought I would continue keeping bees until the centenary. Now, a hundred years have passed, and so far, I have continued. I enjoy being out in nature, and I am also very aware of declining bee populations. 

Energy efficiency is important to me. We teach mechanical and civil engineering, land use, and town and country planning at the School of Engineering, and approximately 15% of the Master of Science in Technology students graduate each year from our programmes. All areas of engineering are important for achieving the various sustainable development goals. For example, mechanical engineers design a wide range of equipment, and they should take into account sustainable design and renewable energy.

Students of civil engineering will basically decide what infrastructure we will have in a hundred years in this country and perhaps in quite a few other countries. For example, when we start rebuilding Ukraine, we can think about how to make a sustainable city. And if a civil engineer designs a house, hopefully it will last longer than the houses of the 70s.

Aalto's management and evaluation system is relatively kind, and the rules are just right for an odd and absent-minded person like me.

Kari Tammi

How have you changed Aalto?

Energy-efficient and intelligent transport may have been my contribution. There wasn't much research on energy efficiency in transport and transportation in Aalto before I started. We managed to find a pretty good strategic angle for smart transport research – thanks to me or despite me. For example, with the School of Electrical Engineering, we are jointly researching an automated car. But you rarely do things on your own – I've somehow managed to find good partners.

What would you like to develop further at Aalto?

I've been thinking about whether we could see something in a new way to better respond to the huge challenges facing society. Often that would mean closer cooperation between schools. Putting different technologies or solutions together that could be more than the sum of their parts. 

The tenure track system and the goal of excellence make research fields narrow by definition. It isn’t worth being a researcher in the intermediate areas, because it’s not so recognised worldwide. Attempts have been made to address this through entrepreneurial themes and better linking stakeholders to Aalto. But we could rethink the applications and innovations. For example, do we have enough prototypers.

Kari Tammi, photo by Kari Tammi.

What is it like to walk in your shoes?

I can't complain too much. My shoes are big, size 49. So, they're good to walk in, but they're hard to find.

Aalto is a pretty calm and safe environment to work in. The management and evaluation system is relatively kind, and the rules are just right for an odd and absent-minded person like me. Sometimes my concentration span can be a bit short.

What inspires you about meeting people?

Often in a conversation you will find a new, even humorous idea or point of view. For example, the best thing about being a professor is working with PhD students. There's a lot of drive and new ideas. The energy of young people is fun, and it's nice to think about how to frame something into a new scientific discovery.

Outside of work, however, I find that I prefer to listen rather than explain myself. I enjoy motorcycling, although it's not very ecological. But when I go somewhere in my motorcycle gear looking a bit blown away, I don't have to stand still for very long before someone is already asking where you're from, where you're going, what you do for a living and how fast the motorcycle is. Last summer, for example, in Tohmajärvi, Parikkala and Rautjärvi, there was first a tough interrogation, and then they started explaining their own stories. It's fun, because in Otaniemi we’re in our own bubble.

The motorcyclists are a bit strange-looking, and they wander around petrol stations. I ride my motorbike quite a lot on my own, so I'm an easy target.

Do you want to share a moment of failure and what you learned from it?

I started my story with a development day that went well. But we had a smaller ideas session at VTT many years ago on a project for a company. We did a huge matrix there and chopped up ideas in excel. Suddenly, the computer got a Windows update, and I answered the question wrong. The whole matrix disappeared, and with it the result of the day's work. It was quite embarrassing. I then tried, tooth and nail, to rewrite it.

A few times I've wondered whether these 900 ideas from our development day were now safely stored. But luckily, we have a more conscientious development manager than me.

Interview and text: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

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Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian.

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