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Professor Mikko Jalas: ‘We must be able to imagine the impossible to find new perspectives’

Mikko Jalas has been appointed as Associate Professor (tenured) in the field of Co-innovating for Circular Solutions from July 2022. The professorship is a recent opening in the field of sustainability studies at Aalto University and it is shared between the Department of Design at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture and the Department of Management Studies at the School of Business.
Huppupäinen mies purjeveneessä katsoo eteenpäin, sää on tuulinen

What does your professorship mean? 

‘What's important about it is co-development, which means bringing unexpected parties together to find new perspectives. In design, this is done continuously, involving those who are affected by the design. User-centredness in all design is important. I think of the circular economy in terms of living with the changes in society: when we have a problem or a goal, we have to think about who should be involved in the design – who has an interest and who can influence it – and bring them together, in a process where there is a willingness to find a solution. The challenge is also to be able to look beyond topics and categories, to break free of boundaries and barriers. Out-of-the-box thinking can help us to find new perspectives, and also to question our own way of thinking.  

Circular economy is a good word to describe the basis of sustainable societies, because if its challenges cannot be solved, it will be difficult to achieve social sustainability, and vice versa. Circular economy is and should be a central part of the thinking of all designers: their job is to solve problems, and increasingly planetary problems. They need to have a holistic understanding and a sense of scale, even if their practical task can be to consider, for example, how to get households to sort and recycle better. For someone working with design, it is natural to understand business in a broad sense – to see how new technologies develop and expand in society. This professorship also shows that interdisciplinarity is key in these issues, and that management and design go hand in hand on many levels.’  

What brought you to Aalto?  

‘I studied Industrial Engineering and Management and life cycle thinking, although at the time there were no degrees in the subject, but we set out to develop the field in a student-driven way and did our theses on the subject. Later, I worked as an environmental expert at telecommunications company Nokia, but I found that I was more interested in topics concerning consumption and everyday life. So, I came to the University of Art and Design Helsinki (today Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture) to study the arts and crafts. I ended up doing my dissertation on the same topics at the School of Economics (today Aalto University School of Business) and did my PhD in 2006. Shortly afterwards, the Creative Sustainability programme for sustainable development was set up, which I was responsible for and have been running since 2015. 

So, environmental management, circular economy and life cycle thinking were part of my undergraduate degree at the time, and then I went down the design path. A big inspiration here has been the joy of making things with my hands and the satisfaction of doing something tangible. I've wanted to be exploring and actively dismantling the squirrel wheel of work and consumption. I have also taken the industrial scale of the circular economy seriously.’ 

What are the highlights of your career?  

‘For me, the most meaningful has been my time at the Department of Management, especially as a post-graduate student. It was an open academic community for whom central was the inspiration and motivation on what we were doing – what was counting is what we were trying to achieve. At the same time, it was clear that academic research had a special role to play in the society. My own dissertation was critical of environmental governance and consumer policy. Its conclusion was that we are part of the problem we are trying to solve. It is an entanglement that is difficult to break free from without critical thinking.  

I find those moments liberating, when I have realised that we need to be able to 'think the impossible', as Michel Foucault has said – to see that we are shackled by the structures of our thinking. Similarly, understanding that critical thinking is not only analytical but must also be creative and synthetic has been important.  

I may not be a traditional researcher, because I am not a very analytical person, but I feel that new-thinking and dissenting are my strenghts. I'm not saying that everyone in academia should be a dissident, but for me it's been natural. And university is also a place that gives you the opportunity to do that. Personally, I think that as a university we have to dare and be able to think differently. For me, this has been a promise of what we should try to do.’ 

Interdisciplinarity is key in sustainability issues, and management and design go hand in hand on many levels."

Professor Mikko Jalas

What do you research and why?  

‘Understanding the overall structure of society has been a long-standing research interest of mine. I have used qualitative methods and time-series data from Statistics Finland to study people who are trying to slow down their daily lives in some way. Now I am trying to do some research on the topic of shadow rhythms. For example, what is the impact of fluctuating electricity prices: how does it affect the use of services or the shifting of activities to night-time, and how does it affect the rhythm and quality of life of people, workers, and does it increase inequality? Some people can afford to live on prime-time rhythms, while others are forced to live on cheaper rhythms.   

In terms of the circular economy, it would be good if we were steered towards sustainable consumption, which means, for example, price controls. So, we’d be consuming when services are not so expensive. What about road infrastructure? It needs to be massive so that everyone can get to work at the same time. But what if we staggered the rhythm instead? How much natural resources do we want to invest for having a synchronised society, so that people do things at the same time? These are the things I want to explore. My previous research on time use has now been countered by the circular economy and its solutions. 

My other interest is biochar and the solutions it offers for carbon storage. It can be an alternative to the expensive and difficult capture of CO2. I have been working on the potential of biochar in cooperation with the City of Helsinki's Climate programme as well as with people who are responsible for the green infrastructures, both of whom have a strong interest in this issue.’  

What is topical in your field right now?  

‘Regenerative design is much on the agenda, so trying to do as little harm as possible and get a positive result is key. Also topical is the carbon cycle in the society, and this every designer needs to understand and conceptualise in order to do their work in a meaningful way. 

Degrowth research, with which time use research is also linked, is on the agenda as well: the growth in material use must be stopped and reversed. I think this is quite widely understood in the field. And, of course, there is an energy crisis again. The energy crisis of the 1970s taught us a lot, but since then we have had the unfortunate surplus production and consumption decades from 1980’s through 2010s!’ 

What are your expectations for the future in your field?  

‘I personally have a concrete goal and hope that the Finnish forestry sector will start to see that the forest industry's task is to sequester carbon. This cannot be achieved through wood construction alone, but there is a pressing need to understand that carbon sequestration is a priority. Biochar can be one opportunity for change here. It involves a major transformation of the forestry sector and the whole wood-using sector. 

I’m also expecting a broader understanding of the circular economy, like what the pricing and availability of services does to the rhythms of society, and what other effects they have. It is important to understand that in the pursuit of a circular economy certain market mechanisms are needed, but at the same time we need to be concerned about the accumulation of capital, so a critique of capitalism is justified.’  

Why should one study sustainable development?  

‘My field is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary sustainability studies, which is change-oriented and social impact-oriented. We need people with the ability to combine different ways of thinking and to bring different people together, because then something new always emerges. This is one way of studying sustainable development.’  

What other interests do you have?  

‘I'm interested in many different kinds of handicrafts, especially wood materials and woodworking. My favourite, most important and dearest leisure activity is sailing. I like being in nature, but there is also a technical dimension in sailing. I am a maker of objects and tools, and sailing is something that gives me a lot of scope for action on the water.’ 

Mies seisoo purjeveneen ruorin äärellä, vaatetus kylmää vastaan jättää näkyviin vain kasvojen yläosan

Who?  

Position: Associate Professor (tenured) of Co-innovating for Circular Solutions at Aalto University from 1 July 2022  

Age: 55  

Family: spouse, two adult children and a lapdog 

Hobbies: woodworking, renovation, sailing, freediving  
 

Contact:  

Mikko Jalas, [email protected], 0403538247  

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