Summer school created sustainable concepts for the future through co-design

How can circular economy and co-design promote real change? Aalto ARTS Summer School sought answers to this question and offered a broad perspective on how we can work together to tackle the biggest challenges of our time.
Summer School student group smiling and hopping down the stairs at Aalto's Väre building

The Aalto ARTS Summer School, held for the first time 1–12 August at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture, brought together around 50 participants: international professors, students and experts from different fields.

The aim of the course, themed around sustainable development, was to increase understanding of the biggest challenges of our time and how change can be achieved through cross-disciplinary collaboration. Over two weeks, the course focusing on the circular economy and collaborative design produced visions, concepts and solutions for the future.

The summer school also brought together seven universities from around the world. This year, the partner universities of Aalto University's School of Arts, Design and Architecture were Singapore University of Technology and Design, Technológico de Monterrey, Parsons School of Design (The New School), Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Politecnico di Milano ja Delft University of Technology.

The theme of co-design is reflected throughout the course design, as the course content has been created in close cooperation with partner universities.

‘Planning the course collaboratively has been rewarding and, what is best, it has ensured that students have the opportunity to get a comprehensive and rich coverage of the most topical issues’, says Kirsi Niinimäki, the professor in charge of the summer school.

Towards multidisciplinary solutions through co-design

During the two weeks, international and multidisciplinary workshops and lectures were organised to help understand the kind of change needed to transform the current linear economy towards a circular economy. The workshops and lectures covered topics such as materials and products in the circular economy, systemic concepts of the circular economy and the role of future scenarios.

Learning and working in the summer school took place in groups where different backgrounds and cultures met. The students were both bachelor and master students and experts in a variety of disciplines from all over the world: designers, coders, fashion designers and architects.

Co-design was a way of bringing together skills and interests, solving burning problems and creating shared visions and concepts for the future. The work was conceptual, yet practical: participants were able to experiment and prototype in a number of workshops at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture.

We also need to see what system products are designed for, and how we can make the whole system better and more sustainable."

Professor Kirsi Niinimäki

Professor Cynthia Lawson Jamarillo from Parsons School of Design, USA, introduced the participants to the theme of participatory planning: who are you planning for, are you only planning for a privileged population? Whose voice is heard in planning? Are we forgetting some groups of people?

Professor of Sustainable Design Jeremy Faludi from TU Delft, The Netherlands, challenged the students to go even further: to consider the whole system in which the designed product operates and what impact it has on it. The Whole System Mapping model, he says, is all about linking the systemic picture to the concrete action. He says students have been commenting it has been helping them to see the bigger picture and in guiding them further in their designing and conseptualising.

Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design, Jeongki Lim’s most important message to the students was to make them think how their works reflect their values and count toward the future they want to realize. He says the students did excellent work collaborating with new colleagues and expanding their capacity. ‘I anticipate their experience at Aalto ARTS Summer School will shape their future studies and career.’

Kirsi Niinimäki says that the circular economy is a necessity, and the system level is a key aspect:

‘Instead of designing individual products, we need to look at the system into which products are designed, and how this system can be changed to be better and more sustainable.’

Creative concepts for the future

Composed by Vivek Thomas (SUTD), Luisa Medina Martinez (Monterrey) and Myrthe Coster (TUDelft), MELVIN was a ‘dual problem’ project: initially focusing on the collection and recycling of PET bottles the project and secondarily in the use of the recycled material in 3D printing hubs spread around Mexico city.

Also concerned with the issue of accessibility in Mexico, the BathPath team – composed by Casandra Esteve (Parsons), James Leo (SUTD), Jorge Ortegon (Monterrey), Elisabeth Vesanto (Aalto) and Håkon Skorge (AHO), focused on water usage, disposal and waste, proposing alternative means for controlled usage on to vertical farms in circular buildings where the water is managed drop-by-drop.

The third group, Extremely, was formed by Jenny Lyngstad (AHO), Diego Perez Nova (PoliMi), Kacey Tang (SUTD), Paola Rivera Teniente (Monterrey) and Even Nilsen (AHO) and created a futuristic scenario for 2035 where humans must deal with extreme heat conditions through sustainable practices (like for instance sleeping during the day and doing the traditional activities at night).

The final group Fashion Scenarios proposed a reality where a Ministry of Fashion Affairs is responsible for limiting the amount of garments to five pieces per person. Formed by Letizia Bosco (PoliMi), David Quijada Fernandez (TUDelft), Fernanda Ordorica (Monterrey), Lu Chen (Aalto), Mónica Sánchez (Monterrey), and Wiktoria Lucarz (TUDelft), the speculative scenario provided sets of rules to be followed, legal and illegal activities and alternative design interventions through DIY (do it yourself) and traceability tools.

Summer School students made a trip to Nuuksio forests
The Summer School also made a field trip to Nuuksio National Park near Helsinki

Intensive yet rewarding

‘The course has been very intensive but rewarding. The days have been full of lectures and workshops, but we have also had time to see the city’, says Isabel Castro from Politecnico, Italy. She felt that she learned a lot from the fast-paced group work and about justifying her own ideas.

‘This has been absolutely one of the best experiences of my life!’ cried Izzy Kostrzewa from Parsons School of Design, USA. She was delighted to be able to work extensively on circular economy issues with other interested people and to take advantage of Aalto University's workshops in a variety of ways.

Paola Rivera from Technológico de Monterrey, Mexico and originally Colombian Diego Nova from Politecnico di Milano, Italy also enjoyed the interchange with course mates and teachers. Paola was pleased to find that the discussion was lively and there was a change to ask plenty of questions. Diego said he had learned that it is important to use imagination and look to the future in his own design work: ‘It is not always necessary to look for final solutions in the present moment–-by looking boldly to the future, good ideas can emerge.’

The Summer School at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture has received a grant of almost €950,000 from the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation for the period 2022–2024, with the aim of increasing skills in cross-creative collaboration and radical creativity, as well as providing new openings that will enable more students to develop their skills in an international environment.

‘This Summer School will further strengthen our network of international partners in the creative industries and create a new opportunity for international student mobility’, says Dean Tuomas Auvinen. ‘The Summer School created new international contacts that I hope will have a lasting impact on both students and teachers in developing circular economy solutions.’

Professor Kirsi Niinimäki praises the cooperation between the universities as experimental and rich in content and hopes that the cooperation will lead to a creative fields’ summer school model and an open access online school.

‘Circular economy is an important and topical subject, and the tools and means for working on it need to be distributed as widely as possible’, states Niinimäki.


Professor Kirsi Niinimäki: [email protected], +358505693359
International Relations Manager Iina Ekholm: [email protected], +358504420722
Coordinator Venla Luukkonen: [email protected], +358504733594

Aalto-yliopiston opiskelijoita Aallon kampuksella, kuvaaja Unto Rautio.

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