Tapio Lokki: You can always find another way

In the ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, Tapio Lokki, Head of the Department of Information and Communications Engineering and professor of acoustics, talks about his orange jacket and the inspirational skills he learned at Retuperän WBK and the Student Union’s Representative Council
Tapio Lokki and the orange jacket, photo: Olli Suutela.
Photo: Olli Suutela.

Can you share a story about your work?

In my research group, we have been developing our understanding and measurement of concert hall acoustics. When Musiikkitalo in Helsinki opened, I knew that the acoustics weren't as good as was indicated in newspapers. In the conductor's podium, the acoustics worked, and therefore the conductors were doubtful about my thoughts. But based on the vast experience, research and understanding, I was sure it wouldn’t work.

In Musiikkitalo, the dynamics and the music stay on stage all the time. The audience just follows what's happening over there. It's a bit like watching TV at home. The music doesn't surround the audience. You can hear the different instruments, but the piano chords are loud, and the fortissimos are really soft. If you sit a little further away, the experience is a bit half-hearted. 

In the best concert halls, the quiet playing stays on the stage and the loud playing comes over the top, surrounding the audience on all sides. In Lahti, for example, the situation is completely different, where the audience can be immersed inside the music.

And what is the story of the orange jacket?

A friend of mine from the Student Union’s Representative Council and Humpsvakar used to live in Beijing, and we were visiting their family spring 2011. At a local tailor, I saw an orange corduroy fabric, and ordered a custom-made Wappu jacket for myself.

Tapio Lokki gives a keynote presentation at the main conference of concert hall acoustics in Toronto in 2013. Photo: Jukka Pätynen
The keynote presentation in Toronto in 2013. Photo: Jukka Pätynen.

In 2013, I gave a keynote presentation at the main conference of concert hall acoustics in Toronto. At that time, we presented a new way of thinking about how to assess and measure concert halls. At the beginning of the presentation, I was wearing a dark green Marimekko corduroy suit.  In the introduction, I explained that history looks like this and now we should go in a different direction. At this point of the presentation, I put on the orange jacket. I wore it for the rest of the day at the conference, thinking it was a joke.

However, at the next conference everyone asked me where the orange jacket was. It then became a brand colour for our research team. Since then, I have always worn the orange jacket at conference presentations. People in our field know it all over the world. Otherwise, it's my Wappu jacket.

What's it like to walk in Tapio Lokki's shoes?

If I look at my own career, the skills I learned in the Student Union’s Representative Council and as a chairman and artistic misleader at Retuperän WBK are the skills I need as a department head: how to get along with people, how to lead a group, how to motivate people and get them do something without getting paid. A role model is important.

These skills you don’t learn in lectures. On the other hand, I use the skills when I give a lecture, for example to keep people interested. I can sense if students aren’t able to keep track of a lecture. I then go back a bit and think about what might make them interested. I prefer to approach things through a practical example. Similarly, if playing was too difficult at Retuperä, it was not worth telling the players to practise at home. Instead, we could try playing three times slower – it could be fun. You can always find another way.

Without Retuperä, I probably wouldn't have come up with the orange jacket either. Retuperä taught me to think about whether there was a way to turn something upside down. When I was a kid, I didn't necessarily have that much self-confidence. It grew in the student union when I learned to take responsibility for organising big parties in Dipoli or Retuperä concerts at the Finlandia Hall.

What are your experiences of merging different department cultures?

The Department of Media Technology and two other School of Science departments became part of the huge Department of Computer Science in 2015. We lost the good spirit of the Department of Media Technology and a reasonably small and integrated community where people gathered every Friday for coffee, buns, and presentations.

I realised then that my research was too far away from the core areas of the new department, and I started to gravitate to a research position in acoustics at the School of Electrical Engineering.

The departmental merger of 2023 combined two departments of the same size at the School of Electrical Engineering, both with about ten professors. The two departments already had a joint bachelor’s program, and the merger was a smooth one. The new department didn’t destroy the old department cultures either.

Tapio Lokki celebrating Wappu in 2019, photo by Olli Juusela

Without Retuperä, I probably wouldn't have come up with the orange jacket either.

Tapio Lokki

How would you describe yourself as a leader?

I'm often drifting into leadership roles, and I take on the role of a coach. My team consists of all the professors in the department, and my job is to create the best possible conditions for them to run their own research groups. In the same way, I also coach my own research team. I’m most effective when I have a good team and experts around me. I don't have to understand everything myself.

I’m not strict or demanding as a leader, I'm more a conciliatory team player. I come from a family of five sons, and you never got anywhere by having a tantrum.

How do you describe group diversity and cross-disciplinary cooperation?

In the concert hall study, my team had expertise in basic acoustics, signal processing, psychology, statistics, and architecture, and one of them was a graduate pianist as well. The best combination comes from people having different backgrounds and areas of expertise. It enriches your thinking. The problem is that it requires an insanely large amount of funding. At the time I had Academy and ERC projects which enabled 4-5 years of funding for many researchers.

Now, my group is quite small and I'm moving into a new research field in addition to being a department head. Together with Jaana Vapaavuori’s group, we are designing acoustic materials made of cellulose, for example oat peels. This would allow us to recycle bio-waste. Porous materials are also used in silencers, for example in air ducts. We try to understand and learn from each other with chemists.

What would you like to change at Aalto?

When I started as a department head, first at the old and now at the merged department, I was not asked what support services I needed and who I got on well with. I’m not the supervisor of any of the support staff, and I had no say whatsoever in what services would be provided and who I would be working with. The service managers made those choices for me.

I feel that there could be a better understanding at university level of how a research team works and what the day-to-day work of a professor is like. Instead of all the different development projects, we could need a bit more flexibility and money that can be spent freely.

Do you do anything special in your free time?

Now I spend most of my time playing and competing in disc golf. Disc golf is a sport where I can still improve when I'm over 50, because it's a technical sport.

Interview and text: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

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Walk in my shoes

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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