What universities could do to interact more with other communities?

*** Disclaimer: I am employed by Aalto University, but my opinions below do not necessarily reflect university’s official stance. This post should be taken as a contribution towards building a thriving academic community that is embedded in a social setting. ***

I had the pleasure of starting my Saturday with some presentations by Transdisciplinary Design’s students during the Interact 2013 event, and that made me think about how we interact with our local communities in Aalto and how we have approached the ongoing campus relocation process.

Aalto University was established some three years ago by merging three universities (design, technology, and business) and one of the main challenges was to merge these three separate universities not only mentally but also physically. This meant that most of our activities were and will be relocated to Otaniemi, Espoo during the next few years, meaning that students and faculty currently studying and working in Helsinki need to rethink their journey between home and university. Relocating units and shuffling the deck every now and then is good and in this case it – to a large extent – makes sense as the Otaniemi campus was the largest one of the three prior to the merger. Plus building a huge campus from a scratch in Helsinki would be almost impossible (given that our university wants to be located conveniently). However, there is a challenge that I feel is overlooked in terms of relocating the business and design campuses from Helsinki to Espoo: namely, what happens to the communities in Helsinki after the schools have been relocated?

While supporters of this move have been claiming that the relocation is not that dramatic geographically (roughly 15-30 minutes more commute and some 10km), it is nonetheless a huge step away from the community because the community doesn’t follow. And with community in this context I mean people, firms, organizations, and other spaces that are embedded in the same context with the schools.

This counterargument – that we are neglecting our community – has been often heard in debates concerning the campus relocation process, but I feel it has been used more or less as a rhetorical tool to justify why people don’t want to work in Espoo. As it is now I feel the same! Vibe and atmosphere in central Helsinki are completely different from the feeling I get when I’m in Otaniemi. I like our Otaniemi campus, but let’s face it: it’s damn boring.

So what could we do to improve our relation with the local communities in Helsinki? And here I’m mostly talking about the business school perspective as that’s where I spend 95% of my working hours. Although education in Finland is free and hence the educational institutes are open to everyone, I don’t think we have been that efficient in opening our campus to external people. For example, we don’t have bars within the school (although this is a common practice in Copenhagen Business School, for instance!), not enough workshops that are open for public, and finally no general spaces that facilitate interaction between students, faculty, and external people. 

Here’s my suggestion (greatly inspired by the talks earlier this morning!): organize spaces and events within the school’s premises that are open for public. I know, it’s generic, but it’s a start anyway, right? If we want both design and business school to continue to have presence in Helsinki, we need not only political will to do so, but most importantly grass-root activism that aims at bringing the schools closer to the communities they are connected to. And here I’m not only talking about firms – I think we’re good at that – but also NGOs, consumer-citizens, and other spaces.


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