Design for science in Finland

By guest author Valeria Azovskaya, Designer, Aalto University Materials Platform, Finland

“Collaboration between scientists and designers is not yet a very common practice. Visualisation is one of the tools materials researchers could easily adopt from design practices to explain complex scientific ideas and concepts.

Design can help in many different ways: It can provide support for a journal publication (photos, data visualisation) and prove helpful in drafting a funding application (graphical abstract, visualisation of research proposal) or a collaboration proposal for potential partners (detailed and self-explanatory presentations). Finally, design methodology can be employed at the very beginning of the scientific process and become an integral part of scientific research. Design and design methodology matter a lot, especially when scientific research is developing novel and unfamiliar concepts that extend far beyond the foreseeable future.

As a designer, I am very lucky to be and work in Finland – especially at a higher education institute where the spirit of cross- and multidisciplinary collaboration is in the air. The traditional and evolving design fields and methodologies create a stimulating environment for one to develop and master their professional skills and match them with their interests.

The focus on materials research in the Finnish context provides a great field for experimenting and trying out new ways of working, very often in close collaboration with scientists. There are many promising materials studies being conducted in Finland. Many of these are directly related to extremely urgent global matters: the recycling and life cycle of materials, decreasing the amount of plastic and replacing it with environment friendly materials, researching sustainable and efficient sources of energy, improving life quality, and purifying air and water.

Traditional Finnish natural resources and materials – forests and wood – are being researched and re-thought, and they are expected to play a major role in the local economy in the near future. It is not just paper and construction materials that are being considered; they really can be part of any industry, and the sky is the limit.

Collaboration with designers helps scientists to create both novel and tangible concepts, create links between today’s realities and tomorrow’s opportunities, and broaden the horizon for innovations.

This collaboration should continue and prosper in future. We need each other and have a lot in common. Experimenting and entering the unknown are the basics of scientific and design discoveries. Trial and error is the infinite course of inspiration.”

Born in 2017, the Materials Platform is a think tank that receives input from stakeholders inside and outside Aalto University in relation to materials research, education and outreach. The Materials Platform channels activities to foster multidisciplinary efforts, networking and visibility. Everyone interested in materials research is welcome to join the activities.

At Aalto University, there are over 60 professors related to materials research, and their expertise in these areas covers a wide range of fields: from condensed-matter and materials physics, nanoscience and nanotechnology, mechanics and materials to the sustainable use and processing of natural resources. Aalto University’s materials research thus contributes to diverse applications in ICT, energy and health technologies, business and design, and many other areas.

The materials research at Aalto University is well-established in excellence: Publications in materials science at Aalto are cited 55 % more than the world average (MNCS 1.55). 17.8 % of our publications belong to the most cited 10 % in the world (Top 10 = 17.8 %). Aalto hosts two Academy of Finland’s Centres of Excellences and over ten on-going ERC grants related to materials research. The annual budget of the materials related research at Aalto is 75 MEUR, from which one third comes from external sources. See the pages

Aalto University’s seven key research areas consist of four fundamental competence areas and three integrative multidisciplinary themes

The key research areas particularly relate to promoting and maintaining Finnish competitiveness and welfare through renewal and entrepreneurship. They define university’s academic profile by guiding its tenure track allocations, major university-level research initiatives, infrastructure investments, educational activities, and other investments.

1. ICT and digitalization

Aalto University represents 25–35% of the scientific publications and university education in the field of ICT and digitalization in Finland. This forms the foundation for Aalto University to spearhead Finland’s drive towards digitizing many aspects of society – from new consumer services to media, entertainment, education, health care, retail, and several areas of industry.

ICT and digitalization research relates to both theory and practice, computational and mathematical sciences, software and hardware technologies, secure communications, digital media, digital services, and digital engineering and management across technologies and industrial sectors. This combination provides an excellent launch pad for interdisciplinary innovations. For instance, digitalization and social media are topics which may only be profoundly understood via multidisciplinary viewpoints combining arts, business, science and technology.

2. Materials and sustainable use of natural resources

Aalto University’s expertise in the area of materials covers a wide range of fields: from condensed-matter and materials physics, nanoscience and nanotechnology, mechanics and materials to the sustainable use and processing of natural resources.

Aalto University’s materials research contributes to diverse applications in ICT, energy and health technologies, textile design for fashion industry, and many other areas of industry. The innovations based on materials research provide great opportunities for Finnish and international businesses.

3. Art and design knowledge building

Knowledge building activities in art and design at Aalto University can be characterized by a quest for a human approach in any topic. In this way, the university bridges different areas, such as art, technology and business.

The cultural approach taken by Aalto University focuses on experiences and on sensory and hands-on skills and knowledge. The aim, here, is to find new ways of solving supposedly impossible problems, to contribute to the wellbeing of people, and to have a positive impact on wider society.

At Aalto University, artistic and design activities are closely linked to the research carried out in the technical fields: many of our art-based researchers do not focus on new technologies or their development, but rather on the use of technologies within art and other socio-cultural contexts. In addition,  art and design knowledge building activities include technology-based actions related to systems design and sustainable development.

4. Global business dynamics

Research carried out at the university addresses a range of issues related to the dynamics of a global economy. Cutting edge research is carried out in the areas of business, economics, and industrial engineering and management. Much of the work is done in close collaboration with Finnish industry.

Aalto University’s research contributes significantly to the competitiveness and renewal of Finnish industry and serves to help policy decision making.

5. Advanced energy solutions

Energy-related research is widely carried out at Aalto University. The main research focuses are energy sciences, multidisciplinary energy technologies and energy and the environment.

The research in these fields includes advanced and renewable energy technologies; efficient, eco-friendly and reliable energy production systems, distribution and use; as well as monitoring and understanding our environment.

The results of energy-related research contribute to Finland’s energy policy and have global outreach through sustainable energy solutions and a wide range of energy innovations and applications.

6. Human-centred living environments

Aalto University is developing interdisciplinary research to enhance the planning, design, and testing of better living environments. The goal is to better understand how individuals experience their physical environment and how art, spaces, buildings, and communities can enhance this experience.

The challenges of urbanization, efficient use of resources, the aging population, and multiculturalism, as well as the opportunities offered by digitalization, business services and the experience of nature, are all included in this multi-dimensional research.

The results of the research provide useful knowledge for societal development.

7. Health and wellbeing

Aalto University’s health and wellbeing research mostly focuses on neuroscience and -technology, functional magnetic imaging, biomedical engineering, bioinformatics and computational medicine, as well as on health and wellbeing technologies and management.

A large share of research in this area is done in close collaboration with the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital. Their expertise in medical science and clinical research complements Aalto University’s primarily technology-oriented approach.

Health and wellbeing is an area where a great number of innovations are called for. At Aalto University, basic research results are developed into innovations, applications, and services for end users. In this way, research is responding to societal needs. The university also aims to be a contributor in the massive renewal process facing the university hospital district of Helsinki region during the next decade.