University of Helsinki’s HELSUS Co-Creation Lab Gets Future Experts And Businesses

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How will a sustainable and fair energy transition be realised? The question is anything but simple. This is why the energy company Helen jumped at the chance to consider the topic with master’s students of the University of Helsinki at the HELSUS Co-Creation Lab.

According to Maiju Westergren, Helen’s Vice President for Sustainability and Public Affairs, students’ observations in various fields of science are needed, as businesses’ perspectives on their own operations should be more than only technical or economic.

“We wish to understand how we can make the energy transition fair for our customers and stakeholders.”

Helen has a long tradition of cooperation with the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS), and the company has previously participated in the Co-Creation Lab too. According to Westergren, the programme offers businesses the chance to establish contacts with future experts and gain access to new knowledge.

In practice, the collaboration means that students of various disciplines take up in their master’s theses sustainability problems highlighted by businesses. While the theme is predetermined, the students are free to choose the specific topic independently.

“Our philosophy on this is that we don’t want to push students too much in a certain direction,” says Helen’s Research and Development Manager Jussi Uitto.

Having your research findings utilised is rewarding for students
Elisabeth Mäkiö is one of the students who wrote their master’s thesis in the Helen group. A student of the Master’s Programme in Environmental Change and Global Sustainability, Mäkiö was attracted by the chance to tackle real-life challenges. What she finds particularly wonderful is that her thesis will not be left to gather dust on the bookshelf.

“An external party with the power to deploy the solutions I have proposed is involved in the process.”

Mäkiö chose a solar park designed for Järvenpää as the topic of her study, seeking to determine how citizens can make their voices heard in similar projects. The project began with the outlining of the research questions and continued with sparring provided by Helen’s representatives. The group included other students from whom Mäkiö received peer support. All of this helped to set the rhythm for writing the thesis.

“It made it easy to mark down deadlines in my calendar.”

Businesses get to peek outside their bubbles
In addition to the energy transition, the students at the Co-Creation Lab this year sought solutions also to challenges facing other organisations. Metsä Group, for instance, wanted to hear the views of future experts on how the forest industry can promote sustainability.

“It’s been easy to be part of the process as a business. The master’s thesis topics are of interest to a number of people across Metsä Group, and completed theses help us distribute new knowledge and understanding extensively within the company,” says Katariina Kemppainen, Metsä Group’s Senior Vice President for Research and Development.

According to Environmental Specialist Aninka Urho of Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY, the municipal authority, which had been looking for solutions to the urban nitrogen cycle, gained new perspectives on their data from, for example, humanities research.

In contrast, Valmet wanted to explore with students what kind of machines will be needed in the future.

“Sustainable development is one of the focus areas of our company. We wanted to hear new ideas at the Co-Creation Lab from people with whom we don’t usually collaborate,” says Heikki Kettunen, Senior Manager for Research and Development at Valmet.

Observations in master’s theses should be made available to the entire organisation
Who is the Co-Creation Lab for? Mäkiö would particularly recommend participation to students who have not yet decided on their thesis topic and who have a broad interest in a range of topics.

“If you come from a field other than sustainability science, this is a really great opportunity to expand your skills.”

Uitto and Westergren both believe that participating companies should above all reserve enough time for supporting students. Also worthwhile is channelling observations made in theses into various units of the organisation and enabling their utilisation in business development.

“It shouldn’t just be about writing five master’s theses for someone to leaf through. Observations should genuinely be integrated into company operations,” Uitto points out.

Uitto and Westergren recommend the Co-Creation Lab to other businesses as well. They both consider the chance to be inspired by students’ ideas and to look at the world with new eyes as the most rewarding aspect of the collaboration. Processing abstract themes into insightful theses offers interesting vantage points from outside your bubble.

“It’s really refreshing,” Westergren sums up.