Salla Jokela: Future challenges are so complex that solving them requires multidisciplinary groups, collaboration and new kinds of learning

There is no discipline that can single-handedly solve extensive problems such as climate change, which is why researchers and experts must be able to cooperate and work with people from different backgrounds.

“How do we make cities increasingly pleasant by using art? And how do we make people feel safer or support their wellbeing through urban planning? These are among the challenges currently being tackled by university students.

New kinds of learning highlight actual problems, which are examined in multidisciplinary groups and project-based courses.

Working together, sharing knowledge

Researchers talk about ‘wicked’ and ‘fiendish’ problems. They are not easy to identify and define, nor are there clear-cut right or wrong solutions to them. Such problems include climate change and many issues related to urbanisation, such as pollution and increasing inequality between residential areas.

Problems of a wicked or fiendish nature cannot be solved by any single discipline, making it necessary to have the ability to conduct collaboration across boundaries: for instance, urban ecologists and humanities scholars can together consider how to support the identities of different areas and their ecological diversity through park development, for example by creating suitable habitats for pollinators. Working together and sharing knowledge are precisely what is central to learning in the future.

University studies should make students realise that it is also possible to share the cognitive burden resulting from trying to navigate an increasingly complex world. Researchers are also encouraged to come down from their ivory towers and to cooperate with other researchers, as well as with various interest groups, such as the inhabitants of a certain city district or city employees. Cooperation is needed for scientific knowledge and practical activities to better support each other, increasing the benefit of such knowledge to society.

I believe that in multidisciplinary groups students learn more about their personal strengths than they would if they only studied with other students in the same field. It develops their professional identity, while at the same time students learn to appreciate the expertise of both students and experts in other fields.

Nordic City Challenge and Urban Academy – models for problem-based learning and multidisciplinary cooperation

The Nordic City Challenge, for which I work as one of the organisers, is a model for multidisciplinary project-based learning.

The challenge is a three-day intensive course during which students, teachers and experts of various fields from all of the Nordic countries come together to solve certain real problems related to the development of regions and areas, aiming to foster interaction and engender multidisciplinary solutions.

NCC has now been held three times: first in Gothenburg, then in Helsinki and most recently, in autumn 2018, in Copenhagen. The course assignment focused on the Kulbanekvarteret district located in southwest Copenhagen. The multicultural area, distinctive for its building stock built mainly in the 1960s, is undergoing renewal. Although the neighbourhood is not really any less safe than other areas in Copenhagen, its residents experience more feelings of unsafety than on average. Such feelings have been linked with the area’s poor infrastructure and insufficient lighting.

During the course, students paid particular attention to how the residents’ sense of security and wellbeing could be improved by developing urban and green areas, while encouraging the residents to contribute to the development of the district.

The Urban Academy partnership between the University of Helsinki, Aalto University and the City of Helsinki and the related Master’s Programme in Urban Studies and Planning bring together university students and researchers, as well as professionals specialised in urban development. The goal is for researchers and students to learn to understand the functions of a city and for city officials to utilise the research expertise provided by the universities.

Focus on learning to learn and professional skills

Projects revolving around real phenomena develop students’ problem-solving skills and thinking. They teach broad-based knowledge management and application, as they encourage students to reconcile various needs, goals and knowledge production methods with each other, as well as to identify with the position of various individuals and groups, or even nature and animals.

At the same time, students will also learn that there are no ‘perfect’ solutions; rather, what is most important is for them to be able to justify their proposals well and communicate them in an understandable and respectful manner to different groups, including researchers, residents and city officials.

All this trains students for professional life. Many students find employment in various projects or as entrepreneurs, which requires them to have the ability to acquire funding, communicate on the purpose of their work and their personal strengths, seek and combine information from several sources, as well as report on their achievements.

In the future, learning should increasingly be based on motivating students and boosting their thirst for knowledge. Professional life is evolving at such a fast pace that we are currently not even fully aware of the skills needed in the future. We can no longer think of graduates as ‘completed’ individuals. Lifelong learning and self-management will gain even more importance.”