From village to campus

Over the centuries, Otaniemi has lived through the times of a village community, mansions, and a student village. We asked an alumnus, a student and a business how they see Otaniemi today.
Image: Tuomas Uusheimo / Aalto University

Today,the ancient neighbours, Helsinki and Espoo, are developing Otaniemi together. 

The Laajalahti area, the western part of Helsinki and eastern Espoo form together a significant concentration of science, art and business. Collaboration between the cities, Helsinki University, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and other research and business partners makes the region one of the most important cultural and scientific hubs in Europe. On Espoo’s side, Otaniemi’s neighbours are Keilaniemi and Tapiola. The goal is to provide the area with internationally competitive transport, living and working conditions. 

‘Over time, Otaniemi, the Keilaniemi business community and the Tapiola Garden City are expected to grow together and constitute a viable entity. The city and its urban residents, Aalto University, research institutes and companies of all sizes will collaborate there’, says Mayor of Espoo, Jukka Mäkelä

The metro enables travelling from the Helsinki Metropolitan Area to Otaniemi for study or work. In the 2020s, the Jokeri Light Rail will make public transport from Otaniemi to Itäkeskus smoother. 

Mäkelä thinks it is promising that the area is now developed from the centre. 

‘Otaniemi’s new urban centre is essential. The metro will create an entrance to it and be surrounded by other operators.’ 

The startup hub A Grid is now located in the former premises of the School of Electrical Engineering. A Grid’s new residents include the United Nations Technology Innovation Lab (UNTIL Finland), accelerators of the European Space Agency and the Aalto Start- Up Center and many companies, such as Surgify, Reaktor Space Lab and Mehackit. Image: Unto Rautio / Aalto University

Urban development takes place through dialogue 

Jukka Mäkelä has fond memories of his studies at the Helsinki University of Technology in Otaniemi. He received excellent tools for life, not only from his studies but also from the student union. 

At that time, the activity was very communal, and now the City of Espoo is involved in the development of land use in Otaniemi together with the scientific community, the residents and businesses. For example, student accommodation will be built in cooperation between the City of Espoo, the Foundation for Student Housing in the Helsinki Region HOAS and the Aalto University Student Union AYY. Apartments of AYY have also been built in Jätkäsaari, Helsinki. 

The significance of the Otaniemi area grows. Rail connections give everyone access to the services in the area, as well as to the fields of creativity and science. 

When Espoo residents were asked what they would like to be considered in the city development, two things appeared high on the list: nature and safety. According to Mäkelä, the same values are considered in the development of Keilaniemi, Otaniemi and Tapiola: nature in the region, the Natura area, the sea, and economically, ecologically, socially and culturally safe living environments. 

‘A dialogue respecting the values of residents in the area is important. I believe that positive development is taking place.’ 

A unique place to live 

Rosa Väisänen, soon to be an architect after finishing her master’s thesis, is one of a number of students who live in Otaniemi throughout their studies. Väisänen works as an expert in international affairs and issues relating to new students at the Aalto University Student Union AYY. In particular, issues related to housing and welfare are important to her. 

‘At AYY, we want to ensure that all interested students have an opportunity to live in Otaniemi at an affordable price.’ 

The 2200 joint flats of HOAS and AYY located in Otaniemi and the flats of other operators house approximately 3,000 students. The aim is that by 2050, there will be up to 10,000 residents in the area. This requires thousands of new apartments. 

The new buildings have mainly one-bedroom flats, although communal living is encouraged. 

‘Experiencing everyday life in shared accommodation can be fruitful. Aalto has good experiences from 5–10 people sharing their daily student life, such as having film nights together.’ 

Nature, the rural landscape and parks have been an integral part of Otaniemi for centuries. Rosa Väisänen thinks that urban development is welcome but it must take place respecting the environment. 

‘Otaniemi is a unique place to live, and the proximity of nature also increases well-being. At the Aalto University Student Union, our goal is to make the students’ daily life the best in the world, so that everyone can concentrate on developing their own competence.’ 

From the office of the Aalto University Student Union AYY in the old shopping centre, there is a view over the Alvar Square on the Learning Centre’s side and past the new metro station to the buildings of Chemical Technology. In both directions, the walking routes are framed by lush lindens with their roots reaching back to the times of the manors, the end of the 19th century. Image: Mikko Raskinen / Aalto University

Creative technology and deliberate collisions 

Today, top research, education and the core campus area make Otaniemi into a vibrant centre of innovation, which also attracts businesses. One of them is the Mehackit, a startup offering courses in creative technology for young people. 

Thousands of secondary school kids have already taken part in Mehackit’s course in music and visual arts programming and electronics. Now the company wants to invest in inspired teachers and online courses. 

Mehackit has an adaptable space in the A Grid startup hub, including an office and a studio. CTO Creative Technology Orchestrator Sanna Reponen says that the location also brings some synergy benefits. 

‘We appreciate direct contacts and cooperation with the schools of Aalto University and the proximity of other businesses.’ 

The startup culture also plays a part, as it interconnects companies in a natural way. 

‘There is a low threshold to make contact with other startup entrepreneurs, exchange information and develop cooperation, or ask for help. We also gained good experiences in mentoring from the xEdu business accelerator, although we do not produce any learning applications ourselves, but focus on the pedagogy and contents of technology education.’ 

Reponen, who graduated from Aalto University’s Media Lab Helsinki and worked in the Science Centre Heureka, mentions Aalto Fablab as a good meeting place. It is an open workshop for small-scale digital manufacturing. 

‘The maker culture of places like Fablab is close to us. We are also interested in lectures, workshops and other events where you can meet potential partners and make things collide.’ 

What is Mehackit’s vision for the area? 

‘Otaniemi could be a lively test platform for businesses working in the field of learning and teaching. Cooperation would work well at different levels of education from early childhood education to higher education, and also businesses from the third sector would be involved.’ 

The School as a Service model inspires 

The School as a serviceoperating model has brought Haukilahti and Pohjois-Tapiola Upper Secondary Schools to the campus, but soon Otaniemi will also have a school providing basic education. The model originates from Aalto University. The idea is that the school environment is a platform for shared thinking and social learning, making use of the physical premises and pedagogical possibilities of the environment. The university provides services for schools.

For example, upper secondary school students have access to campus laboratories and mutual canteen and exercise services, and gain a better idea about further studies and what businesses do. Some of the university courses are also open to upper secondary school pupils. In return, university teachers have received pedagogical training. The School as a Service Model has produced good and measured results, and the development work will continue. The aim is also to make early childhood education and basic education available for the needs of incoming foreign researchers and business employees. 

Text: Anne Tapanainen

Main image: For many people who have studied in Otaniemi, the most significant building is Dipoli, which was designed by Raili and Reima Pietilä and completed in 1966. The secretariat and canteen of the former Helsinki University of Technology were located in Dipoli, and celebrations took place there, too, up to 1993.

This article was first published in Aalto University Campus journal in December 2018.

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