Prepare for the unexpected

When the University of Helsinki announced the Helsinki Challenge idea competition, many of us at the University had to do a double take. What’s all this about?

Academic researchers are used to applying for funding through a completely different process. The basic routine is to put together a research team of trusted colleagues and present a research plan that promises to create ground-breaking science.

Helsinki Challenge does everything differently. It’s a science based idea competition searching for new ways to improve society and the lives of us all. There’s science involved, of course, but gaining new scientific information isn’t a goal in itself – it’s just a tool. The important thing is for scientists to truly understand what academia has to offer to society. The competition is now in full swing: our 20 semifinalist teams were announced in January, and they’re all hard at work already.

These teams are actually rather special compared to regular research projects. Scientists have been encouraged to partner up with not just colleagues, but various different actors who specialize in using and spreading information, or even in applying it commercially. Even the original idea can come from outside the academic world; from a city, an NGO, an international organization, a group of students, a company, a ministry, even a single citizen – or all of the above, all working together. The aim is to have a real impact on society.

Come November, we’ll be proud to award 375.000 euros to the very best ideas that make it to the Helsinki Challenge final, and hold an amazing international seminar and gala to celebrate them. But that’s not even the best part. All teams will get some much-needed publicity for their ideas, as well as lots of help in developing them even further. Maybe even funders will take an interest.

The real prize, however, will be to share our knowledge and gain a better understanding for each other and our different points of view. Brainstorming in great company won’t exhaust anyone – on the contrary, you’ll be energized. That’s a prize we can all enjoy during Helsinki Challenge.

Arto Mustajoki, Professor, University of Helsinki
First published in Finnish in Yliopisto-lehti.