Tallinn University of Technology

Olli-Pekka Smolander, a tenured associate professor of the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology, held a speech at the 104th anniversary ceremony of the Republic of Estonia. We are publishing his speech in full. 

Olli Pekka Smolander
Olli-Pekka Smolanderi kõne Eesti Vabariigi 104. aastapäevale pühendatud akadeemilisel aktusel. Fotod: A Cube Agency

“Seeing the future is not difficult. You just have to look in the right direction.”

The words of the Finnish poet and academic Paavo Haavikko have often come to mind over the past few years that I have had the opportunity to work here.

In today’s speech, I will focus on the future and how important it is for the research community of TalTech to look in the same direction.

My name is Olli-Pekka Smolander. I work at TalTech as an Associate Professor of Bioinformatics and I feel very honoured to have been entrusted with the opportunity to deliver this speech here today. I very much appreciate the fact that, on this special day, you are giving the floor to someone who sees the life here from more of an immigrant’s point of view.

Estonia is a country much beloved by us Finns. Our languages and cultures have a lot in common. At the same time, there are also many differences that make our encounters interesting and feed those parts of the soul that need something a bit more special every once in a while.

When I first came to work in the Tallinn University of Technology in 2018 (twenty eighteen), I was pleasantly surprised by the first ceremony I attended. When the Academic Male Choir of Tallinn University of Technology took the stage, I was absolutely blown away by their powerful performance. Where am I, I thought! Do techies really sing so well?

It soon became clear that Estonian researchers not only sing, but also dance! I had never experienced anything like this in Finland. In Estonia, I can feel how much culture there is with every ounce of my body. It is everywhere, at every step – even in research labs.

It is easy for us to enjoy these special riches offered by Estonia. The music and cultural scene of Tallinn is lively and prominent. Patriotism, this grand feeling, is reflected in both the daily life and celebrations of Estonians in a marvellous and unique way. Your biggest celebration involves choral music and folk dance and brings together everyone from young children to adults.

I have had the pleasure of watching my own children attend the national dance and gymnastics celebration. The sense of unity in these gatherings and events is something I have never experienced before. Sadly, such things have almost disappeared from the lives of Finns over the last few decades. I sincerely hope that Estonians will continue to uphold these values more diligently than we did. Back in the day, we used to enjoy our cultural heritage in Finland as well; however, now, in the heat of modern times, we seem to have almost forgotten it.

What we could learn from Estonia is perseverance, tolerance, honesty and open-mindedness? At this point, my Estonian friend would interrupt my speech and say: “Perseverance, tolerance, honesty and open-mindedness? If it is only flattery, it is not believable!”

Nevertheless, these positive observations hold true. Whenever I discuss these values specific to Estonia with Estonians themselves, they often express surprise or maybe even embarrassment. Apparently, this sense of modesty is part of the mentality of Estonians, even though, at the same time, they are deeply proud of their country and language. Consideration for culture and language is also fully embedded in the values and strategy of TalTech. This is a wonderful thing!

Talented young people build our future

In recent years, the whole world has watched in admiration and amazement the valuable skills taught at Estonian schools.

A comparison with Finland shows that young people are trusted in Estonia and they themselves feel responsible for the well-being and future of Estonia. If the young people who are dreaming of a successful career in Finland are unable to get their foot in the door for a long time, then this is not the case in Estonia. The voices of young people are clearly heard in the Estonian society and, additionally, they reach important positions sooner compared to their counterparts in Finland who reach these positions at a more mature age. Therefore, I believe that I would not have been able to achieve as much as I have at this age in Finland as I have now in Estonia.

Looking at my own children and meeting with their teachers, I have noticed that Estonian kindergartens and schools help to foster determined future experts. The professional pride and dedication of teachers is reflected in the motivation and learning outcomes of students. The value placed on education can often be seen in the serious attitudes of families towards learning and its importance. I have personally experienced this through the long conversations I have had with both parents and teachers, especially over the last two years. The fact that we can enjoy the best fruits of such excellent teaching work in universities is a great gift to us all.

When the teachers of upper secondary schools pass on the baton to us in spring, we have a huge responsibility to continue providing quality education and supporting the development of young people into active members of society. It is not only the young people themselves, but also their families and the society who have a great deal of expectations for them.

Each year, TalTech is filled with the fresh graduates of upper secondary schools who are all eager to learn something new. University is a whole new world for many of them and, at the same time, they are taking their first steps towards an independent life. However, in addition to all that, the young people also want to have a healthy social life.

Each generation also faces its own transboundary challenges, to which us, the older generation, are sometimes blind. Sometimes we can even be too harsh, regard them with disdain.

Seeing the efforts of students and young researchers to be good enough and meet different expectations, we cannot help but be worried about their abilities, especially their ability to deal with the challenges of a globalising world. After all, it is our responsibility to ensure that their voices are heard and ideas considered. Therefore, we must encourage and support them as best we can to raise a new generation of experts.

The young people whose socio-economic background does not provide them with sufficient information and financial opportunities for everyday life are the ones in a particularly difficult situation. In that respect, it is our duty to find a solution that would allow for better co-operation between individuals and structures.

I have had the opportunity to see life in different universities across the world. I can thus honestly say that TalTech has an exceptional student body. We must support the young people who uphold these values and do everything we can not to let them down. We must strive to ensure that young people do not drop out of school before they are even fully acquainted with the opportunities and values offered by the university. It is our responsibility to ensure that students receive all the support they need until they can stand on their own feet. Fortunately, higher education institutions are offering students more flexible study opportunities than ever before.

Over the past year, I have discussed the labour market situation with European university staff as well as entrepreneurs. Finding new employees is a difficult process. Which is all the more reason for us to support and protect our students and grow stronger alongside them. Since it is they who will build the future of Estonia.

How can the university support its staff?

I often contemplate which development opportunities the university staff can offer. Do they have sufficient skills and resources for self-fulfilment and self-development to meet the present-day needs? I also wonder whether the university staff have enough modern work equipment and whether the support provided for their development is sufficient.

It is only natural for us all to feel somewhat inadequate at times. This feeling may strike us when we are applying for research grants, creating our lesson plans, ensuring the quality of our research, or even when looking at the latest research developments in other areas or when actively contributing to both the university and society. Fortunately, in this case, these needs have been identified and the solutions have been laid down in TalTech’s strategic plan.

Before I came to work at the Tallinn University of Technology, I worked at other universities for more than 15 years. Never before have I received this much support from my superiors and colleagues as I have here in just three years. Here people always ask me if there is anything I need or whether there is anything they can do for me. Furthermore, here in Estonia, as an employee, researcher and individual, I can be proud of all this and speak about my achievements and plans without having to feel guilty – I can just enjoy life. In Finland, it is customary to keep such feelings to yourself, hide them from others.

But what does the word ‘strategy’ even mean?

Some time ago, I listened to a lecture given by a Finnish Professor of Management. According to them, the word ‘strategy’ is often misunderstood. It is not just a buzzword that means great visions. A strategy is a specific action plan that concerns each member of the community.

It points us in the right direction in the implementation of further activities and helps us prioritise them.

A well-designed plan is based on the resources and opportunities of the university. Therefore, the precondition for planning all TalTech’s activities is an awareness of the skills and abilities of the staff. The skills and knowledge we all bring to the table form a part of the most valuable capital of our university.

A well-functioning strategy is reflected in concrete activities. A strategy should outline what needs be done in the university to achieve the objectives and set us on the right path to attain the vision. It is therefore essential that both the staff and the students of the university have a good knowledge of the strategy, so that they know what is expected of them. Moreover, effective and active communication between the management and staff is required in both directions.

TalTech provides students and society with the knowledge, skills and competences necessary in work and science. The rapid changes in society and technology force us to continuously improve the content of our courses, assessment methods and priorities, and re-assess our research methods and directions.

Development activities in universities are no longer carried out only on the basis of national and regional needs, but also increasingly more in collaboration with enterprises and at international level. Therefore, in order to tackle complex problems, the best available know-how is required.

I can assure you that TalTech has, in every respect, the capability to participate in international research and study networks to an even greater extent.

Diversity, inclusion, sustainability, equality, linearity.

Modern vocabulary is overflowing with new terms that all need to be understood, used and applied properly. It has proven to be quite a challenge at times. Therefore, in these moments of tension, it is particularly important to ensure the resilience and motivation of the staff. It is an area where special care must be taken.

Fortunately, we do not have to face these challenges alone. The support functions of TalTech are effective and comprehensive in achieving these objectives. Among other things, a number of necessary tools, training opportunities and types of support are provided.

The university has an excellent support staff with whom it is always harmonious and pleasant to co-operate. By tacking the challenges together and sharing the responsibility, we are able to multiply our knowledge and skills. Personally, I find that services supporting teaching and management but also, for example, grant application preparation and communication, have been particularly valuable.

Management, adaptation to change, communication

The changing world and its requirements also concern TalTech. The exciting technological gadgets on display on our campus are also attractive to visitors. For instance, I once drove around the district of Mustamäe with my German friends looking for the little mobile robots because my friends wanted to see them one more time before leaving the country.

No future challenges will be left unsolved if all members and managers of the university are well taken care of. I can only imagine how difficult it is to implement the necessary changes to bring about development and enjoy what can be achieved in a peaceful, diverse and pleasant northern society.

At specific intervals, everything needs to be reconstructed piece by piece, even if it is a mammoth undertaking. It can sometimes be heartbreaking to give up traditional models and expectations because it causes disappointment. However, leaders also know that change can lead to excellent results. And in my opinion, the atmosphere here is inspiring and motivating. That is not to say that the job of a leader does not come with its own challenges. There has always been resistance to change and it will always be a part of development – both in nature and organisations. Active and open communication is thus an important factor in

keeping the atmosphere in our community healthy. We can only hope that our leaders can sense our trust and appreciate co-operation.

In this regard, Estonians have another advantage: an excellent ability to communicate in an open and constructive way. I must admit that, as a Finn, it has taken some time for me to get used to such frankness, but I am delighted that behind closed doors there are no disapproving complaints here. This is a testament to the strong foundation of your society that you are able to appreciate the work and opinions of others.

If you were to learn something from Finland, I would recommend that Estonian employers pay more attention to preventing burnout in the workplace. It would not hurt to slow down a little and reduce competition. As a consequence, employees would be happier and results would be better in the long term.

An outsider’s point of view

The dynamism of Estonia is admirable: new projects are developed quickly and no unnecessary time is spent on fine-tuning. The vigour, performance and fearlessness of Estonians is praised, especially when it comes to highlighting the high cost and slow pace of Finnish projects. Us Finns appreciate the functionality and flexibility of Estonians. Just as we also appreciate your courage and entrepreneurship.

Finns spend so much time planning that sometimes they do not even get to take any actions, saying something along the lines of ‘let’s give it some more thought’. Estonians, on the other hand, often rush ahead to act without a clear plan. I would suggest that Finns be bolder in their actions and Estonians slow down every once in a while and make more thorough plans.

These strengths of Estonians should be applied more boldly in research and development. Luckily, the plans of TalTech and other foreign universities have already taken this into account. This means that we share common values, needs and goals, paving the way for successful co-operation. No research field, country or continent can address major problems alone. Therefore, researchers and experts must be able to collaborate and work with people from different backgrounds.

Strategy of the EU

The greatest challenges in university management are, of course, identified retrospectively. We must always expect the unexpected to happen, nothing ever goes exactly as hoped or planned. This is something TalTech has accounted for.

The only technical university in Estonia is more and more open to the society around it and its emerging trends. In the same way, the university is also more open to global impacts as a whole – the previous years have taught us all a lesson about that. At the end of January, the European Commission adopted two new initiatives to support higher education institutions in their efforts to cope with these challenges. These initiatives concern the building of closer ties to stimulate EU co-operation in higher education. When I read the EU strategy, I noticed a number of similarities with the strategic plans of TalTech.

The aim of the strategy is to help all European universities to be successful and adapt to changing circumstances, as well as to enhance co-operation between EU countries in overcoming the difficulties of recent years.

In addition to the above, the strategy also calls for strengthening the higher education and research sector and providing support for green and digital transition.

The objective is to promote closer and deeper co-operation between European higher education institutions and to implement international training programmes and activities.

In Estonia, higher education institutions are also expected to react more effectively and swiftly to changes in both social structures and skills needs. Technological progress, globalisation and innovation are ever-growing challenges faced by universities. However, they also generate major opportunities. At TalTech, we should seize these opportunities and actively participate in the new projects under the EU strategy.

Reliable information

Development and the strengthening of competences and innovation are the key to the success of Estonia. Top-level basic and applied research together with multidisciplinary knowledge lay the foundations for achieving international levels of excellence.

Collaboration with Estonian start-up entrepreneurs has made me grasp the potential presented by combined research and sustainable consumption goals. My hope is that in the future we can also intensify the innovativeness of students. In particular, the potential of women is a vastly underused resource in business. I find that Estonia is a unique place to combine family and career.

The promotion of research and development of research-based education are crucial preconditions for prosperity and democracy. Educated citizens with critical thinking skills are able to stand up to populism. Therefore, the active promotion of science and education plays an increasingly important role in today’s world.

In Estonia, there is criticism of the fact that the voices of researchers go unheard; however, in my experience, education and researchers are highly valued and respected here.

Universities, as providers of research and education, have played a key role in ensuring that Estonia has become one of the most highly developed information societies in the world in just a few decades. After all, the results of research provide the basis for understanding the world and its law, economic development, respecting other people and nature, as well as seeking the truth.

Yet, we are still trying to decipher what the coming years will bring. We cannot predict the future, but come what may, we are ready to tackle it with scientific means. As for me, I promise to keep the modern data-based biotechnology of TalTech at the forefront of research.

While in our daily lives we focus heavily on science and research, interpersonal communication continues to play an important role as well. Culture and art act as a bridge between different peoples.

I began my speech by quoting Paavo Haavikko and now I would like to circle back to him once more.

"The right direction is just width of one degree, the farther it is, the wider the arc."

Haavikko was not just a writer and publisher, he was also a forester and real estate businessman. Us researchers can – and maybe should – also have multifaceted identities. Lastly, I would like to gift to Tallinn University of Technology, which is filled to the brim with culture, Paavo Haavikko’s poetry collection that has been translated into Estonian – an example of the fruitful co-operation between Finland and Estonia. I wish to extend my heartiest congratulations and best wishes to Estonia and TalTech on the occasion of Estonia’s Independence Day! Thank you for allowing me to join you and be a part of your community.

Congratulations to Estonia!