Top manager, economic expert, physicist, responsible leader, and triathlete. Robert Kitt says that he has received two diplomas in economics and one diploma in physics ‘from this building’ and has never left the university.
Mari Öö Sarv | Photos: Karl-Kristjan Nigesen
Although he had a career in banking and is currently steering the district heating company Utilitas into a green future, he heads the Alumni Association and the Development Fund at the University of Technology. He also writes essays on his own and with academics in which they discuss higher education, society, and the green revolution.
As the CEO of Utilitas, what are the most current topics this autumn?
We are very busy. The most important part of our work is the continuity of critical infrastructure. The gas prices have increased about ten times in a year and a half. To make things worse, there are not enough molecules in the Baltic-Finnish system to satisfy demand. This means that we are actively looking for other solutions. Figuratively speaking, we have to deal with putting out the fire and building a new house at the same time.
In the short term, we need to survive this winter by combining reserve fuels and reserves. The use of reserve fuels allows us to consume less natural gas, so more is left for those who cannot replace it with alternatives, to ensure operational continuity, and not to increase the price of heating in Tallinn.
However, all this is only half of the equation, or ‘putting out the fire’. The other half is ‘building a house’, i.e. the long perspective. Last year, we developed a vision for climate-neutral district energy in all eight cities where Utilitas operates, including Tallinn. This was initially a vision for 2030, but given the energy crisis and the full-scale war in Ukraine, we have decided that all these plans must be implemented within five years. In addition to district energy, we invest in wind energy and we believe that the transfer of Estonian electricity production to renewable sources is completely realistic. In the Green Tiger Energy Roadmap, we found that within five years, 2.7 GW of offshore wind turbines could be added in Estonia and the capacity of onshore wind turbines could be increased to 1.2 GW.
Are all the reserve fuels that will be used this winter fossil fuels?
Not all of them. Utilitas already produces 2/3 of its energy from renewable sources. Within five years, we want to reach the point where our customers can see the carbon footprint of their thermal energy in the self-service portal as zero, not as a result of reforestation, but thanks to the fact that our production equipment does not burn imported fossil fuels.
For example, we will soon be installing second-stage flue gas condensers in the cogeneration plants in Tallinn, which will allow heat energy to be directed to the district heating network. This energy would otherwise simply be wasted in the chimney. We have already installed first-stage flue gas condensers, which means that the steam exiting the chimney is not 150 degrees, but only 50. The rest is used in district heating. When we add the second stage, we can use even more heat.
Waste heat is a very important topic, because systems generate a lot of heat, for example, in industrial processes or cooling servers. In its essence, a cogeneration plant is also the use of waste heat generated during electricity production for heating. For example, in the Narva power plants, 2/3 of the waste heat is directed to the Narva River in the condensation mode, but in the case of the cogeneration plant, this heat is used to heat homes. It has been said that in Europe, more waste heat is generated in industries than would be needed to heat the cities, but most of it is far away and scattered. We should not waste this energy and therefore, the use of waste heat is the most important factor in the carbon neutrality plan of Tallinn.
It seems that the future is bright, at least in terms of heating in Tallinn. What are you currently occupied with as the head of the Alumni Association of the University of Technology and a member of the university board?
For me, these roles are closely related to the management of the Development Fund of the Technical University. The Fund awards scholarships twice a year and there has been a qualitative jump over the past year. Until now, the scholarship was just an opportunity for the company to stand out. Now, however, have begun to realise that the university has much more to offer companies than advertising space at the award show. The capital of the university is what we know now and what we will know in the future, also the knowledge of the professors and the students. Our focus during the labour crisis has been that the fund should cooperate with the human resources departments of companies. For example, instead of paying recruiters to find employees, a company can offer a scholarship to final-year master’s students, thus finding talent in the necessary field. There are also professions where the University of Technology is the only one in Estonia that trains specialists for them, and if there is a shortage of students in a profession, it can mean a significant risk for the industry. Scholarships can help attract students to study these specialities. Companies have understood this and this is also reflected in the quantitative growth of the fund: both the number of scholarships and the amount of support have increased.
The Alumni Association offers joint activities for alumni, such as bike rides or sports tournaments; Starry Night and Campus Party are very popular. We act as a bridge between alumni and current students. The Alumni Association has been successful in this role: for example, alumni have granted scholarships and presented interesting real problems that the students can solve at the university together with professors – industrial Doctoral study and Master’s study, as well as research topics.
In my opinion, in Estonia, the cooperation between the economy and higher education is poor due to a lack of contacts between individuals and there is no natural breeding ground for the formation of such necessary connections. This is the mission of the Alumni Association: we have clearly monitored and targeted the creation of contacts. There are not many results to show yet, but the biggest achievement is that the same number of people have marked TalTech and the University of Tartu as their alma mater on LinkedIn, even though we have three times less alumni.
But what stands out is that we have bike rides and golf tournaments held once a year...
That is how contacts are made! When people spend time together.
Absolutely! I have written in an essay about how to bring entrepreneurship and education closer together and the main point was in making contacts.
The second point was that it is not right to externalise your problem or to say ‘Let them do it!’. You have certainly heard people say that the University of Technology should train IT specialists, whom the Estonian economy needs thousands today. Why will we not do it? Let me ask you this: have the entrepreneurs who need some kind of competence granted a scholarship to train specialists in this field? Have they offered their help in the Programme Board? Have they provided labs or suggested practical lessons or research topics? I have also heard professors complain that their major is not popular among young people. The problems in your field are not the problems of someone else – you cannot demand solutions from others. I never tire of praising Hendrik Voll, who has been visiting high schools and introducing his major, which is very popular today.
The kood/Jõhvi project is a good example of a company solving its workforce problem on its own.
Yes, exactly. In terms of economic theory, education is a field with a market barrier and it is not subject to commercial rules. As the demand of this market, i.e. the number of students, is decreasing due to demographics, the supply side, i.e. the infrastructure, simply has to adapt. In addition, if an industry-specific problem arises – such as the one solved by kood/Jõhvi – then we can argue that it does not provide academic higher education, but does it matter? These students need a job with a good salary and the creators of this school need people with specific competencies – a diploma or a degree is not necessary there. We are talking about innovation in the field of education: when the demand arose, it was successfully satisfied.
You mentioned bringing entrepreneurship and education closer together. Must the main goal of the university be solving the problems of entrepreneurs and create jobs or must academic freedom also include the right to conduct basic research and the science of curiosity, even though it may not be necessarily useful for anybody right now?
One polarised point of view is that the role of the university is to train national economy specialists; the other extreme point of view is that a university is purely a research institution where global research projects are carried out. Both have their advantages and disadvantages in terms of economic theory: if we only train, we will never get patents and a large part of the value chain will be used elsewhere; but if we only get patents and do not provide specialists for the economy, who will finance it?
We need balance. We need enthusiasts who deal with finding industrial doctoral students and cooperation agreements to solve problems important for the economy, resulting in the creation of jobs at all levels of complexity. Creating jobs for everyone is very important! We can talk about the knowledge-based economy and highly educated people, but if we look at the distribution of income in society, the majority of people earn a below-the-average salary, and only a few earn a much-above-the-average salary. If our goal is to preserve the Republic of Estonia, as well as its culture and language, then we should not focus on the successful top, but those regular ‘Heldur, 42, basic education’ citizens looking for a job. In the narrow sense, collaborative projects with companies provide money to the university but in the broad sense, they create jobs in society and this effect is much more important. We also need ‘mad scientists’ who conduct basic research and the science of curiosity. It will pay off sometime later because useful applied research cannot be conducted without good basic research.
Unfortunately, we do not have enough resources for everything and everyone. We need to critically analyse where we are able to create a centre of competence, be on top of the world, and create new knowledge, and where we are simply teaching existing knowledge. No one from outside can make this decision, we have to make it ourselves.
To what extent should the university itself contribute to the commercialisation of research results and how much should it rely on external offers and orders?
A scientist is not a micro-entrepreneur and forcing them into that role is a silly idea.
In 2012, together with Tehnopol and Swedbank, we created the Prototron fund. The idea was to give start-up companies seed funding so that they could build a prototype, prepare a business plan, and move on from there. Initially, it was intended for students, but an application round for researchers was later added.
However, the researcher who came up with the prototype may want to move on to solving the next problem rather than entering the market with the previous solution.
That is where financiers come into play – they market the things invented by the researchers.
What do you think about the possibility of a researcher (also) becoming an entrepreneur, earning a so-called real income from the research they conduct, not just a salary?
That is a difficult question. This income can also be one-time. For example, in the field of biotechnology, researchers have patented their solutions and then sold the patents. After that, they can move on to the next scientific problem. A lot also depends on the discipline, as there are branches of science where it is possible to come up with an application for the current research maybe only after ten years, while in others, it is possible to do it immediately.
The role of the university is therefore to think about how to be part of the solution for the Estonian economy. If the problem is that the few who deal with solutions are overburdened, then maybe more people should be hired in the popular fields. If a specialty is popular, it must be possible to offer it profitably and train all those interested, and in the case of low popularity, students must be motivated.
I believe that when choosing a specialty, the student also has some responsibility, because resources are limited. The freedom to make choices must be accompanied by responsibility for these choices. Freedom without responsibility is anarchy and individual responsibility for one’s actions is a heavy burden to bear. If you think that I am not the state, it is easy – I will simply leave the risks to others (‘the state’) and keep the income for myself. However, economic models where profits are privatised and losses are nationalised or vice versa do not work.
So let us take responsibility. How can the university contribute to solutions to the energy crisis in the long term, or to ‘building a house’?
When the university reconstructed the Akadeemia tee dormitory into a nearly zero-energy building as a pilot project, it resulted in dozens of scientific articles and a lot of useful knowledge. A large part of the buildings in Mustamäe could be made energy efficient using the same method.
Secondly, the university can clearly state its goals: are we a cost optimiser looking for cheaper options, or we are a leader who can carry out the green revolution on our campus? We have to admit that the green revolution needs investments, its profitability may not be positive in the short term, and we may lose money.
The university also needs to make ideological choices. Climate goals aside, common sense is also needed. We have built our economic models on external energy sources, which have proven to be a clear military tool against Europe. The current energy crisis is largely caused by the postponement of the green revolution. We should talk about the green revolution in the light of climate goals, but also as the use of local renewable resources. Local renewable resources are future-proof. It is like a mantra. Local renewable resources are future-proof! When we think about the fact that we are paying for our independence, no price is too high. People can make fun of the green revolution or the people who are carrying it out, but local renewable resources are the only thing that is future-proof. People are also local future-proof resources – the more we invest in educated people, the better off Estonia will be.
The only question is whether it is possible to invest in the green revolution in a profitable way for the economy. Today, we have enough opportunities and it should be done. We should not set vague goals for 2050, but transfer all of Estonia completely to renewable energy within five years. It is completely doable due to the fact that Estonia is so small – let us just do it. The university also has all the necessary competence – engineers, natural scientists, economists, and lawyers. We do not need to invent new solutions; the role of the university is to demonstrate our current possibilities with calculations.
There is no point in emphasising or chasing innovation for the sake of innovation. New technology can obviously turn everything upside down, but at the moment, profitability calculations show that it makes sense to work on some technologies that have existed for 150 years. NOT applying existing competence is an active decision, by which we simply postpone all problems to the future. At the moment, we have no reason to doubt our ambition to be an energy exporting country.
As I have received two diplomas in economics and one in physics from this university, I dare to say that the man-made climate crisis will sooner or later also become an economic crisis – and a very, very big one at that. If we look at the price humanity is already paying for natural disasters today, it is clear: climate change will become a very practical and material problem. However, as a hopeless optimist, I will say that the current crisis offered a great opportunity to regroup and start making postponed decisions.
How warm is it in your home and office?
My situation is pretty unfortunate. I live in an environmentally valuable apartment building with 80-year-old radiators, where the apartment association decides on how warm the apartments are: the residents cannot regulate anything. To make things worse, we made an investment in a new gas boiler five years ago. Now, we can choose between bad and worse: either we pay for expensive fuel or we rebuild a relatively new thing. Fortunately, a district heating line is quite close to us.
Utilitas, however, has a green office label. Last year, we also received the title of the most energy-friendly office in Estonia. In addition to temperature, we have adjustable lighting based on whether there are people in the room, where the windows are, and how much light is coming in. The temperature of the rooms depends on the individual people working there – some feel hot at 19 degrees and others feel cold at 24 degrees.
Let us talk about the individual. One of hardest global challenges for everyone – or another crisis – is mental health. How do you cope with social and personal crises?
In a crisis, coping with mental problems becomes more and more difficult as existential questions arise, such as whether we matter at all.
My career over the last few years has been quite a rollercoaster. When talking about coping with life’s difficulties, I have used the metaphor of an adventure park: in an adventure park, you have safety ropes and two carabiners. Why use two when one would be enough? In addition, it would reduce costs. The second is there just in case. Ensuring reserve fuels is not economically efficient, but essential to ensure continuity – other types of fuel are there just in case.
If you have two carabiners in an adventure park and you forget to close one or it breaks, the other one will save your life. In life, however, if you only identify yourself as one thing and something happens and that identity no longer applies to you, then everything falls apart. For example, if you identify yourself as a pianist and an accident happens and your fingers no longer work, it is difficult to cope. My suggestion is to think about what you identify yourself as, take some time, and work in other spheres as well, so that you have more stable ground to stand on.
What are your ‘carabiners’?
One of them is definitely the university – after all, I have not really left it.
I took the period between two jobs as an opportunity. We dusted off a seven-year-old idea and wrote a book on complex systems together with academician Jüri Engelbrecht – the Academy of Sciences told me that they were glad that I left the bank because now, I could finally do something practical.
The third ‘carabiner’ was that Ain-Alar Juhanson unexpectedly called me one day – or maybe it was fate? – and invited me to Ironman Triathlons as a ‘role model’. I was surprised and answered that I am very overweight, I cannot swim, and I do not have the time for it. However, we continued to talk and I said that if the doctors gave me the green light, I will do it because I have steel willpower. About eight months later, I finished my first half-length triathlon in Otepää. It was on a Saturday; on Monday, I was invited to a meeting at the bank and was told that my authorisation has been suspended. Suddenly, I had all the free time in the world and as I was already registered for several more triathlons, I set my sights on a full-length triathlon. My life had a new ‘carabiner’ which I still use.
It is hard to take on new hobbies when you are paralysed by crises, fear and anxiety, and panic.
Training for a marathon gives you a specific goal and helps you stay away from bad news.
You are right, of course, to ask the question, albeit it is very painful: what to do in a world full of anxiety or panic: there is a war going on, we are worried about what others think of us, whether our children will get into school, whether we will survive the winter, what will happen to us, etc. While it is possible to do something to solve a physical problem, call a plumber or ask friends for help, such things cannot be solved physically. Sometimes, there is nothing to be done – you just have to sit down and admit to yourself that this is the low point and things are really bad right now. However, everything passes. For example, what if I did not make it past the top two when applying for my dream job? All you can do is admit defeat. You cannot turn back time, so you simply have to move on.
Let us move on then. Thinking about the university as an entrepreneur: what should the University of Technology do so that it offers the entrepreneur research services and builds bridges?
The first thing for the university is to realise that entrepreneurs should be able to ask the university for solutions. I am sceptical of how many companies there are, which, when looking for solutions to their problems, have a university on their to-do list: hire a new person, buy new software, buy a new device, call the University of Technology...
That is the problem of the university. The university should ask itself if we are on the radar of entrepreneurs; if we are part of the solutions. Have we made enough efforts for companies to turn to us for solving various problems? We are busy, entrepreneurs are busy – I know that it is not easy. Utilitas Group and AS Tallinna Vesi have discussed 7–8 topics with the School of Engineering that could result in an industrial Master’s study or Doctoral study but they have not been realised because everyone is too busy and so far, we have been able to make do without them. At least we have that list – many do not.
What role can the spirit of students and keeping alumni close to the university play in this cooperation?
The Alumni Association can and should to think through its activities and what we offer. It is easy to say ‘Make your contribution to the university!’ or ‘Let us work together!’. We must focus on the ‘How?’ part of it. Some stay here to study, some give guest lectures, some sing in alumni choir – there are various possibilities. The worst message is ‘let us cooperate for the sake of cooperation’. You have to get some value, something useful from it. We have quite a lot of graduates and even if 10% of them lined up and said, well, work with us, we would not be able to.
What is next for the Alumni Association?
We have 75,000 alumni, the university is in contact with 25,000 of them, 5,000 open the newsletter, 500 are supporting members of the NGO, and 50 are members. We want to motivate this last layer to think more with the university. To any alumni reading this now – if you want to participate in the development of the university, this is your chance. The Alumni Association is often asked for its opinion, be it in the debate of rector candidates or in the preparation of the development plan of the university; alumni were also an important stakeholder in the heated debate on the new brand. However, it must be remembered that we can give our opinion or advice, but the rector and the rector’s office are ultimately responsible for the development of the university.
For me, issues that are more important than the logo and the short name are, for example, the lack of doctoral students, the development of industrial Doctoral studies, and how many economically important problems the university can solve. A university that can solve important problems for the economy and, thanks to this, create jobs in Estonia, including at the level of primary education, is a successful one. That is what we should focus on, not on what we call it.
The interview was published in Mente et Manus nr 1892 .