Creative Solutions for the SDGs – Masters in Creative Sustainability at Aalto University


Creative Sustainability Abigail Garbett

Reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires multi-disciplinary thinking and action. Few programmes, however, truly bring together different disciplines into one programme to engage students in this kind of thinking.

At Aalto University School of Business, the Master’s Programme in Creative Sustainability aims to engage students in developing creative solutions for the SDGs by bringing together the Schools of Arts, Engineering and of Business. I spoke with Leena Lankoski from Aalto University School of Business about this unique programme.

What is Creative Sustainability?

The roots of the name come from the fact that the original idea had a strong representation from design, architecture, and creative industries. However, now – even though design is still a strong component of the program – we think of it rather in terms of creating solutions; the need for creative solutions for SDGs; developing skills for innovative, creative solutions; the underlying tone of doing vs. merely knowing.

How did the Creative Sustainability programme come about?

When Aalto University was created in 2010 through the merger of Helsinki School of Economics, Helsinki University of Technology, and University of Arts and Design Helsinki, a window of opportunity arose to create an entirely new, multidisciplinary Master’s Programme that would build on the strengths and topic areas of each of the merging universities. There had already been dreams among faculty to tackle bigger societal challenges and this opportunity allowed the realization of the dream.

The Creative Sustainability programme is 2 years full time and it is organized jointly by several Aalto Schools. It provides a multidisciplinary learning platform in the fields of architecture, built environment, business, design, real estate and water management.

How is the programme multidisciplinary? 

The mission of Aalto University is to educate game changers in a community of bold thinkers where science and art meet technology and business. Based on this, the programme combines design and business with key sustainability challenges, for example in the context of the built environment, and increasingly also in the context of the reformulation of industrial processes for circular economy. Students come in from different backgrounds and graduate with different degrees. During the programme they follow a set of joint, compulsory multidisciplinary courses, in addition to other courses based on their selected orientation. Upon graduation students form teams mixing all the involved disciplines and are challenged by real-life clients in solution-oriented project work.

What is covered in the programme?

The Creative Sustainability programme develops the competences of multidisciplinarity, systems thinking, design thinking, project management, and business management as applied to sustainability. The pedagogical approach emphasizes challenge-based learning, the integration of teaching and research, and a strong connection to practical outcomes.

The programme starts with a focus on creativity and teamwork practice, in order to build a foundation for creative practice and an appreciation of differences between people, cultures and academic disciplines. The programme also offers for hand-on experimentation with sustainability solutions and novel materials, using workshops and an outdoor test site where students develop different initiatives.

There is also a Capstone in Creative Sustainability course, a challenge based course that is

compulsory for all the students during their final year. During this course students work in multidisciplinary teams towards finding creative solutions to real-life social and environmental challenges brought by client organisations.

What options do students have to tailor their studies?

The Department of Management Studies, which is the Business School home base for the programme, has a pedigree of research and development work on frugal innovations in emerging markets The programme enables students to focus on this area, including through dedicated courses and fieldwork.

The programme has been awarded the EIT Climate KIC label. This offers students opportunities for highly international curricula of innovation and entrepreneurship studies on climate change. Students on this track partake in an EU-wide student collective, study part of their courses abroad and conduct a Master’s Thesis project on climate change related topics.

There is also a freely chosen minor subject, and thanks to the large diversity of options available at Aalto, students can build distinctive combinations according to their own interests.

What have been some of the challenges in creating a multidisciplinary programme?

During the creation of the programme, even though the project did enjoy the support of the strategic management of the University, there were pre-existing disciplinary structures that needed to be bended and changed in order to make a multi-school, multi-disciplinary programme possible, and this required some effort and working time.

Since in this programme students may graduate with different degrees, determining the right amount of common studies which produce the joint, multidisciplinary core of the programme, and discipline-specific studies which produce the competences suggested by the degree (e.g., MSc in Economics and Business Administration, MA, MSc in Technology) is a delicate balancing act.

Of course, practicalities in terms of e.g. scheduling are more complicated with multiple actors.

What about successes? What impact do you feel the course has had on the school/on the community?

The Creative Sustainability Master’s programme in many ways embodies the spirit of Aalto: it is a unique and multidisciplinary combination of science, art, technology, and business; aiming to solve societal grand challenges; and with a challenge-oriented, game-changer approach.

Students who enter the programme are incredibly dedicated to sustainability concerns. Such attitude gives great momentum for classroom work, encourages critical thinking amongst many peers and challenges teachers to continuously develop their teaching. Throughout the existence of the CS programme the students have been highly active in developing the curriculum.

What advice would you have for other schools looking to integrate the SDGs into the curriculum in a multidisciplinary manner?

Based on our experience we would say that success requires two things: First, enthusiasm and commitment, and therefore it is important to harness the energy of sustainability enthusiasts and to have change agents in different departments. Second, university-level support and resources, and structures to support cross-disciplinarity.

What’s next?

Aalto University is quickly developing the Otaniemi campus area, and as of February 2019 all Aalto Schools are on the same campus. This offers further opportunities for collaboration across schools. One tangible outcome is that the offerings of the School of Chemical Engineering will enter the set of Creative Sustainability elective courses and offer great scope to extend towards questions of circular economy. Moreover, we are currently working on establishing a track for students of chemical engineering and material science to enter the Creative Sustainability programme.


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