Learning City Lessons – Interview with Kristiina Erkkilä, Espoo

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Doctor Kristiina Erkkilä is currently Director of Development for Education and Cultural Services in Espoo, the second-largest city in Finland and a pioneering member of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities for cities actively developing their sustainable lifelong learning opportunities. Previously, she was Director of the International Centre at Mikkeli University of Applied Sciences. Kristiina Erkkilä holds a PhD in Administrative and Policy Studies in Education from the University of Pittsburgh, United States. Her own research interests are entrepreneurial education and learning ecosystems.

In advance of her talk Diarmaid Lawlor, A&DS Director of Place, spoke to her about the Learning Estates Strategy focus in Scotland around the importance of collaboration in planning and providing spaces for learning, and the role of co-creation to shape new innovative responses to the changing community and learning needs.

Espoo – Learning City 

Diarmaid Lawlor (DL): Can you tell us a little bit about Espoo and the challenges for education provision?

Kristiina Erkkilä (KE): Espoo has a long history as a place but became a city only in 1972. Since then it has become ten times as big, with speedy growth. It’s mainly families with children and young people who move here.

Espoo has five city centres. They tend to build one city centre at a time. This means there will be people with families moving to one city centre when their kids are all young. This creates huge demand on school spaces in those areas. The kids tend to grow up together. Then they move out maybe to high school or to higher education. It means there is constantly school spaces in the ‘wrong’ place or there is a lack of enough school spaces in certain spaces.

In addition to changing community need, we have had a problem in Finland and Espoo, with air quality in schools over the last few years. The air is not polluted, but it is not very fresh either. It has affected teachers and pupils.

In 2015 we were building two to three new schools. The health authorities told us we had to relocate ten schools because of air quality. From a city budget perspective, it was terrible. The practical arrangements to relocate a school in two weeks were very difficult. So, we had to think of something new.

Flexible Spaces for Learning

DL: What role did the Finnish curriculum have in shaping your work in Espoo?

KE: At the same time in Finland we were renewing the national curriculum. The national agency of education invited teachers to participate in the process of creating and renewing the curriculum. It was a shared process.

The national level sets guidelines. It is up to the local level to set the emphasis on certain issues. The latest curriculum includes some new things around broad-based competencies such as world at work, entrepreneurship, participation and influence to build a sustainable future. Education is organised accordingly. There is a lot of project-based learning.

DL: How did you shape your response to re-thinking learning in the city?

KE: Reflecting on the air quality issues and needs of city communities, we started a project called Flexible Spaces for Learning in temporary school spaces. We wanted to learn – what is actually needed in a school so that they would be at their best? We came up with three things:

  • Flexibility: spaces have to be functioning and to easily convert into something else. There should be multiple channels – not only classrooms, but there should be space for big and well-functioning virtual connections. We found out the worse the space, the better the virtual and digital connections have to be. This was the opposite to our practice
  • The second thing was we thought it is really important that the people in the schools – the students and the teachers – they have to take ownership of their learning and their learning space. It is important that they feel that they belong to the community.
  • The third thing was there had to be multiple ways you could access the space – it was either your own learner space or then it was a meeting place.

A really important thing we learned from that project is the importance of looking for new solutions together with the teachers and students and users. It’s about co-creating new spaces.

School as a Service

School as a Service

DL: What models did you adopt to implement these principles to deliver 21stcentury learning experiences for all learners across the city?

KE: A key observation to emerge from the project was the opportunity to collaborate with the university in the communities where demand for education was biggest. Aalto university offered its extra space to the city. Initially, we thought this would be a solution to a temporary need. However, it became so popular and successful that the school that was the first to experience it didn’t want to leave. This was the School as a Service idea (SaaS).

School as a Service (SaaS) is now an operating model, developed together by the City of Espoo and Aalto University, has been awarded in the international Quality Innovation Award competition.

In the initial trial a high school was re-located to the university campus. They were given one building which was one-third of their old school’s size. The school had to use some of the spaces together with the university students. This meant, for example, they could share a physics lab or a chemistry lab, an art space or a big auditorium. The sharing model meant that they would use it themselves, or they would use it together with the university students. This offered an opportunity to put in practice the ideas of the broad-based curriculum approach and it also allowed use of buildings with good air quality.

The outcome was not only the new use of space, but it also gave us an idea of opening up the school to the wider society. In the past, we had opportunities to invite experts to school – entrepreneurs, or some professionals – lawyers or doctors. They would talk to pupils about what they were doing in their profession. But now, we had the opportunity to do things the other way. The school was opening up to society. Pupils were going out of the school for more experiences and also inviting others to come to their school. It was like the door was going both ways.

The project allowed us to expand learning to the whole society. In a way – it is actually the whole community who is the teacher. There are several teachers. It appeared to be a very successful model.

But, the most important validation comes from the students. When they think that this way of learning is more relevant to them because they can relate their learning to real life, they can study what they are interested in. They can broaden the learning from the school’s given parameters. They can broaden it to their own world. This way the learning becomes more relevant and becomes more meaningful for them.

Learning City Collaboration

DL: What are the benefits of this collaborative approach, and who benefits?

KE: The model is possible because the City of Espoo is a different city in Finland. From the beginning of the city establishing, it has organised its services together with partners. For example, in sports and culture, the city pays support to partners, in exchange for them organising city services. The notion of sharing in the city existed already. And this teaming up with the university to organise learning it was not totally free for us. The city has to pay to the university to hire the space, but it was a joint effort. It was in the university’s interest so that students might be more interested in going there later. Pupils and teachers benefitted from clean air, high air quality in learning spaces, and new ways of space which freed them up from old approaches to learning and teaching. Fixtures and furniture within the learning spaces were shared. We know this model is helping with the way that workplaces operate and that professionals now collaborate with other professionals and experts from other fields and so on. So that is where these students would be much better prepared because they are prepared to find out the knowledge themselves, to connect with other views and so on. The partnership was a win-win thing.

We had someone to calculate the costs and benefits of School as Service. This analysis shows that it would be at least 25% cheaper per student for the city. It also shows the benefit that the city doesn’t have to take the risk of building something for 50 years which it might not need for 50 years. The risk of building and planning, investment and maintenance was much lower for the city. We started thinking about a more flexible, shared estate, share risks and benefits. That was very appealing for the politicians and civil servants. It doesn’t tie up resources, but it does help to be clear on shared requirements, like good air quality, in better designed buildings across the city.

We were thinking we could maybe apply it to other services, for example, how do elderly people live – how do we organise that as a service? Or for example day-care services – why do they have to be in separate buildings? Why can’t they be part of a group of service and they could maybe benefit from each other. School as a Service shows that it is really good for the city to organise its services in this way.


Accelerated Collaboration

DL: How does the Espoo model support the link between learning and the world of work?

KE: Collaboration is central to the whole model. This includes collaboration between institutions of the city, and collaboration between learners. This collaboration has helped build a co-creation mindset in learners. And that is attracting collaboration with firms, businesses and enterprises in the city.

We have some models in Espoo we have an accelerated collaboration between schools and companies where we have a contract between the company and the school. Pupils help research, prototype and test new ideas and services. This includes aspects of the building itself – like air quality, digital interaction, sensors and other technologies. The company can use the schools as an testing platform, but only when the issue concerns better learning. It’s not about using schools or pupils as a new market, it’s about co-creating new value. The model works when the firm has an initial idea, something not yet ready – and they want to co-create with students. The input of the school helps and is a context for learning. We have very good examples that companies have been very happy with being able to try things out in real life with their products. The City of Espoo gives the company a label ‘Co-created with the City of Espoo Schools’ that they can use in their marketing.  This is a useful validation for firms competing globally, the firm can say their service is co-created with the City of Espoo schools, and they are the top of the top in Finland. It comes to market with the evidence of being tested already in a real education context.

DL: What advice can you share with colleagues in Scotland who are thinking about their plans for the new Learning Estates Strategy?

KE: Across our journey, we have learned that our story is part of a global story of changing learning. Two key lessons come out of our experience. The first is that we need to be more flexible. It’s not about doing fixed solutions anymore. We have to be very careful about what size space we need, and where, and what really needs to be fixed. One needs to think about flexibility as much as possible.

The second thing is in terms of education. Education is too valuable to be left only to educators. The more openness there is in schools, inviting others to come into the school and the school and students to go out, the more learners can learn. It has to be the notion of the whole community educating. There is a lot of truth in the idea that“It takes a village to raise a child”.

The Education Buildings Scotland conference 2019 focuses on the Learning Estates Strategy, and the opportunities around ‘connecting people, place and learning’. The aim of the conference is to support more collaboration and opportunities for great design linking learning experiences from 0-80 for all learners. A&DS are supporting Scottish Government and Scottish Futures Trust across the 2 days at our shared stand in the main exhibition hall. You can find the conference programme here.

We’d be delighted to meet you at the Conference, explain more about what we do, and how we can help you shape great learning environments for Scotland’s learning communities.

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