Mobility is a law of nature

The University of Oulu uses the donations it receives to increase the impact of the research. The recruitment of new researchers, made possible by these donations, plays an important part in the University’s efforts. The recent Degree Program in Civil and Construction Engineering has received direct support for its recruitment from donation funds. This also made it possible to set up a Professorship in Infrastructure and Transport.
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Väylä-ja tieliikennetekniikan professori Pekka Leviäkangas

Link between the traditional and future-oriented fields

“There will be transport, or rather mobility, as long as there is life,” says Professor Pekka Leviäkangas, Doctor of Science in Technology and Business Administration, and explains further: “Transport has always taken place in nature – in fact, it’s a law of nature: migratory birds and ocean fish, roaming elephants and the planet’s rotation are great examples of it. Prehistoric hunters would leave their caves to fish, hunt and gather, and so do we when we leave for work in the morning. There will always be transport and movement, you can’t prevent living creatures from roaming about. The same applies to the movement of goods.”

Leviäkangas’ Professorship in Infrastructure and Transport encompasses everything that moves on top of built infrastructure as well as the infrastructure itself: vehicles and operations of all modes and the systems needed to manage them. His Professorship is intrinsically linked to many areas of society. “For example, urbanisation continues: the vast majority of Finns live in an urban environment (depending on the calculation method). Cities are still being built, which requires smooth transportation flows and the development of future mobility services.”

Leviäkangas’ position was established at the University of Oulu’s Faculty of Technology on 1 February 2020. It is strongly linked to both traditional and future-oriented fields, as it encompasses both physical and digital transport. “The aim of my Professorship is to strengthen the effectiveness of research which is a fairly easy task in the field of technology, as our research clearly benefits both businesses and public sector.”

“Our broad scope also forces us to focus our research efforts, as they are guided by our research funding and internationalisation objectives. We are already involved in a fairly large European research project that focuses on the digitalisation of sparsely populated regions,” Leviäkangas says. The research theme of the University of Oulu focuses on intelligent mobility and logistics. “Our aim is to discover digital solutions for low-margin market conditions, i.e. sparsely populated regions. It is important to find solutions that are both environmentally and economically sustainable. We’ve also set our sights on future project applications under the EU’s Green Deal research programme,” notes Leviäkangas. “In addition, we will certainly be involved in the research on automation and digitalisation – both in transport and infrastructure.”

Improving the world in traditional sectors

“Everything you see from your window was built by either a creator or an engineer,” Leviäkangas says. “National carbon neutrality targets and international climate agreements are currently leading the research that is done in infrastructure and transport. The principles of sustainable development also include social considerations and people’s satisfaction with their living environment, which are closely linked to transport and its inevitable side-effects. Yet we need transport.”

Do researchers still need to justify environmental research aspects to traditional industries? “Good question, as there is plenty of information available about the environment. But when it comes to the corporate world you still need to balance shareholder value targets with sustainability criteria,” notes Leviäkangas. “Historically, the emphasis has been on the principle of maximising shareholder value, but the economic architecture has changed, and our thinking is now open to other principles.” For example, shareholder values are being combined with stakeholder values, and a company's mission may also include benefiting the general public and society at large, which is not always so apparent in their bottom line.

"Therefore, on a collective level, it is no longer necessary to justify sustainability issues, but how you operationalise them is a tricky question. We need smart business leaders who can interpret the signals of the environment and merge conflicting goals,” Leviäkangas emphasises.

But why two doctoral degrees? While completing even just one is considered a tremendous effort, Leviäkangas explains that he enjoyed the effort. “My second doctoral dissertation was fully motivated by curiosity. At the time, I was working in Australia, and I lived in a rental apartment with no domestic affairs to worry about. I felt that focusing intently on a few questions that had continued to linger on in my mind after my first dissertation would be a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. I managed to solve them, and this process resulted in another doctoral dissertation.”

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