On the Ongoing HIIT Renewal Process

Thu, 28.01.2016

HIIT can be considered a great success story, and both Aalto University and University of Helsinki see HIIT as a strategically important activity: the two rectors signed last October an updated contract establishing the status of HIIT for the future, and HIIT is also highlighted in the recently signed strategic partnership agreement concerning Aalto and University of Helsinki collaboration on a more general level. However, we can of course ask ourselves whether we can do even better, is there a way to organize HIIT in such a way that it supports HIIT's mission even more efficiently? And what exactly is HIIT's mission?

HIIT's mission, in a nutshell, is to combine top ICT research of Aalto University and University of Helsinki into a positive collaborating critical mass that supports an internationally strong Helsinki ICT brand, so that the capitol area is recognized as one of the very top ICT hubs in Europe. During its 15-year history HIIT has tried different organisational models to support this mission, but one thing has become clear: the basic funding of HIIT is just not sufficient to sustain a separate department, and this model is quite problematic for several other reasons too. However, if we think HIIT more as a collaboration platform, an organisation facilitating co-operation of our best researchers working on relevant departments of both universities, then most of the administrative problems disappear. I have often referred to the Centers of Excellence of the Academy of Finland as a collaboration model that most people find very non-problematic, so why not use that as a model for HIIT too?

Inspired by this line of reasoning, in the future HIIT's research activities will be organized as fixed-term, thematic research programmes bringing together several groups from the two universities. Obviously, we wish the themes to be aligned with the strong key research areas of the Helsinki ICT community. To set the scientific ambition level on the right level, the Board of HIIT has decided that we start planning with new candidates for Centers of Excellence: after the February 16 launching event of the Academy of Finland we will first collect information of relevant new CoE proposals (by the AoF deadline on April 27), and after forming this first batch of programme candidates, we then gather information of additional candidates so that the first decisions can be made by the HIIT Board in June. More information about this HIIT programme renewal process, including the selection criteria for the new programmes, will be announced after the February event, but in short, the bottom line is that the new HIIT programmes should be high-impact, support strongly the "Helsinki ICT" mission of HIIT, and the strategies of the hosting universities.

The new organisational structure of HIIT means that in the future, there will be no separate HIIT researchers in the sense that all researchers are hired by some university department first, according to the standard processess of the hosting department, and the researcher may then participate in one (or more) of the HIIT thematic research programmes (think of research programmes more as big, challenge-driven reseach projects or project portfolios than loosely-coupled sets of research groups). Some of the researchers working in the programmes can be funded by HIIT, but most of them will be supported by externally funded research projects, which also will be hosted by some department of either of the two universities, and it is then up to the HIIT research programme to decide whether the project fits the agenda of the programme and should be tagged as a HIIT project. HIIT will continue hosting some ongoing projects during a transition period, but HIIT will no more host any new projects that are not accepted by some university department through their normal processess, so e.g. in the CS department of Aalto, this means that one of the professors of the CS department has to take responsibility for the project, and the financial structure has to conform to the guidelines of the CS department. As said, the decision to link a project to a HIIT programme is then a thematic issue, and made by the relevant HIIT programme.

The organisational renewal of HIIT is sometimes in Aalto referred to as an administrative fusion between HIIT and the CS department, although this is not completely true. Let me explain: indeed, as in the "new HIIT" the administration of HIIT researchers is handled by the department hosting the researcher, and as most researchers of HIIT in Aalto are currently working at the CS department, this means that in practice we will in the future in this regard very much rely on the services of CS. However, it should be emphasized that HIIT cannot be regarded by any means as some kind of a “sub-division” of the CS department: first of all, as explained above, the research programmes always involve at least two departments (and two universities), and if a researcher in another Aalto department participates in a HIIT programme, then the administration of the other department will take care of that researcher, not Aalto CS. What is more, HIIT has also some other duties that are not directly part of research activities, and are not limited to any single department, school, or even university: HIIT for example coordinates the Helsinki Doctoral Education Network in ICT (HICT), the joint “Helsinki ICT” recruitments on many levels (postdocs/Fellows, Ph.D. students, summer interns), the university-wide Digi Platform initiative of Aalto, and the regular meetings of the Helsinki area ICT Department Heads, and moreover, HIIT actively participates in branding, networking and outreaching activities related to ICT (e.g. the Helsinki Distinguished Lecture Series on Future IT and the Helsinki ICT Research News feed), and plans and implements IT solutions that encourage and support collaboration. It makes little sense for HIIT to maintain its own staff for these activities (except for a small core management team consisting mainly of the Director and the Vice-Director), but we instead try to rely on existing administrative structures whenever it is possible: in many cases this means people at the CS departments (in both universities), which is the most natural solution because of our strong presence there, but we are also aligning our activities with the central administration of Aalto and the IT Services, and the equivalent organisations on the University of Helsinki side.

So for researchers, my take home message is this: keep up the good work, and if you plan to apply for external funding, use the standard processes of some department of either of the two universities. Later when the new HIIT research programmes are established, these projects may be linked to them, if thematically aligned (otherwise, they can continue as individual department projects; in the future, the idea of course is that the programmes can be used as platforms that facilitate and encourage planning of new projects from day one). One concern we all may have is that after restructuring HIIT, how do we maintain the ethos of HIIT, feeling of HIIT as a community? My solution to this problem is to rely on the new research programmes: HIIT provides a platform for research collaboration, so let's make the research programmes strong, and create visions that bring researchers together and give them incentives for working together towards a common goal. It will not be easy, but I firmly believe that we can make HIIT to an even bigger success than it already is.


Petri Myllymäki

Director of HIIT

Contact person: Petri Myllymäki

Last updated on 28 Jan 2016 by Maria Lindqvist - Page created on 28 Jan 2016 by Maria Lindqvist