When the word “pressures” is mentioned in public debate, it is seldom associated with anything very positive: pressure to change, external pressures, pressure at work – the word often has negative connotations.
Esko Aho, the new President of the Finnish National Fund for Research and Development (Sitra), thinks that pressure can also be a positive thing in certain contexts. “I think it is great that Sitra is feeling external pressures. Society demands and expects much from us and, from my point of view as President, this pressure is very welcome,” says Aho, who began his work in July. According to Aho, Sitra has an increasingly high profile, and the fund has become a more prominent participant in social debate.
To make Sitra’s direction clearer, its Supervisory Board adopted a new strategy, which, according to Aho, provides solid policy guidelines for practical activities. The strategy will cover the years 2005 to 2007 and its main point is that Sitra will make its operations more effective and thereby increase its social impact. This can be achieved by focusing Sitra’s resources on a few themes that are deemed important. “The strategy defines the operations model. What the practical activities will focus on will be determined separately in due course. A new area of focus can emerge at any time and old ones can draw to a close,” says Aho. According to him, the room to manoeuvre provided by the strategy is large, and, in practice, essential because nobody can accurately anticipate changes in the world for years ahead. “The fundamental point is that we can react quickly and efficiently to changing situations and do what we need to do for Finland’s future economic growth.”
According to the strategy, Sitra will focus on a few selected priorities. So far, four such priorities have been announced: improvement of the innovation business, health care, Russia and India. Aho promises information on other new priorities later in September. “We will soon announce how many new priorities we will have and what they will be. By the end of the year, everything will be ready so that work can start in earnest.” Aho reveals Sitra’s personnel has been very active in discussing the new priorities. While Sitra’s policies state that Finnish society should be creative, dynamic and innovative, the same demand can be made of the fund itself. “It is obvious that we have to act the way we want others to act,” says Aho. According to Aho, implementing Sitra’s strategy in practice means that the content of the activities be fundamentally reformed. “The activities will remain more or less the same, but the content will change dramatically.”
Aho stresses that Sitra’s basic mission remains unchanged: to boldly tackle issues that are essential to Finland’s future economic growth, which may also involve an element of risk taking. He points out that an organisation must also be allowed failures, because it is not uncommon that a “failed” project has, after all, produced something highly relevant, that is, it is a success from a different perspective. Aho points out that Sitra’s autonomous and independent position guarantees one of its key characteristics, flexibility. “It is easy for us to react and make decisions quickly, if need be.” Finally, how does the new President feel about his new job? What is it like to work for Sitra? “It is what I anticipated, if not more. This job offers boundless opportunities for creativity and brainstorming. What I can achieve in this job is now very much up to me and my ideas,” says Aho.