Mika Klemettinen: From an analogue world to a smart and digital information society

In the past decades, the world has changed to a considerable degree. Content has moved to the internet, there is no longer a need to fill in paper forms, many of us are able to work from home and we can establish remote connections with anyone across the world, independent of time and place.

Today, we are in fact living in a digital society, or at least a society that is digitally transforming itself, one that is increasingly based on the utilisation of data and artificial intelligence. If nothing else before, the coronavirus has finally embedded digital solutions and platforms firmly in the everyday lives of almost all of us, and smart services are increasingly supporting our existence.

However, this has not always been so. At the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, when I started studying at the Department of Computer Science of the University of Helsinki, the world looked quite a bit different from now. Computers were mainly mainframe terminals equipped with green text displays, and the first Mac computers, affectionately known in Finland as birdhouses, were introduced. The field itself was still considered somehow marginal, even though the home PC and gaming console boom of the 1980s had raised its profile.

Personally, I found it an interesting field of general usefulness, with potential applications in the future. I was interested in data and related opportunities to such a degree that I decided to apply for doctoral education, and gained admission.

From doctorate to director of digitalisation

After a four-year effort, I received my doctorate, specialising in the formation of knowledge (an area at the intersection of smart data analytics and artificial intelligence, emphasising the importance of data) and the handling of faults in communications networks. At the time, even large sets of data were small compared to today, and analyses were usually completed after night-long runs, as the computing power of computers was a far cry from modern machines.

Later on, I followed Professor Heikki Mannila, who supervised my doctoral studies and research group, to Nokia’s research centre where I carried on working with, among other things, personalisation and context-sensitive technologies, as well as, subsequently, with 4G-related research and applications. After 13 years, I transferred to Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation, to prepare and then head the national 5G research programme, and later to serve as director of digitalisation at Business Finland, with responsibility for digitalisation programmes and strategy.

Rewarding studies were of added value

After 2015 the world’s exposure to digitalisation accelerated quickly, and traditional sectors outside information technology were swept up by the digital transformation. I contributed to this transformation by heading the drawing up of the section on data and platform economy for the AI Finland programme (established by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s government and Minister Lintilä) as well as that of the AI section of the governmental information policy report. In addition to that, I also took part in various ethical discussions on the utilisation of data. It was rewarding to realize that past research efforts and my resulting professional career served as a solid basis for my own thinking.

In retrospect, my job history and career path have been logical, but the value of my studies and research in the 1990s could not possibly have been predicted at the time, or when making those decisions. My studies and subsequent professional roles provided me with a sound foundation for digitalisation, from both a theoretical-scientific as well as an applied and business-oriented perspective – combining innovation and business in particular. Similarly, collecting, analysing, understanding and utilising data, as well as preparing for risks, are now – and especially in the future – of vital importance and a significant source of added value from the viewpoint of not only business operations but society as a whole.

Discoveries come about by chance

I believe that without my broad-based and horizontal studies completed roughly a quarter of a century ago I would not possess the in-depth knowledge needed in today’s world. Likewise, had I not approached with an open mind the various challenges encountered on the journey following my studies that advanced my understanding and skills, I would definitely have at my disposal fewer resources to draw on today.

Many of the things and techniques I personally investigated or studied in the previous century have only recently become commonplace, now that we have real-time and historical data from all possible areas and now that the advancements in computing capacity have made it possible to efficiently analyse such data, often in real time.

You can never know in advance which topics, areas or themes will gain in importance in the future. This is why it is important to keep an open mind and maintain your ambition when studying and conducting research. In the end, many great discoveries throughout history have come about by chance. By the same token, research efforts that have at one time appeared isolated may at some point serve as a key element of a societally significant whole, in the best case being instrumental in determining the future of humankind.

I would never have guessed that now, 25 years later, I am serving as trade and innovation consul at the Consulate General of Finland in Shanghai and heading the Shanghai office of Business Finland. Success in these positions is also founded on digitalisation and smart solutions based on data – in this instance, from the perspective of Finnish expertise and export promotion.

Mika Klemettinen is the Head of Office of Business Finland Shanghai and the Trade and Innovation Consul at the Consulate General of Finland in Shanghai.