A sense of community
How would you explain your research?
When sustainability is mentioned people most often think about climate change, carbon emissions, energy conservation, perhaps extinction of species. Social sustainability is different, it's about how people in communities get on with each other, how cohesive societies are and what drives that.
What challenges are you hoping to tackle?
The overall ambition of the Leverhulme project is to crack environmental and socio-economic sustainability issues that plight so many cities. It's a project that has many facets, so I have initially chosen to focus on socio-economic inequality and segregation.
Social exclusion occurs in many forms, from physical disability to race or political beliefs. The biggest obstacle to change is people often deny social exclusion is a genuine issue and instead tend to blame people for their own predicaments. Cultural stereotypes are perpetuated in the media and on the street and serve to label, target and oppress people.
We are doing a comparative analysis of different cities. We will start by collecting statistical data - evidence which is appealing to policy makers. Afterwards we will gather more qualitative data through ethnographic work and interviews.
This involves talking to different kinds of people in Nottingham as well as Stuttgart. Later, we hope to do fieldwork also in two Chinese cities which represent a totally different scale of a city, culture and population. In Europe, most people live in medium-sized cities of 500,000 inhabitants or less. Therefore Nottingham and Stuttgart are representative of the social reality for most Europeans today. Shanghai and Chengdu, our Chinese case studies, have populations of over 20 million and 14 million respectively.
What do you predict will be the next big innovation in your field?
There are some brilliant academics - particularly UK based ones - doing excellent work to make inequality a mainstream conversation, politically and socially. I would certainly like to develop my research to understand how segregation and inequality, and the social reality more generally, hinder or help our capacity to plan and as a city; to implement policies; to actually do something that is more sustainable than our present situation. That is where the most exciting innovations are going to come.
What has been the greatest moment of your career so far?
I love my job actually and I'd say the "firsts" are the highlights. PhD graduation was great, qualifying from the hardest thing most people will do. I remember my first paper being published in a good journal and was overjoyed. Getting my first job in academia. These are some of my most precious moments.
Who or what has helped you get to where you are today?
I have always been interested in how society works. Perhaps it's cultural - I am from Finland and grew up in a society with a strong welfare state and collective social security system. Education attainment was fantastic, which I am thankful for as it has helped me get to where I am today.
It was only when I left my home country that I realised the world isn’t full of opportunities for everyone. Doors are shut for so many - life chances are determined almost from birth depending on what family or neighbourhood people live in.
My Finnish childhood is what I describe as a little bubble of a utopia in a very equal society, but it proves it is not just an academic concept - it can be achieved if there is the political will.
What research other than your own really excites you?
I am really interested in public health issues, such as the impact of sugar and how our diet has changed drastically in the last 40 years since the industrialisation and commercialisation of food.
The overconsumption of sugary foods means that even if children brush their teeth twice a day it's not enough and we see not only widespread childhood obesity but also tooth decay.There is a blame culture associated with lower social class and health problems relating to "bad choices". But is it really their fault when what is affordable and available is actually rubbish and addictive?
I suspect corporate profits and interests are driving this agenda. Some of the biggest culprits like Nestle and Coca Cola are on government advisory boards for public health and get to influence policy, which is remarkable. There are interesting questions being asked about the role of "big pharma" also - the tendency to treat illnesses with a pill rather than look for a more holistic cure. We should examine structural issues rather than blame the individual.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
I came to academic study a bit later in life. Spending time in a different work environment helped me to mature. I still massively value the job I had in local government and social housing - it really sparked my interest in pursuing a research career.
After my PhD studies in Urban Planning at Manchester University, I worked for two years as a research fellow in a think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. I found that environment massively educational: I worked on things like housing, renewable energy and social segregation and inequality in cities in England. Afterwards, I completed a post doc in Manchester in Smart Cities, and came to Nottingham in March 2015.
People don't have jobs for life anymore and I would encourage anybody, if they have reached a crossroads and are considering their career options, to seriously think about doing a PhD. They might be a great academic but just haven't discovered it yet.