Skolar Award judge Anne Toppinen: “If there were easy win-win solutions, they’d already be in use”

Forest economics professor and Skolar Award judge Anne Toppinen approaches everything from a sustainability point of view: people, business, the world at large. When our planet is at stake, research findings have to reach all levels of our society.

Anne Toppinen

Skolar Award judge Anne Toppinen keeps asking the same question over and over again. How to exist within the limits of our planet? As Director of Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) and a professor of forest economics and marketing, she has an angle: sustainability. During her prominent academic career, Toppinen has focused on sustainable use of natural resources and responsible business management in the context of bioeconomy and circular economy.

“I’m especially interested in how businesses take sustainability into account in their strategies and operations and how sustainability reflects on the choices consumers make,” she explains.

Attitudes and values are both powerful motors for transformation and the most difficult things to change. Toppinen is interested in finding ways to shift consumers behavior toward more sustainable choices.

“It comes down to wise political decisions, company strategies and changing consumer habits. Consumers are a fragmented group that is very hard to collectively influence. If we as researchers can produce new information that shows what steers consumers toward more sustainable decisions, that’s progress.”

The importance of interaction

This September Toppinen began working as Director of HELSUS, a cross-faculty unit within the University of Helsinki. The institute carries out projects in, for example, sustainable bio-production and urban development in collaboration with several public and private sector actors. In short, it’s a platform for societal collaboration – the sort that is especially necessary for bringing forth solutions for a vast array of sustainability challenges.

“When we’re trying to solve wicked problems in sustainability we have to produce new information in collaboration with experts from many disciplines. And that information needs to reach our society, not just the halls of academia,” Toppinen says.

This dissemination of information boils down to the basics of communication, she adds. It’s crucial to communicate and interact with relevant decision-makers throughout the research project, not just once there’s results.

No time for holding back

When it comes to pitching, the researcher has to engage their audience from the get-go while maintaining a degree of professionalism, Toppinen says.

“Charismatic delivery is great, but if the pitch depends on it too much, it can turn against itself. It’s tricky to find the balance between comic relief and scientific credibility.”

In this day and age, fresh and potentially groundbreaking ideas are welcomed with open arms. The Skolar Award pitching final for one celebrates such proposals, and Toppinen is looking forward to hearing them.

“It’s both fascinating and motivating to peek inside the minds of talented young researchers. There’s never a shortage of research proposals that might end up solving massive sustainability challenges,” Toppinen says. This is not the time to be holding anything back.

“If there were any easy win-win solutions for the alarming deficiency in natural resources and other sustainability issues, they’d be in use already.”

Anne Toppinen is one of the six members of Skolar Award stage jury. They will choose the finalists and the winner of Skolar Award.