Dr Markku Sotarauta

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Dr Markku Sotarauta, an international expert in Regional Leadership, is heading to the Mid North Coast as a keynote speaker. The Strategic Leadership Conference will focus on ‘innovation’ in areas of regional education, health, environment, energy and technology.

What are your various roles with the University of Tampere in Finland?
I am professor of regional policy, making theories and practices at the University of Tampere. At the moment, I am also serving as a Dean of the newly established School of Management in the University of Tampere. Since 1998, I‘ve directed the Research Unit for Urban and Regional Development Studies (Sente) that actually is my research group. So, in spite of having quite a lot of managerial responsibilities, I want to keep on doing research also by myself.

What is your specialty within these roles?
For two decades now I’ve been interested in change, development and the ways these can be consciously strived for. I’ve been working with and studying both cities and regions. In spite of being interested mainly in research and teaching, I’ve ended up having various roles in practice.Being a Dean in an era of major institutional and organisational reforms is more about change leadership than management, and that makes it interesting. Surprisingly, I’ve been able to use the lessons I’ve learnt in regional development at my own university. It is fascinating to investigate how it is possible to change a complex web of organisations and make them, one way or another, better.

In practical terms, how does the Research Unit for Urban and Regional Development Studies research ultimately benefit the community?
Our mission is to carry out as high-level academic research as possible, but also to engage with various policy communities in Finland and other countries. In Finland, we interact regularly with the Ministry responsible for regional development and feed it with the latest research results. We also consult cities and regions. In some cases, we have been able to propose novel solutions to solve specific problems, and in others we have influenced the emergence of a new strategy. Quite often our role is to make sense of what actually is going on in a region and provide the development network with a conceptual framework, so that key actors can better understand their own actions and position themselves in the big picture.
I’ve also helped the Futures Committee of the Parliament of Finland to understand regional innovation systems and the ways they can be improved. In our case, the interaction with the policy makers happens at all levels and is based on long-term partnerships and continuous conversations. And it is not only the community that may benefit from our work; we’ve learnt a lot from the communities we’ve worked with, and that learning has translated into novel research questions.

I’ve read that you’re interested in ‘strategic thinking’ when it applies to the promotion of urban and regional development. How do you actually define strategic thinking?
I have defined strategic thinking as an ability to think on an abstract level, to move freely from imaginary issues to real ones and vice versa. Moreover, it should be seen as an ability to see through things: to perceive them as they really are. A true strategist has the ability to anticipate events, plan for them and attempt to control them by linking operative actions to the long-range view through strategic awareness. A strategically thinking individual is, on the one hand, creating his / her cognitive map − and on the other hand, transforming this into consistent and persistent action. In essence, it is about making sense of a complex flow of events. I believe that collective action is of utmost importance in promotion of regional development. I also believe that continuous search for strategic awareness is the core in collaborative advantage. For its part, this calls for a well developed ability to monitor and interpret events and to make sense of them and to find the strategic issues essential to development from the long-term perspective.
I give you an example from my home town, Tampere, which has transformed from being the centre of the Finnish heavy industry and textile industry into the leading knowledge city. Collective strategic thinking, with a series of conferences, seminars, development programs and other efforts helped to establish, formalise and systemise the development activities revolving around technology, innovation and knowledge. Earlier fragmented development efforts became an orchestrated set of bold moves that involved most of the main players.

What roles do you see leadership and management skills playing when it comes to successful economic development?
I am convinced that they are crucial, but extremely difficult to achieve. It is also worth remembering that leading regional development efforts is very different from leading an organisation. Regional development is always about competing, as well as aligned visions and dreams. There always are many complex, wicked issues and multiple identities. Thus, regional development is often also highly emotionally charged. Leading regional development efforts is indirect by nature; there usually is no option for command and control. Leadership and managerial skills thus need to be developed in the context of complex networks. The ones shepherding the networks are not some external third parties, but deeply embedded in the networks they aim to shape and lead. I’ve seen cases where good network leaders have truly made a difference and cases where not so good ones have locked their regions into the past.

What kind of parallels do you see behind the economic development in your native Finland and Australia?
Of course, there are significant institutional differences in the ways the regional development policy is organised and the significance it is assigned to vis à vis other policy domains. It is also obvious that in a small, relatively homogenous Nordic country, consensus is a more elemental part of the culture than it is in Australia. But, in the end, there are lots of similarities and shared questions: how to tap into global knowledge economy, how to survive in the rapidly centralising world, how to pool scattered resources, powers and competencies for collective action to make our regions better. Ultimately, the question is what motivates people and how they can be mobilised. The answers may be, to some extent, different − but the questions are surprisingly similar when we think of regional development issues at a leadership level.

You’re speaking at the Strategic Regional Leadership Conference in Port Macquarie on 18 November. What topics will you be covering?
I’ll cover leadership in regional development networks, main bottlenecks of the networks and the ways these can be overcome; perhaps I will also touch on the role of strategic thinking. So, my speech will be about strategic regional leadership. I’ll use a few cases from Finland and other countries to illustrate the main message.

How important do you believe these types of Leadership Conferences are in fostering an innovative spirit within local communities?
They are very important in raising the strategic awareness, and often they also motivate people to look for new solutions. Of course, their effect fades away fairly quickly if they are not an elemental part of the wider spectrum of measures working towards the same end.

This is not the first time you’ve visited Australia. What opinions have you developed about Australia as a nation?
For me, Australia is a fascinating place. There is the same kind of feeling of isolation and uniqueness as we have in Finland, combined with the pride of doing so well in spite of geographical distances within a country. In addition, Australia is an interesting case, as it is highly urbanised with lively metropolitan areas, but also filled with natural beauty and environmental hazards. I’d say you have it all. What is striking is that in spite of these facts, regional development and innovation are not on top of the policy ladders as they are in Europe and many European countries. However, it seems that Australia is free of many of the current bottlenecks we face in Europe currently.

Thanks Dr Sotarauta.

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