From project-based thesis to the best research paper award – success story of RD&I and education integration

Teksti | Julia Nevmerzhitskaya

During the Digital Open Living Lab Days (DLLD2020) the best full research paper award was given to the article: “MIND THE GAP: Understanding and communicating the business value of co-creation” by Suvi Seikkula, Julia Nevmerzhitskaya and Aletta Purola. The paper was based on Suvi Seikkula’s extensive thesis work commissioned by CIRC4Life-project.

Integration of education and research and development (R&D) activities is one of the key priorities for universities of applied sciences. According to Arene (2020), a special feature of R&D work in universities of applied sciences is a significant participation of students in this work, through their studies, job placements and thesis process. Laurea’s Learning by Developing (LbD) model integrates research, development and innovation activities with teaching and learning through development projects (Raij, 2014). Practical implementation of the model happens through joint RD&I projects in which students act as developers together with research and teaching staff. Student participation can take different forms: from project-based assignment during a study module to a paid internship and thesis work.

Not all RD&I projects can be easily integrated into educational activities. Horizon2020 funds research and innovation projects helping to achieve European competitiveness with its emphasis on excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges. This requires participation of top-level researchers and innovators. Although Horizon2020 projects do not directly tackle educational aims (as opposed to Erasmus projects, as an example), they allow for student participation, usually as a part of a project team, and support young researchers by e.g. covering the costs of conference participation. The level of integration varies from project to project, and depends on the available resources and the goals of the project.

CIRC4Life project

CIRC4Life-project has provided an excellent case for the integration of education and research and development work. The project, funded by the EU under Horizon2020 under grant agreement No 776503, aims at developing circular economy business models and demonstrating these models in four industrial sectors. As a large-scale demonstration of an innovation action, the project concentrates on activities directly aiming at producing plans and arrangements or designs for new, altered or improved products, processes or services. In accordance with Horizon2020 rules for innovation actions, the project includes prototyping, testing, demonstrating, piloting, large-scale product validation and market replication. Laurea’s role in the project as the Living Lab coordinator directly supports key project activities.

A part of the CIRC4Life dissemination and exploitation activities is dedicated to the academic teaching and education. The academic partners in the consortium disseminate the knowledge gained from this project in their respective universities. The results of the project will be utilised to inform the teaching to both postgraduate and undergraduate courses in sustainable design, production, ecology, circular economy, business models and innovation, and other related areas. The project plan includes “the input to (i) the internships, (ii) taught programmes related aspects, such as teaching materials for study modules, group/individual projects, graduation theses, etc. (iii) MPhil/PhD projects” (CIRC4Life Grant Agreement, 2018).

Integration activities

During the first 2 years of the project, CIRC4Life was introduced at Laurea to over a hundred students, and provided project-related assignments to four different study units in both Master and Bachelor degree programs. Laurea was able to involve 18 Master students as facilitators of co-creation events such as Open Innovation Camp and Laurea CE Jam, and 2 Bachelor students into development of a mobile application. Due to innovative and applied nature of the project, the project-based assignments covered topics related to service design, usability testing, mobile app development, co-creation and circular economy business models, thus allowing for cross-disciplinary teams of students to be involved. In 2020, CIRC4Life also supports RD&I-path students (TKI-polku in Finnish) and offers possibility to conduct their studies in the project. The project offers internships and continuous thesis topics for Master students.

Student’s perspective

Laurea’s Master student Suvi Seikkula got interested in CIRC4Life project and especially the co-creation of products and services business model, as the topic was closely related to her interest in co-creation and service design. Based on the discussion with the CIRC4Life project manager, Suvi decided to tackle the challenge of how to show the value of co-creation to the companies developing new circular economy business models.

“The CIRC4Life project is based on co-creation, which is a complex and utterly intriguing and interesting subject. I am especially interested in the dynamics between people co-creating and how different personal aspects factor into it.  The project also deals with the development of business models and I am especially interested in business design, focusing more on the strategic than the operational everyday aspects of running a business”

– explains Seikkula her motivation to choose CIRC4Life as her thesis topic. According to Seikkula, doing a thesis for an EU project is an easy package: you get the thesis commissioner with a real life challenge, a contact person to support the thesis process, and access to background materials.

We asked Suvi to describe the key benefits and challenges of having a thesis work commissioned by a project team. Among the benefits, Seikkula considers the practical nature and the real-life relevance, which is also a good motivating factor. At the same time, the project scope can limit the development part of a thesis process, which is a challenge, according to Suvi. She also finds it challenging to prove the relevance of the development work to the thesis commissioner and the project partners.

Project team’s perspective

CIRC4Life project specialist and service designer Aletta Purola considers that the main benefit of working with students is new viewpoints and solutions brought to the project. According to Purola, involving a sharp minded student helps to take a step back and to observe a project more objectively, which often results in recognizing pain-points and finding better ways of working and approaching challenges. As a human-centered service designer, Aletta believes that each student has a unique skillset to offer to the project. In the best occasion, these skills are harnessed and transferred into action items that can eventually benefit the whole project. Also involving students in projects addressing complex societal challenges such as sustainable behavior and circular economy helps develop inner motivation and personal interest in becoming a part of the sustainable change.

One of the key challenges from the project team’s perspective is related to balancing the resources needed for providing a good induction and support for the students, so that they are able to start working independently. This requires good cooperation with teachers and thesis supervisors, which is not always the case. As Purola puts it:

“working directly with the students on their project-related tasks has been straightforward and easy, however, when these are related to thesis, having the supervisors involved systematically throughout the process would be beneficial for both sides”.


Collaborative R&D projects such as the ones funded under Horizon2020 do not directly aim at integrating educational aspects because of their expectation to involve top scientists and researchers, but they offer a number of ways to engage students in the development work. Although the RD&I and education integration can be a time consuming process, it can also bring visible benefits both for the project team, and for the students’ professional development.

Laurea’s LbD philosophy of treating students as a part of a development team together with teachers and project specialists provides a good basis for the integration. In CIRC4Life we continue to implement different options for integrating students into the development work, starting from interactive sessions during study units, offering project-based studies, course assignments, internships, thesis work and short-term employment opportunities.  The successful cooperation described in this article not only resulted in a thesis, but also received a recognition by top researchers in the field of co-creation and Living Labs. The best full research paper award shows that junior researchers have a great innovation potential, especially with the support from a project team. Seikkula mentioned that her thesis research commissioned by CIRC4Life was so thorough and allowed her to practice different research methods, that she considers it a good basis for continuing postgraduate studies. This opens up new opportunities for a project-based life-long learning.

“Mind the Gap: understanding and communicating the business value of co-creation ” by Seikkula et al (2020) is available at DLLLD Conference proceedings at 



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