Professor’s portrait: ”Being a researcher is the most rewarding job I can think of!”
Kristian Widén, Professor of Innovation Science, is driven by a desire to contribute to positive change. With his research on innovations in the construction sector, he hopes to be able to participate in creating a better future by contributing with increased knowledge about how new materials, technologies, services and processes are developed, disseminated and implemented.
”I love coming to work and feel like I am learning something new every day. This, combined with the knowledge that my research contributes to building a sustainable society, are my main driving forces.”
Kristian Widén, Professor in Innovation Science
Already at an early age Kristian Widén knew that he wanted to work with construction and infrastructure, but doing research was not the plan. Instead, he dreamed of becoming an architect. He was an intern at various architectural offices and got to be involved in designing houses. When it was time to apply to the university, however, he chose a master's degree of Science in Engineering
“I didn't have a clear focus in my education. I chose courses that dealt with construction production – financial aspects, leadership issues and construction physics. I had an interest in these issues, but I had never thought about becoming a researcher”, says Kristian Widén and continues:
“One day when I had recently graduated, I met one of my old professors. He invited me to lunch and asked if I was interested in applying to a doctoral education, and the rest is history. It did not even take two weeks after I had started my doctoral studies before I was stuck. This is my calling! Being a researcher is the most rewarding job I can think of. I love coming to work and feel like I am learning something new every day. This, combined with the knowledge that my research contributes to building a sustainable society, are my main driving forces.”
Successful implementation depends on understanding people
Already in his doctoral dissertation, Kristian Widén showed that it is important at an early stage in the development of innovations to involve the people who are affected by the innovation, or who can influence it.
“I realised early on that understanding how the people who will work with the new innovation think is crucial for the innovation to be able to gain a foothold and spread. Those who are affected by an innovation need to be involved from the beginning. That is why it is important that researchers work together with the industry as well as with the society as a whole.”
When he began his research career, Kristian Widén thought of the construction industry as conservative, something he has come to re-evaluate.
“The general belief is that the industry is conservative and reluctant to change, but I do not experience that. I think most people are interested in research and new knowledge. One challenge, however, is the project-based structure. Constantly working in projects makes it more difficult to achieve and maintain continuous development of knowledge. However, I believe that the interest in research has increased. Today, there is a different awareness of, for example, sustainability, economically as well as socially and environmentally.
The construction industry and the manufacturing industry are not comparable
A large part of the research that has been done on innovations is concerned with the manufacturing industry. When Kristian Widén started researching, he was set on applying that research to the construction industry. Pretty soon though, he realized that his research would be about something else.
“I understood early on that it would not be as simple as applying ready-made theories and models to another industry. The construction industry differs from the manufacturing industry in several ways. The industries are structured differently, and there are large differences in the value chain's results - in the end product itself. It is not possible to take an existing innovation theory and apply it to the construction sector without putting it in the industry's special context”, Kristian Widén explains and continues:
“I usually say that there are three different factors that together make the construction sector special. First, you work project based. There are, of course, elements of industrialization, but the cornerstone is still that everything is implemented as a project. It is a complex way of working.”
Secondly, says Kristian Widén, there are relatively many actors who collaborate in the projects. It is an industry that is very specialized, which means that each new project begins with a learning process where you get to know each other and create an understanding of each other's abilities.
“A third aspect, which can sometimes put a brake to the implementation of innovations and create some caution, is the fact that the products that are created have a very long estimated lifespan.”
The products - often buildings but also other parts of the infrastructure - have a lifespan of at least 50 years, and many houses stand for much longer than that. During that time, some components will need to be updated and replaced, while others are expected to last for the entire life of the product. The parts must interact with each other and function as a whole and that makes it complex, according to Kristian Widén.
Understanding the parts creates an understanding of the whole
Another complicating factor is the adjustments to the construction process that must be made on the basis of geographical conditions. It is not possible to build in the same way in Sweden as in Italy, for example. Outdoor temperature and amount of snow are examples of things that affect both how you build and the actual conditions for construction. In northern Sweden, for example, it is more difficult to cast concrete outdoors during the winter, while in southern Sweden it is usually possible all year round.
“It is such aspects that make the construction industry difficult to work with, and that is also what makes it so interesting”, says Kristian Widén enthusiastically and states:
“There is currently no comprehensive theory that describes innovation in the construction industry, and one of my goals is to be able to present one. I do not know if I will be able to do it, but I have good conditions. I have great colleagues and I think it is very fun, and I think that is the basis for success.”
”There is currently no comprehensive theory that describes innovation in the construction industry, and one of my goals is to be able to present one. I do not know if I will be able to do it, but I have good conditions. I have great colleagues and I think it is very fun, and I think that is the basis for success.”
Kristian Widén, Professor in Innovation Science
Much of the research on innovation related to the construction sector that has been published examines parts of the process, and so far this is also how Kristian Widén works.
“In order to eventually be able to create an understanding of the whole, we must start by examining the parts, in some cases at such a detailed level as one specific innovation. In this way, we take small steps towards the big picture. We are also working to develop methods that can be used to create this type of understanding”, says Kristian Widén:
“If we use methods that are developed for a different context, such as the manufacturing industry, it is not certain that the results we achieve will be reliable. By doing that, we risk that the conclusion will be that the construction industry needs to become more similar to the manufacturing industry, that is, more industrialized, and given the complexity of the industry, I cannot see that as a sustainable solution. We cannot build houses in the same way we build cars, on assembly lines, at least not entirely. Parts of the process can of course be industrialized, but not all of it.”
The basis for building communities
One of the things that attracted Kristian Widén to the construction industry is that the products that the industry produces - buildings, roads and other infrastructure - form the very foundation of our society.
“What our industry creates forms the framework for the life of modern man. It is exciting to be involved in developing something that is so basic and at the same time so important”, he says and continues:
“Another thing that makes it interesting is the fact that the construction industry is one of our largest national economies, not only in Sweden but in all countries. At the same time, the industry accounts for a large share of climate emissions. If we are to achieve the climate goals, the construction industry is one of the industries that is most important. We need to develop how we work both with new constructions and with the existing property and infrastructure portfolio. If I can contribute to innovations that facilitate that, then I think I have achieved something really good.
Smart Cities and Communities
One of the tasks that Kristian Widén takes on is the role of deputy program manager for one of the University's two profile areas: Smart cities and communities. The university wide profile area brings together research, teaching and collaboration with industry. Today, the profile area has three identified areas of strength - smart mobility, smart energy and the smart citizen.
“The profile area Smart Cities and Communities is something that I really believe in as a concept. When creating the profile area, we departed from subject areas where Halmstad University has strong research and shaped the profile area's orientations around it. In order to create commitment, it is important that the researchers feel that the profile area provides added value. At the same time, we must be clear about what the profile area stands for. This is especially important when it comes to attracting external partners and financiers. It is in this way that we show that we are a credible and reliable player. It's not always easy, but that's also why it's inspiring. I enjoy working with things that offer challenges.”
Kristian Widén shares responsibility for the profile area with his colleague Magnus Jonsson, Professor of real-time systems. Together, they represent the profile area both internally and externally.
“In issues concerning the profile area, we are the face of the University. We work to create opportunities for the University's researchers, among other things by profiling ourselves as funders and by actively looking for new potential partners. It is about creating an opportunity for the University to develop and communicate its research, but just as much about the individual researchers having better opportunities to conduct research and teaching.”
Kristian Widén sees many advantages in working at a small university, not least when it comes to the - often multidisciplinary - research that is carried out under the umbrella of Smart Cities and Communities.
“I believe that there are great opportunities for a multidisciplinary profile area to be successful at Halmstad University. In general, we have fairly low silo walls between the research subjects. Many of us are used to working interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. In addition, Halmstad University has a history of working in close collaboration with the surrounding community, perhaps above all with various companies but also with the public sector such as the Region Halland and the Armed Forces. These two elements - our multidisciplinarity and our habit of external collaboration - are two of our main competitive advantages”, he says.
With his heart in research
Kristian Widén appreciates teaching, but it is still the research that is closest to his heart.
“It is rewarding to teach, especially when the groups are quite small so that I can have personal contact with the students. I teach mostly at the advanced level and supervise doctoral students, and it is often very rewarding. Sometimes I learn almost as much as the students. But most exciting of all is still the research.”
When Kristian Widén now takes on the role of professor, he does so with an ambition of driving development, both personally and subject-wise.
“As a professor, I hope to be able to inspire students as well as my my colleagues and contribute to the research at the University becoming even stronger and more visible. I work in a department with great energy where exciting things are happening. I hope that my professorship can have positive effects not only for myself but also for those who work in my vicinity, that it can open doors to new opportunities and collaborations”, says Kristian Widén, who hopes to be able to fulfill one of his dreams in the foreseeable future:
“My goal has always been to be involved in building an internationally recognized research group with a focus on innovation in the construction sector, and we are well on our way. Halmstad University will be a force to be reckoned with!”
Text: Christa Amnell
Photo: Dan Bergmark and Pexels
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