Pentti Malaska: Obituary

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This is my personal reflection of a Pentti Malaska, who was my guide in my journey to futures studies Professor Pentti Malaska passed away on 15 March 2012, weakened by illness. He was born in Käkisalmi, Karelia, on 11 April 1934.

Pentti Malaska was a pioneer of futures research, an inspiring teacher and a profound social thinker. He spoke about environmental problems long before they became publicly accepted facts. He emphasized the potentials of new communications technology at a time when it was still in its infancy. He spoke about immaterial values at a time when the word was mainly attached to material and economic values. Malaska was a forerunner in the true sense of the word.

Pentti Malaska was an exceptionally versatile person. An engineer by education, he worked for the Imatran voima power company, earning a doctorate in energy economy in the mid-sixties. There was a streak of experimental inventor in Malaska, and his solid foundation in engineering enabled him to understand the critical dimensions of technological progress.

Malaska was no ordinary engineer, however: from the beginning he was equally interested in economics, the social and natural sciences as well as the humanities. Driven by a boundless thirst for knowledge, he steeped himself in the developments in all these disciplines, arriving ultimately at a holistic approach that combined different scientific and other disciplines in an almost renaissance spirit, and this became the hard core of his futures thinking.

Malaska’s gift for mathematics made him Professor of Managerial Mathematics and Statistics at the Turku School of Economics in 1966. The school became for him the sphere in which he trained several generations of students in rigorous logical thinking. It was there that an academic unit for futures studies eventually emerged, launched by Malaska in 1992 together with the recently deceased Mika Mannermaa. Malaska was also the first chairman of the Finnish Society for Futures Studies, founded in the 1980s.

Pentti Malaska was truly international. He joined the circle of the Club of Rome in the early 1970s. It was there he found his true kindred souls: enlightened contemporaries from all over the world who were concerned about the future of humanity and who saw that it was high time to recognize the profound impacts of economic and technological development on nature and humanity.

Over the decades, Malaska’s international work acquired ever-new dimensions. He was eventually appointed Chairman of the World Futures Studies Federation. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that Pentti Malaska was in his time one of the most international persons in Finland, one whose network extended to every corner of the globe.

Pentti Malaska was by nature a Socratic thinker who enjoyed intellectual dialogue. We, the members of his research team, used to playfully call him a “Danube of thoughts”, because he had an uncanny ability to find an almost infinite number of fresh perspectives on any subject at all. For me personally – as for many others – meeting Pentti Malaska was an important turning point that opened a secret gate to new worlds.

Malaska was an easily enthused and warm-hearted person, which undoubtedly stemmed from his Karelian roots. Working with him was humanly extremely rewarding. His principle of leadership was a classic: “If you’re not having fun here, you’re fired!” That is something to think about in today’s leadership discourse.

When the waves of social debate ran high on such issues as nuclear power, Malaska immersed himself totally in the discussion, deploying his entire arsenal of arguments. It particularly annoyed him when he saw social and political decisions being made on grounds of irrational arguments. The anti-nuclear lobby got in him a representative who was not afraid to put himself on the firing line of industry bosses if needed.

Pentti Malaska had already slipped into the role of an active social debater in the early 1970s. It was around this time that the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report was published, the basic tenets of which – accepted today throughout society – were pure poison to many economists with a blind belief in economic growth. Here Pentti set an example for us younger colleagues: although blows rained on him – and many of them below the belt – it was the civic duty of an academic to use factual arguments to reveal the true nature of things.

In these discussions Malaska was never content to be just a critic, but always presented his own alternative, whether it involved energy solutions, the measurement of welfare or explaining the world. In his last years, he began developing the idea of ‘neogrowth’, the kind of economic and social growth that would not be based on the exploitation of natural resources and the increase of social inequality. He never got to finish this work.

Malaska’s last piece of writing was an article, finished a couple of months ago, which had an eloquent title: “Tulevaisuustietoisuudesta ja tulevaisuudesta tietämisestä” (On Futures Consciousness and Futures Knowledge). In it, Malaska makes the point that futures knowledge is an epistemological sphere just as is past knowledge. The crucial thing is consciousness, because that is what enables us to assess the future. In the final analysis, Pentti Malaska was a classical humanist who had faith in the civilizing of humankind.

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