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Professor off home turf

Ole B. Jensen’s research deals with how we behave in transport and urban space. His broad academic background includes a Master’s degree in sociology followed by a PhD in planning, a higher doctorate in technology and a professorship in mobility and urban design. He has always worked with experts in disciplines other than his own – entirely in line with his research pursuits.

When it comes to his work, Professor Ole B. Jensen has never been, as he puts it, with anyone like himself. He has always been in unfamiliar territory and he certainly doesn't see that as a problem. On the contrary.

 − It fits well with the research I do. My work consists of a lot of linking to other disciplines, he explains, as a professor at the Technical Faculty of IT and Design today.

And exchanging knowledge and networking with other areas of expertise is something that Ole B. Jensen, 55, was already doing as a student.

Nerd and associate professor form study circle

As a young, idealistic student – or, as he puts it, a nerd – Ole B. Jensen wrote an indignant post for the university magazine AUC-nyt lamenting that the programmes did not offer enough philosophy of science. This led to Jens Christensen, Associate Professor in the Department of Planning, who strongly agreed, contacting him and suggesting they should meet.

So we met. I felt like a little snot-nosed, third- semester student and he was an experienced associate professor. We formed a study circle on theory of science, and the circle evolved over the years to include more and more members

Ole B. Jensen

Perhaps that network was one of the reasons why – after having taught at Hjørring Pædagogseminarium for a year and a half – he received a request to apply for a PhD position in planning. At a completely different department – and faculty – than where he had earned his Master's degree.

− I had developed relationships there that let them know that here was a nerd who might be interesting, he says.

He returned to university and today, 25 years later, he is still employed at AAU.

On land, in the air and underground

Ole B. Jensen’s research is on urban development and urban mobility, i.e. all types of transport systems and places for pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, etc. His goal is to understand the framework of everyday life as it happens while people are on the move.

− A hundred years ago, for example, you didn’t live in Hjørring and work in Aalborg (Ed.: distance of 60 km), unless you had a boss who could accept that you wouldn’t arrive for three days. So the way our cities, our urban communities and our world develop is a function of mobility, he explains.

His research is both on the purely functional, like how quickly you can get there, and on how mobility affects our world and our way of experiencing the world.

− I find it fascinating to try to understand the framework that results from planning, technology development, design – and of course politics. And how these factors in turn create the framework for what can be done.

Ole B. Jensen is completing a research project in 2021 where looks at Copenhagen Airport as a gateway to a global space where we move around. In the past he has worked more underground, you might say, namely with the metro in Copenhagen.

We usually start by asking the naïve question "What is a metro?". Then people say, "Well, we know that. It's something that moves people." Yes, but what does a metro do to our experience of the city for example? You might start going to the cinema in other places; you start shopping in other places; you start to see other things. You might start thinking about "Do I want to get a car?". Your map of the city changes.

Café Latte for 70 kroner

Mobility is naturally linked to Ole B. Jensen's other area of research, urban development. He reminds us that a city is not just a skyline and a lot of buildings and hard asphalt surfaces. A city is constantly on the move.

− A city that isn’t moving goods and services and power and water and sewage and everything in and out − people, information, data – that city is dead. So that's why I see the research I do on mobility as urban research. But it’s clear that when you zoom in on the city, it’s the life between the buildings – the places and spaces we are in or allowed to be in that are important, he says.

He points out that there are many different ways of designing urban spaces, like public areas where the only option for sitting down is in a café where the cheapest item is a coffee for 70 kroner.

− If you don’t have any money, then you can't actually join the party. So just that, whether there's anywhere you can sit in public without it costing anything, that's a little thing to consider, he says.

The question naturally leads to Ole B. Jensen's latest research project with the bleak but also apt term Dark Design.

Out with the outcasts ­– dark design

In January, Ole B. Jensen and a group of colleagues approached the question: How do urban spaces welcome the very weakest in society? 

Or rather ‘not welcome.’ Ole B. Jensen points to a number of conditions where design is used to reject certain groups of people from urban spaces: sloping benches, benches divided by iron bars, sloping heat grates, spikes and enclosures. All to keep the street's homeless away from places where they might otherwise rest or sleep.

Our main task is to expose how this is done. If you aren’t looking for a place to sleep, you won’t notice the installations that make this impossible. To 'learn to see' dark design and thus understand it’s an exercise in learning to look at the city and understand it, he explains about the project, done in collaboration with the City of Copenhagen and a number of NGOs.

A creative shop with good relationships

Creating relationships is something Ole B. Jensen has done throughout his entire career. His partners include surveyors, computer scientists, architects and designers. In his sociology colleagues, he has encountered many prejudices about what it must be like to work with researchers who come from a completely different academic background, something he has always seen as a plus.

− You might think: "How do we make it all fit? And how do we figure this out?" I hope that this applies to all universities, but it is certainly true at Aalborg University that there is a curiosity and a respect for what you bring to the table and what you know about. I've never had anyone say to me "That's not interesting." Rather, they say "That's actually relevant, but how do we incorporate it into our perspective," he says.

Some of what Ole B. Jensen greatly appreciates at Aalborg University he refers to as "that mixture of a relaxed style and a devil-may-care attitude. And then entrepreneurship."

− If you have an idea, then I have never seen a case where you’re not allowed to run with it. At first, they might think you’re going in the wrong direction, but then someone has to be minding the store. But this aspect of being able to develop ideas and give it a go, I really like that.

When he joined the spatial planning group, the first thing he was told was: "Welcome, Ole. We create our own job here."

I simply had no idea what the guy was talking about. But it wasn't long before I figured out that, yes, you create your own job. You are in a framework where you know what you have to do, but there is plenty of room to come up with something yourself. That "Pippi Longstocking" inventiveness, because the university is actually a creative shop. You have to create new knowledge, and you have to cram new knowledge into students’ heads.

New knowledge for him and the students

Ole B. Jensen has been nominated ‘Teacher of the Year’ several times, and cramming new knowledge into the minds of the students is one of the things he loves about his job:

We can put our knowledge out there in journals and in books that end up on various bookshelves. Sometimes other people even read them. But one of the most important ways we can change the world is by getting that knowledge between the ears of our students so that they walk out the door with it. That's where we've really made a difference.

Ole B. Jensen has worked well for a long time with the department's media tech people on cameras and eye-trackers. One of the next things he would like to tackle is sensor technologies and scanners that look into the human being and can help us understand what is going on in the body.

− If I can get people behind all that and connect it to what we’re already working on, then that's a way to get smarter.

Electric guitar and a bit of running

Although Ole B. Jensen is passionate about his job, he is very attentive to cultivating other aspects of life and often reminds especially his younger colleagues to take time off. He spends his own free time in a trinity of family, music – and a little sports.

− What I've been doing for the longest time – apart from breathing – is playing guitar. Music is a special place for me to unwind. If I could stay fit and healthy without running a metre, I’d just play guitar, but I've found that you can't do that, so I have to do both. But there’s no question about the priority, he says.

On Ole B. Jensen's desk right now

  • AirCiF
    In 2021, a four-year research project, Airport City Futures, will be completed. The project was supported with DKK 10 million from Innovation Fund Denmark and will be completed with all the individual work packages and results being brought together in a web-based decision support model where you can delve into the research results. A new form of research dissemination as a supplement to traditional books and papers.
  • Dark Design - Social Exclusion in Urban Spaces
    This new research project, led by Ole B. Jensen, began in January 2021. The project received just over DKK 5 million from VELUX FONDEN to investigate how homeless and socially disadvantaged people are excluded from urban spaces through the design of things like sloping benches that prevent loitering, as well as new legislation that criminalizes various types of presence in urban spaces. The project is being done in conjunction with the City of Copenhagen and a number of NGOs.
  • Research management
    Taking a brush-up course on research management through AAU "Plan2Learn" during the spring.