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Design Indaba 2017: Nelly Ben Hayoun's University of the Underground

DESIGN

Design Indaba 2017: Nelly Ben Hayoun's University of the Underground

The multidisciplinary designer is calling for contemporary Willy Wonkas, Robert Rauschenbergs and Marie Curies to disrupt the current educative system

by Karen Day
on 10 March 2017

The soon-to-open University of the Underground is taking on today’s institutions and power structures by redesigning the way in which a post-graduate course operates. Helmed by the palpably ambitious multidisciplinary designer Nelly Ben Hayoun, University of the Underground is “bold, unapologetic and impolite” in its quest to disrupt and democratize the educational system while empowering the next generation of designers.

We learned about Ben Hayoun’s radical program at this year’s Design Indaba conference, where—dressed in a blue flight suit—she traversed topics from Mars terraforming to Worms from Hell (the latter being the deepest multicellular organisms found living beneath Earth’s surface). But the London-based, French progressive wasn’t delivering a simple lecture about science, she was doing what she does best: using her “total bombardment” approach to designing an extreme experience which would show how working across disciplines is the smartest way to achieve a common mission and affect positive change in the world. This tactic has seen her studio work with the likes of NASA, the SETI Institute, WeTransfer (where she’s Head of Experiences), Mattel, Red Bull and Google HQ, to name a few.

Now, she’s taking on education. There are three reasons driving Ben Hayoun to create University of the Underground, each as considered as the next. The first is to help students prepare for the unpredictable. She and a handful of “dreamers of the day" will encourage them to find their own style and voice in order to remain malleable—a strong requirement in the ever-changing role designers assume today. “We believe in a bottom-up approach in which—through the development of meaningful experiences and a holistic understanding of community, sociology and ethnography—students can develop projects which will challenge power structures and possibly the message of an institution toward its public and its workforce,” she explains.

Another motivating factor is the inequity in graduate degree financing. They’re creating a new 80/20 model in which all University of the Underground students will attend on scholarship, with the 80% of the funding coming from philanthropists and forward-thinking companies (like WeTransfer) and 20% coming from governmental grants. “One of my goals being to create many more of these educative structures worldwide with the same 80/20 financial structure,” says Ben Hayoun. She’s worked with Amsterdam’s Sandberg Institute in developing this new framework and implementing it on a long-term scale. Part of that is the university’s decision to bring stakeholders to the students; by eliminating the red tape involved in working with institutions, students can help reclaim and develop company structures of the future.

And finally Ben Hayoun is inspired by what the next generation is capable of, and wants to equip them with tools needed to be a multidisciplinary designer. She notes, “We believe in social dreaming becoming the fuel for social actions.” Through a curriculum of classes and workshops centered around theatrical, political, musical, film and poetic practices, University of the Underground aims to create a "network of creative soldiers” that are prepared to engage with, reveal and challenge what lies ahead.

Ever unflappable, she is determined to keep with it for the long haul using her own hammerhead technique (which is as it sounds, incessant persistence until results are achieved): “I don’t believe you start a project saying, ‘I am going to change the world.’ I believe you start from a specific case and put together a strategy to support social actions and, then, if you have played the performance of politics well, change will take place.”

The call is out: Ben Hayoun and her team are looking for “the Willy Wonkas of modern times, the contemporary Joy Divisions and Rauschenbergs, the JG Ballards, Marie Curies… designers, mythologists and makers of new worlds” to join the University of Underground this year. They’re currently taking applications through 1 April, 2017. Find out more and apply online through their website, or follow their work via Twitter.

Images courtesy of Design Indaba and University of the Underground

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