Creativity in Complexity

learning through experience and design

Lessons from 50 years of progressive education on how to prepare for uncertain futures

Book project

Magnus Hansen, Jesper Simonsen, and Connie Svabo – Roskilde University, Denmark
Tamara Carleton and Michael Shanks – Stanford University, USA

The case for experiential design learning

In a complex world of runaway change every organization, institution and business needs to embrace a culture of constant learning through creativity and innovation, collaboration and communication. Our schools and universities need to support this mindset, outlook, and skill set. How do we make all this happen? This book argues that experiential design learning – learning through experiences of making – is the tried and tested foundation for any answer to this question. 

Since the 1970s, Roskilde University in Denmark has pioneered radical student-centered, experiential learning; over the same period Stanford University in California has pioneered models of collaborative design learning and developed design thinking in its deep association with the innovation culture of Silicon Valley. Bring them both together and you have a remarkable model for just the kind of experiential design learning that will indeed provide the most fertile ground for growing the skills and competencies needed to face future challenges and uncertainty.

In this book the Roskilde model of Project-based Pedagogy meets the pragmatics of Stanford’s Design Thinking in a radical model for 21st century learning.

We call this experiential design learning.

The challenges of complexity

The globalized world has never been more interconnected, and with interconnectivity complexity is also increasing. Businesses become more reliant on external vendors supplying raw materials, or they might be forced to outsource important business tasks such as support in order to cut costs and stay competitive in global markets. The need for innovation and new products pressures businesses to be able to adapt to a constant flux of changes in their environment, and, in turn, changes to how they internally respond. The central challenge here is not how to handle specific demands of complexity, but rather how to become better at handling changes on a general level. 

At global scale, we are faced by the unwarranted environmental effects of the output of our current modes of consumption and production, as well as by unpredictable and high risk phenomena such as illness, poverty and political instability.

At the scale of the individual, complexity shows itself in everyday lives strung out and dependent upon interconnections between large scale systems and infrastructures, grounded in local and regional specifics. In situations of breakdown or incompatibility, people become the soft, middle matter which stretches and adapts, compensating for system deficiencies, unforeseen effects and unpredictable events. The patterning of everyday life is interwoven with risk, unpredictability, disempowerment and lack of agency. Complex phenomena challenge order, trust and reliability as principles governing the everyday. Everyday lives are subject to and dependent upon large-scale technological, infrastructural, industrial, political, economic and social frames. Ordering is ever present, but if one link in the interconnected chain fails, the edge of chaos emerges.

At individual, organizational and societal levels we are faced with complexity. We live in changing environments, business realities are in flux and everyday lives rest on volatile instabilities. This unveils limitations in ways of thinking about the world which are modeled on knowability – on the assumption that it is possible to fully describe the world and to make predictions about the course of events. As a response, we have to develop competencies and tactics for acting on the basis of insecurity and incomplete information. We must have tactics for navigation in complex processes of change.

Creativity in navigating complexity

Creativity is an effective response to change for individuals, organizations and communities: creativity is tied to the flexibility that is fundamental for the capacity to cope with advances, opportunities, disruptions and breakdowns – in short, the changes that are part of our contemporary lives. 

Creativity is the ability to produce new ideas, approaches and models of thinking and doing. This is a capacity which potentially is played out in practically all spheres of life and across the whole life span. Creativity, hence, is not about the arts; creativity is and needs to be a key concern of organizations and businesses because of its role in entrepreneurship and innovation. Creativity is about moving beyond conventional modes of thought and practice. 

Creativity is something you can learn; involving flexible thinking as made manifest in combinatory and associative techniques, as well as in open ended experiment and exploration, divergent thinking, lateral thinking, and problem finding and problem solving. Creativity is crucial in both reactive, problem solving activities and in proactive, inventive processes. Creativity is a driving force in cultural evolution which is seen in rapid adaptations taking place from one generation to the next.

The complex issues and heterogeneous and interlocking systems we are dealing with in contemporary lives and societies require qualitatively new approaches. Our present day problems can’t be solved by doing more of the same. We need new approaches and these approaches can’t be developed through practice alone, nor through curriculum-based teaching alone. They have to be informed by multiple disciplines and integrate theory and practice to foster skills and sensibilities which make it possible to address human and environmental needs in production, consumption and all aspects of a circular economy. This book explicitly addresses the need to develop analytic and synthetic competencies and integrate theory and practice, just as highlighted by a host of contemporary commentators such as Friedman & Stolterman (2014) and Norman (2010).

In this regard it is widely acknowledged that learning ecologies are needed that foster creativity, collaboration, communication, and critique. This book describes how experiential design learning meets this need.

Higher Education and lifelong learning

One of the central objectives of higher education today is to develop self-directed and autonomous individuals who can collaborate in diverse teams with skills in both problem-finding and problem-solving, handling those complex and unpredictable life and work situations that demand novel approaches. Another goal is that students can assume professional responsibility and with autonomy and consciousness initiate and pursue collaboration across disciplines and different levels of an organization. An important component of this is not only to react to externally motivated goals, but to be able to formulate goals, interests and concerns in self-directed ways, as well as to be able to work on the basis of incomplete information and in situations of insecurity, change and risk. A feature of contemporary experience across everyday life, business and governance at all levels is unpredictability, risk and rapid change. This has huge implications for planning and task formulation and execution. Both in higher education and in business learning the challenge is now to tackle insecurity, unpredictability, continuous change, and potentially incommensurable interests. This makes it necessary to develop creative competencies to assess a situation and what is at stake, draw on experience, communicate with participants and other stakeholders and understand complexity. The creative competency here is to tinker, mitigate and mediate – to facilitate sense-making in the present as well as inspire and imagine collective directions into the future.

A future of unpredictable flux and change means that learning can no longer end with the award of credentials at the completion of an educational program in a school, college or university. Such competences as detailed in this book apply across the whole life span — lifelong learning.

Five decades of pedagogical practice

This book builds on 

  • 50 years of pedagogical practice in Roskilde and Stanford Universities,
  • pedagogical research,
  • science studies,
  • design studies.

Drawing on case studies and examples of best practice, the argument is made that experiential design learning, involving participant-driven project-based learning and the design orientation of design thinking, is a tried and tested foundation for the kind of creativity in complexity that we now need more than ever.

The case for design-based learning

Pedagogies rooted in learning through experience are nothing new and date back beyond the earliest of treatises on schooling and education in antiquity. Roskilde’s curricula in project-based problem-oriented learning are a successful contemporary application of progressive student-centered learning. A focus on Design involves explicit application to contexts beyond the student in the classroom or studio, beyond higher education and the academy, with the application of pedagogy and learning in actual real-world situations.

So the book will show how participatory and action-oriented design methods can expand the scope of project-based problem-oriented learning while offering additional foundation in collaborative creativity — designing, making and building products, services, experiences, relationships. Conversely, project-based problem-oriented learning offers wide and deep foundations for Design Thinking, in support of the case that Design is a powerful, long-standing and creative way of delivering innovation, and countering the supposition that the contemporary enthusiasm for design-based innovation associated with the notion of Design Thinking is just a recent and superficial invention of MBA programs and business pundits.

Acknowledging the power of design-based learning and pedagogy does not mean that Design education is without its problems. To the contrary, there is widespread opinion that conventional design education (for example product design and architecture) is in sore need of reform. This book will show precisely how to effect such reform in the hybrid academic Roskilde-Stanford model of experiential design learning.

Aim — fostering creativity

The aim of the book is to show how experiential design learning, involving participant-driven project-based learning and the design orientation of design thinking, fosters creativity in tackling complexity and works as an efficient framework for developing the competencies needed within Higher Education and lifelong learning. The book shares experiences, proposals and curricula in showing how to foster creativity in higher education, businesses and organizations embracing continuous learning, and aims to make the future for design-based learning clearer by revealing and learning from the past. 

Structure of the book

The book will consist of five main sections after an orienting introduction from the editors. Each section will begin with a strong editorial introduction and contain 3-6 chapters from more than 50 experts in the Roskilde model of learning and Stanford’s design-based programs. An appendix will offer ways of implementing experiential design learning.


Complexity, creativity and experiential design learning. Two main introductory chapters.

Part 1.  Participation, agency and autonomy – student centered creativity

Editorial (5000 words) plus 3-6 chapters

Keywords and topics: 
Student centered, participant oriented learning – autotelic learning – matters of AGENCY and efficacy – creativity and intrinsic motivation

Part 2. Thinking through making – hands-on learning

Editorial (5000 words) plus 3-6 chapters

Keywords and topics:
Hands-on MAKING – learning through doing – fab labs – thinking through making things – methods and mindsets like abduction, modeling, prototyping

Part 3. Collaboration and co-creativity – teamwork

Editorial (5000 words) plus 3-6 chapters

Keywords and topics:
TEAMS and teamwork – group work – stakeholders – user groups – co-creativity – application of knowledge – university “outreach” and impact – transdiciplinarity –  social innovation – service.

Part 4: Foresight: imagination and worldbuilding – framing the future

Editorial (5000 words) plus 3-6 chapters

Keywords and topics:
creativity and imagination – foresight and innovation – WORLDBUILDING – open exploration – moonshots – reframing – pathfinding

Part 5: Policy, pedagogy and impact – the way ahead

Editorial (2500 words) plus 3-6 chapters

Keywords and topics:
policy – pedagogy – sustainability – vision – managing innovation – organizational change – futures literacy


Examples of curricula, principles of practice, syllabi and learning programs in action.

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