BMW Guggenheim Lab

Good ideas are not enough: Thieu Besselink on how change happens
Posted to Action, Ideas, Systems on December 20th, 2011 by Christine McLaren





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Besselink passes on the tools to replicate his One Day a Dream School project around the world
Whether you’re trying to change the shape of our cities or of our economic system, on a global scale, good ideas are not enough.
Anyone who has read Malcom Gladwell’s
The Tipping Point is familiar with the conundrum—the critical mass necessary to tip an idea, product, or even a disease into a mainstream event is a complex phenomenon to engineer.
Marketing teams have known it for eons, as have politicians, corporations, and inventors.
But when it comes to finding solutions to contemporary problems, would-be change makers often struggle with the necessary legwork to getting initiatives truly off the ground; with the creative action that must follow creative thought.
I had a conversation about just this with Thieu Besselink close to the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s opening in New York. We had been talking about the role the Lab might play in bringing new ideas into reality on both a local and an international scale.
But the conversation stuck with me as I watched the progression of other movements big and small that managed to find a foothold around the world.
From the Arab Spring to the victorious end of the eight-year battle for
legalized drug injection sites that started in Vancouver and are now spreading across Canada, somewhere along the way somebody, or somebodies, took the necessary steps to bring an idea into reality.
“I don’t think that we have a problem coming up with solutions,” Besselink told me. “There are enough ideas. The problem is getting those ideas done or shared, and then committed to, so that people are actually going to realize them.”
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A Learning Lab student calls citizens to arms to clean up Amsterdam during a garbage strike
Founder of the Learning Lab, professor at the University of Amsterdam and creative director of the River Institute, Besselink specializes in helping people learn to navigate the complexity and chaos of the relatively new global society in which we live.
Where problems occur on a global scale but are felt first on a community or personal level, he looks at how those levels interconnect and how to take initiative within them to make change.
At the Learning Lab, a “think tank for social change” which will expand next year to work with MIT on a new institute in Berlin, Besselink designs learning environments that necessarily involve creation. This means the creation of meaning for the individual, the creation of relationships with others who are invested in similar passions, and the creation of actual outcomes. He is also taking this a step further with the Urban College Project—a university designed, built, and run entirely by the students. (See some fantastic videos on Learning Lab projects, including a full-scale documentary on the
Pioneer Lab, on his website, or watch his TEDx talk.)
“I see a lot of movements trying to convince people that they should care. There’s a massive amount of people campaigning and shouting at people that they should care,” he said.
“But it is not enough to just have discussions. It is not enough to just hear a lot of people’s opinions or have lectures about things. You actually have to have a process by which people can start getting committed to it, form relationships, and make real decisions and real alliances with one another and the resources to get it happening.”
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Armed only with coordinates, Learning Lab students found their own way to their first class—in another country
In a way it’s a humble lesson.
In a time where we are overwhelmed by ideas, and truly amazing projects dedicated to discussing them—from the TED Talks to
Pecha Kucha nights, from GOOD Ideas for Cities to the Lab itself—it’s important to remember that while there is a certain glory in producing sexy ideas, it is the follow-through and facilitation of those ideas that will make real change come about. (Side note: it’s this exact crux that has recently spurred journalism colleagues of mine to leave the industry in favor of constructing actual solutions to the problems they have been writing about for years.)
Of course no one expects one person, or even one organization, to do all this themselves, which is perhaps why Besselink sees the role of connecting people equally as important as the role of producing ideas.
“The main problems of the next 100 years are going to be those between organizations, between fields, between disciplines… the complexity is so high that we can never find solutions in one organization. It will have to be between levels: government, business, and civil society, but also between the different disciplines of art, science, and so on,” he said.
“Rather than looking at the projects and the ideas, look at how they are related. How are the people and the organizations related? How can we create better and stronger relationships, and ones across different countries? Whenever you have anything change on whatever level, it’s all about the relationships.”
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Students prototype systemic intervention projects
When I asked him how the Lab can best facilitate real, decisive change in the world of urban problem solving, he was both hopeful and challenging about its future.
“The Lab with its position has a very powerful platform and a strong visibility,” he said. “It can use that to influence the way that people think about urban development, but also it can show what works or what doesn’t work, and how things work, and who works. By offering this platform and showing these examples it can be very powerful.”
The key, he said, will be for the Lab to pursue the creative action to follow the creative thought—to set out to fuse connections and alliances between fields, and between the pioneers working on similar issues across the globe, rather than simply hoping the ideas that are incubated in the Lab will settle and germinate.
“I think we really live in a time where we cannot understand the world in which we live by looking at it. We have to go into it, try to create something, and, as we change the world in which we live, we start to understand it by the way it reacts to us. The only way you can do that is by creating environments of experiment, which is what the Lab is really supposed to be,” Besselink said.
“I hope it will really continue to do that; that it will not give that up and become some kind of talking place, or exchanging-of-ideas place, or presentations place—we have a lot of those already—but that it will really become a place where people come to work.”

Universities need better teaching

Harvard meets Roosevelt Academy

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29 juni 2011 - Wat betekent excellentie in het onderwijs? Twee experts op dit gebied van het Derek Bok Center van Harvard kwamen naar de Roosevelt Academy (RA) in Middelburg om dit te laten zien. De belangrijkste les: de juiste filosofie is essentieel in het opleiden van excellente studenten.


One of the speakers, Michael Burke, Head of the Academic Core Department at RA, stressed that universities had to catch up in terms of focusing on quality teaching versus research. Currently, "teaching is extraordinarily undervalued, while research is overvalued". Universities would often push their academic staff to publish research papers instead of preparing classes properly. Their institutions look for reputational gain by being more visible in the research world while students are only second priority.

"Teaching? Only if got time…"
By shifting their focus to students, universities could create more sustainable prestige. Those students that are educated in an excellent way will always be connected to their former school and serve as ambassadors of their alma mater. Consequently, Burke calls upon universities to draw lessons from the
Veerman report and allocate more resources towards excellent teaching.
Right now, a professor who asks to put greater emphasis on teaching would hear "Teaching? Only if you got time…" as a response from their faculties. This phenomenon is even more aggravated by the fact that "university teachers are the only ones who aren't taught how to teach". The regular training of professors does not include any didactic or pedagogic education per se which, after all, is mandatory for elementary and high school teachers.
This would result in a teaching attitude where professors facing students ask themselves in every class: "How do I get my notes here to your notes there - with as little brain interaction as possible?" Such an approach, however, would degrade professors to "talking textbooks". Instead, Burke calls for teaching to be understood as "a conversation with students, not a performance".

Orchestration of Learning Experiences

Terry Aladjem, lecturer at
Harvard, concurred with this view and emphasized that teachers should understand themselves as "creators of learning experiences". By using 'reverse-engineering', teachers should ask themselves "not what they want students to know, but what they want them to do with that knowledge later on." Accordingly, course syllabi would become less an enumeration of topics deemed important by the academic world and more an "orchestration of events to achieve the goal of true learning".
This philosophy already sets in at the level of course design. In "syllabus workshops" Harvard would bring together both representatives from the "teaching and learning community" in order to let students have a say in what they are going to learn. René Diekstra, lecturer at RA and Haagse Hogeschool, added that such feedback from student to teacher is seen as most impactful according to a wide range of studies. Essential for establishing such a relationship between student and teacher is building an "atmosphere of safety" where students are invited to "co-construct the course together with the professor".

Putting it into Practice
All these aspects refer to a fundamentally different way of teaching. Thieu Besslink, creator of the
Learning Lab at the University of Amsterdam, Free University and Amsterdam University College, put this new philosophy into practice. During the Day of Excellence, Besselink stressed that to make these new approaches work universities had to give teachers more leeway in trying out new concepts.

In his opening speech,
Hans Adriaansens, dean of RA, stressed a similar point that it is finally also the responsibility of the universities themselves to offer the right context for excellent teaching. "If you throw Messi, Cruyff and me in a swimming pool, you will see that they also won't be able to play better soccer than me because this is not the right place where they can show their talent." It would require a "supportive organizational context" for students and teachers to excel.

A new Lab in September

“Life is forwardly lived, but backwardly understood. “
—S. Kierkegaard


This september we embark with a new group of students on a creative enquiry. Follow their adventures and learnings on the Life Stream or come to the public events follow us on @learninglabNL

This is the invitation we did:


The Learning Lab is a laboratory, an experimental space of development, in which we go on an expedition to understand how we “become who we are”, as Nietzsche would have it, and how we learn to not only study but also design our world with creativity, sincerity, and sharpness.


In a combination of science, creativity, and leadership learning the Lab challenges you to explore and act upon the how, what and why of our unique impact in the world.  

In this Lab you are no longer a student, but are asked to become a pioneer both in your own life, interests, and in the world. You will be looking for the source of your creativity and use it. You are asked to find what matters to you and what matters to your surroundings, and to create whatever it is that connects the two. In the process we discover what drives us, what our talents are, and what we want to take leadership in.

We live in a time where leading a valuable initiative to a meaningful end (whether that is scientific, artistic, entrepreneurial, or social) is rarely something that can be done within one discipline or alone. The challenges in every scientific discipline, in our personal lives, and society at large are so new that they cannot be met with the same ways we have been working with. Instead, that knowledge and those initiatives that are going to make the difference in our not yet sustainable world will exist between people and across fields and disciplines. The overvalued idea of leadership, so often associated with an outdated self-centeredness, is now required to convene people and perspectives around a common quest from which a collective intelligence can come forth.

What this requires is a deeper self-knowledge, fine tuned observation skills, creativity, and stronger sense of personal initiative, but above all the capacity to navigate the chaos, complexity, and uncertainty that come with a deep learning and development process of which the outcome is uncertain.

An overnight session

Overnight Session

Students worked on their projects on Friday night instead of a night out in the city. To heighten our senses and feed our inspiration we spent the night at the MIX academy, an art academy in the centre of Amsterdam. There


At some point we looked like an exhausted rock band after a concert

Student's Collumn

Column - The LearningLab Event

Terwijl de lichten langzaam aangaan klim ik het podium en ga aan de debattafel zitten. Ik kijk opzij en zie ex-minister Cees Veerman zitten die het rapport heeft geschreven over de toekomst van het hoger onderwijs. Links naast mij zit Godelieve Spaas, organisatieadviseur en coach bij grote bedrijven en verre landen. Ik slik even maar voordat ik echt zenuwachtig kan worden begint een documentaire op negen enorme schermen in de grote zaal van Pakhuis de Zwijger.

Het is een documentaire over het ongelofelijke avontuur dat ik samen met twintig andere honoursstudenten ben begonnen. Een documentaire over ons. Over the LearningLab. Over mij. Over Thieu Besselink: mentor, vriend, allerbeste niet-docent, organisator, facilitator en coach die ons de vier meest enerverende maanden van ons leven heeft bezorgd. Na het verschijnen van de titel hoor ik mijn stem in een opname uit een interview met Radio 2:

"(...) want ik volg nu een heel raar vak aan de UvA"     - "Een heel raar vak?" "Ja, want je zit namelijk niet in de collegebanken maar je gaat de wereld in."

De documentaire vliegt in 55 minuten langs alle avonturen die we hebben meegemaakt. Ik herinner mij de allereerste keer dat ik Thieu zag op de voorlichtingsavond van de honourscursussen van 2010. Ik begreep geen snars van zijn verhaal over ‘pioneers', ‘creative research' ‘learning journey' en ‘following the spark'. Maar één ding wist ik wel. Hier moest ik bij zijn. Ik had geen flauw idee wat we tijdens het vak Pioneering in Leadership Learning zouden doen maar het was duidelijk dat dit vak verre van normaal was en afweek van alle traditionele vormen van college.

De documentaire komt langs onze intakegesprekken. Je ziet ons tijdens de eerste sessie op de Nieuwe Oosterbegraafplaats met zaklampen in het donker dwalen. Je volgt onze ontmoetingen met directeuren, designers, vernieuwers, kunstenaars en schrijvers om de innerlijke reis, de huidige tijd, en onze rol daarin te leren kennen. De documentaire volgt ons in een theater met een sessie over rollen en communicatie, in de trein naar de wereldwaterstofconferentie in Essen. Je ziet ons huilen, lachen, ruziemaken en verliefd worden. Je ziet ons projecten doen en actie ondernemen, in plaats van er alleen over te dromen, denken en praten. Je volgt de oprichting van maatschappelijke initiatieven nemen zoals een platform voor ‘good deeds', Geeds en een taxiservice op waterstof. Projecten die de wereld gaan veranderen en die we zelf vanaf de grond af aan hebben opgebouwd, met bloed, zweet, enthousiasme, geluk, ruzie en tranen.

Ons event heeft een druk programma. Nog voordat iedereen is bijgekomen van de bomvolle documentaire, begin ik aan het debat onder leiding van PG Kroeger, hoofdredacteur van Science Guide die ons kritische vragen stelt over de toekomst van het hoger onderwijs. Vanuit de zaal zie ik alle mensen zitten die op een of andere manier met de LearningLab zijn verbonden. Allemaal mensen die stuk voor stuk pionieren in hun vakgebied. Die de maatschappij veranderen door hun ideeën en geloven in de enorme kracht van de LearningLab.

De avond vliegt voorbij. De vier uur lijkt haast vier kwartier. Afgelopen vier maanden lijken wel vier jaar. We hebben zoveel mensen ontmoet, bijeenkomsten georganiseerd en veranderingen doorgemaakt in ons leven. Aan het eind van het event ben ik doodop maar tegelijkertijd barstensvol energie. Klaar om van de rest van mijn leven een geweldig avontuur te maken. Wereld, ik kom eraan!
Charlotte van Leeuwen
Dec 2011
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