An old military prison on a Swedish island isn’t the place you’d expect to find a school, but Hyper Island is a bit unorthodox. At this part company, part learning institute, there are no teachers, homework, textbooks, or exams.
Instead, 400 students, ages 19 to 52, learn to innovate and harness the power of the digital age. As soon as they arrive, they get thrown right into the work, with experts, “learning facilitators,” and other Hyper Island team members guiding them along the way. It’s a learn-by-doing model, with a “just build it” mentality.
The irony of “exploring the… boundaryless digital world” from inside a former prison is “unorthodoxically fitting to bring [our] vision to life,” say the school’s founders Lars Lundh, Jonathan Briggs, and David Erixon in Hyper Island’s story.
It’s just one of many ironies that distinguish Hyper Island’s approach to preparing adults for 21st century leadership. Ninety-eight percent of the students here get jobs within six months of graduation, and one out of four get three or more job offers. They are designers, art directors, developers, project managers and more. “The Digital Harvard” is what some call it. Bob Greenberg, the CEO of R/GA (one of the world’s most influential advertising and communications agencies) says Hyper Island students “are sought after by agencies around the world.”
Over the last 18 years, four more hubs have opened in Stockholm, Manchester, U.K., Singapore, and New York City; and Hyper Island has become much more than a school for full-time students. From consulting services for organizations and corporations to part-time programs and workshops for students, Hyper Island helps adults from all walks of life innovate in the digital age.
Balancing the Digital and Analog Worlds
The Hyper Island team understands that innovation requires a unique balance that can be hard to achieve in today’s world. Alex Neuman, a learning designer at Hyper Island, explains that “being really digitally savvy…doesn’t mean making everything digital.” It’s about finding the right mix between digital and analog.
“It means making really smart human choices about where the digital element is and where the analog element is, and where they integrate and fit together.”
At the Stockholm campus, for example, students worked with an organization called The Brick, and were tasked with turning an old brick building into housing for the city’s young creative class.
For three days, the students immersed themselves in the empty space, combining digital tools with physical transformation. Groups pitched several smart phone apps, including one that would help people trade and share tools and other equipment. With the help of Neuman, the groups quickly realized that in order to make this a truly successful transformation, they would need to include tangible components to complement what they were doing digitally. So they designed gardens, a workshop, and other unique spaces for communal use.
Thomas Björk, a program manager in charge of digital data strategy at Hyper Island, says that this need for balance between the digital and analog is one reason he and Martina Elm, a community manager at Hyper Island, brought the 2013 Global Cardboard Challenge to Hyper Island’s hub in Stockholm.
“It was the perfect thing to do because once you start to build physical things you actually start to understand how it will work,” says Björk.
Ben Mardell, a researcher with Project Zero at Harvard University, says, according to Scholastic.com, that “kids learn through all their senses and they like to touch and manipulate things” as a way to understand them.
While it’s a natural process for kids, adults sometimes need to be reminded of the value of hands-on learning. This was apparent during their Cardboard Challenge.
The event was originally intended for children, but parents ended up spending more time creating than they had originally planned. “When the parents came, they said they weren’t going to build, they we’re just going to have coffee. After 10 minutes they were like, ‘I’m building,’” Bjork says.
The Ability to Unlearn
As part of their consulting services, Hyper Island helps companies hit the reset button and become more creative and competitive in an increasingly digital world.
Hyper Island’s CEO explains, “Those who claim to be experts today will have a hard time coping tomorrow, as things change at such a rapid pace…”
“The ability to learn (and unlearn), encourage creativity and new perspectives, and embrace change are some of the most crucial skills professionals—indeed everyone—can possess. This can lead to innovation. Learning has become as crucial for management as it is for young people.”
Hyper Island put this idea in motion with Sweden’s biggest newspaper company, Aftonbladet. Their facilitators were brought on board to help the company on their journey from print to online media. They started the process by preparing the entire newspaper staff for the far-reaching effects of the digital paradigm shift.
“It’s one thing for people to realize that traditional ways of working are changing and we’re living in a rapidly transforming world,” Neuman says, “but it’s another to actually, as an organization, begin to transform.”
Drinking Their Own Champagne
In order for these transformations to effectively take place, Neuman says the employees at Hyper Island must “drink their own champagne.” The staff members hold themselves accountable to the same methodology they use with their students and clients.
“It’s a culture where we do a lot of reflection and feedback and we try to balance the focus on what we’re doing, what we need to get done, and what the outcome is.” Reflection happens in the midst of projects so team members can assess their progress and give each other feedback.
It’s a collaborative and transparent approach to problem solving, but it’s also one that understands the whole person. “We’re human beings and we have to fulfill our professional roles, but we have to support each other as people to develop and grow,” Neuman continues.
At Hyper Island, students are challenged to come up with solutions—not just ideas—and implement them in messy, real-world situations. For us, this is where true innovation begins.
(Top image by Danijela Froki @ 2013)
This story was written by Jenny Inglee, the Imagination Foundation’s Imagination Curator and The Storybook Editor. The first collection of stories in The Storybook focus on the work of inspiring individuals, schools, and organizations that participated in the 2013 Global Cardboard Challenge.