What Design Can Do Interviews Nelly Ben Hayoun

February 2017, The Netherlands

Bas Van Lier from What Design Can Do, has interviewed Nelly Ben Hayoun on the launch of the University of the Underground at the Sandberg Instituut on the 2nd February 2017. 

My ultimate goal is that one of my students eventually will become a president or prime minister,’ French experience designer Nelly Ben Hayoun said yesterday during the presentation of The University of the Underground at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. The two-year Master course is meant for social dreamers who want to challenge things as they are and change institutions from within.

The University of the Underground will both literally and metaphorically go underground as it will choose location within a hidden network of urban spaces. Metaphorically the education supports forms of deviance in creativity, the non-established and the unconventional. Revolutionary practices, theatre of cruelties and musical concerts will be celebrated as the students are expected ‘to manufacture countercultures, radios, pirates’ utopias and experiences for power shifts’.

‘We want to become the ultimate rats,’ Ben Hayoun, a former WDCD speaker, said in an enthusiastic 45-minute bombardment of words. Modelled to her own profile, Ben Hayoun is seeking ‘creative soldiers, pirates, hidden creative agents of change, the Willy Wonkas of modern times, the contemporary Velvet Underground’s, The Smiths’ and the Joy Division’s, action researchers and designers, mythologists and makers of new worlds’ to populate the University of the Underground.


Ben Hayoun has three reasons for founding the University of the Underground, she told WDCD. ‘First, there is a big need for educating students in multidisciplinary design and cultural entrepreneurship. At the University of the Underground we will teach students to define their own jobs and find the funding needed.’

However, finding funding for their education is not needed. ‘My second reason,’ Ben Hayoun says, ‘is to have tuition fees paid for, because I think that education is becoming far too expensive. We will provide scholarships to our 15 students through the support of philanthropists for 80 per cent and governmental grants for 20 per cent. And thirdly, I want to create an opportunity for the next generation to make their social dreams come true. I really believe we can educate a future president.’


The University of the Underground has the support of many hotshots in the creative and business realm including executives from WeTransfer, Beggars Group, XL Recordings and Airbnb, writer Dave Eggers and Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius, the principal at Danish’s disruptive school Kaospilot.

The teaching staff, headed by Ben Hayoun, consists of Kate DaviesNina PopeTom GreenallNicola KollerMariana Pestana, and guest tutors including the WDCD alumni Paul Scher of Pentagram and architectural designer and scientist Rachel Armstrong.

Application for the University of the Underground is open until 1 April.

What Design Can Do is was started in initiated in 2011 as a platform to showcase design as a catalyst for change and as a way of addressing the societal questions of our time. They hold an annual conference in Amsterdam and additional conferences in other parts of the world, the worldwide What Design Can Do Challenge, as well as their own publications and the WDCD blog.

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