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How Creativity and Complexity combines fashion and transdisciplinary learning

by | Apr 27, 2017 | Practice | 0 comments

This post is a collaboration between Dr Melissa Edwards and Mark Liu, who designed the program for the subject Creativity and Complexity. Read on to find out why students described the subject as 'challenging, but rewarding'.

A classroom for BCII students extended beyond lecture theatres and classrooms, to the streets, fashion shops and shopping centres across the inner city. Not there to consume fashion, these students were discovering how to reinvent fashion systems through circular design.

Creativity and Complexity enables students to understand complex systems to develop probe-like social experiments and design ‘real-world’ interventions. These are small-scale initiatives that enable self-organisation to occur from which challenges to the status quo may emerge.

Now in its second offering, many students in the cohort claimed this subject to be the most challenging, yet rewarding subject of their degree so far. Some even thought it changed how they see the world. Key highlights of the program included: the lively discussions between experts with differing views during panel sessions; the expertise and wisdom shared by the dynamic guest speakers; learning from one another’s diverse disciplinary backgrounds during team work; enjoying the creative output of the student presentations; discussing ideas and receiving feedback from the general public; and competing with one another through Fishbanks.

Learning strategy

During the first course week, students take a roller-coaster ride through complexity theories as experts from various disciplinary perspectives, including physics, biology, mathematics, sociology, philosophy and business, tell their stories. Through interactive activities and practitioner stories, students have a lexicon and a way of knowing about complex systems as being self-organising, emergent, nonlinear, evolving, dynamic, network-based, interdependent and non-reductive.

Next up, researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), Business and FEIT demonstrated a range of quantitative and qualitative modelling tools to visualise complexity. Techniques included systems dynamics, causal loops, rich pictures, Net Logo and Gephi. A highlight for students was the ‘battle of the oceans’ as teams interacted through the simulation Fishbanks. At the end of the week teams presented their own visualisation of a complex problems ranging from nuclear war through to biodiversity species loss.

Now steeped in the lexicon, ways of knowing and visualising complexity, week two immersed students in a design-innovation challenge: how to enable abundance in the complex fashion industry where all people and the ecosphere can flourish. Dr Mark Liu, early pioneer of the Sustainable Fashion movement in London and fashion design academic at UTS, painted the landscape of the historical emergence of fast fashion through a multidisplinary lens. In such complexity, he revealed the paradoxes encountered in creating sustainable fashion to clothe an expanding world population in a resource-constrained world. Industry guest speakers from H&M and Circular Economy Australia demonstrated a model to address such challenges through a circular economy model.

Outcomes

For their final assessment task, teams visualised the complexity of the fashion system and zoomed in to focus on one important ‘hot-spot’ that offered the most potential for developing a circular design solution. After considering how an intervention might work, teams designed a social experiment to test their assumptions and they hit the streets to test and refine their ideas. Teams delved deeply to explore topics such as ‘why are people resistant to recirculating used clothing in peer-to-peer systems?’, ‘how could fashion brands reduce waste through RFID technology?’, and ‘what if fashion was augmented?’

Multidisciplinary learning approaches enabled through a transdisciplinary context reframes how we come to know and view problems. Although insights from different disciplines might challenge or even contradict what we think we know, this can be very productive to ensure ideas are robustly tested before being implemented in an absolute way across industry sectors. The fashion context provides a good example, but equally the same learning processes can generate creative interventions from which innovative solutions may amplify. Insular, self-referential and positively reinforcing feedback within a single industry context or knowledge domain evolves same and simple outcomes that may not be feasible in a complex environment. People across all professions often assume a ‘simple solution’ will fix a given problem. Sustainable fashion solutions often play out in this way (see illustration below).

Illustration by Mark Liu.

When students (and designers) are confronted with the failures of this insular and simple approach they may be confronted with the complexity of many potential ways to redesign a sustainable fashion system. Yet, often retreat to the familiar forms of ‘simple solution’ making to invent ‘big ideas’ to fix the system (see image below), only to find these are as unfounded in practical terms as those insular solutions generated within the expert community.

Illustration by Mark Liu.

Illustration by Mark Liu.

Transdisciplinary learning is effective learning

Creativity and Complexity pushes beyond, to enable complex solutions for complex problems. Drawing on the richness of knowledge from domains such as science, policy, business, design and psychology, small-scale interventions are designed that may translate into workable solutions. Through the process, small prototypes enable ideas to be refined as they are developed, such that they more likely to be developed into workable solutions. They also tend to fit niche solutions instead of solving all our problems at once.  This is part of a paradigm shift, where creatives design nuanced complex solutions, adaptable strategies that will evolve over time depending on how people react to them, their outcomes difficult to predict. Such creative ideas, tested through small interventions are mostly likely to create big change in a complex system. Not only is this course relevant to students across all disciplines, it weaves a foundation to help students see connections between disciplines.

Illustration by Mark Liu.

Illustration by Mark Liu.

The BCII Summer School was coordinated by Melissa Edwards (Business) and featured the expertise and wisdom gifted through lectures and workshops from (in alphabetical order): Robin Braun (FEIT), Rick Flowers (FASS), Nick Hazell (DIRC), Jan Hohberger (Business), Scott Kelly (ISF), Mark Liu (Fashion Design), Chris Maxwell (Business), Jacqui McManus (TDI), Roel Plant (ISF), Robert Woog (Philosopher and Physicist), Candice Quartermaine (Circular Economy Australia), Katie Ross (ISF), Isabel Sebastian (ISF), Suresh Sood (Physics and Business), Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer (TDI), Valentina Zarew (Sustainability Manager, H&M Australia-Pacific).

Feature image credit: Artificial Photography.

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