I spend most of my time designing creativity training for engineers. In this episode we flip the format. Alexie Sommer, Independent Design and Communication Director and collaborator on many of my projects interviews me about why I set up Eiffel Over and Constructivist Ltd, and what our plans are for designing creativity training for engineers in 2020. We get into:

  • Techniques for teaching creativity
  • Our programme of training support people tackling the climate emergency
  • And what engineers might learn from clowns.

Listen on Apple Podcasts , Sticher or by download here

Two training courses that relate to this content

In this episode we focus in particular on two training courses we are co-developing with Bengt Cousins-Jenvey to help organisations develop their response to the climate emergency. These are:


On the agenda

I am really grateful to Alexie for doing this interview. I work with Alexie on lots of creative projects and so she was able to ask the questions about the things she knew really get me fired up. Topics such as:

  • What engineers can learn from clowns
  • Experiential learning
  • Treating the climate emergency as culture change
  • Upcoming Constructivist training courses related to creativity and climate.
  • Idea generation tools
  • Creativity and time management.
  • Our approach to teaching problem-based learning
  • Training as theatre.

Full show notes

Alexie Sommer is an independent design and communications director working in the space between design, sustainability and communications. She’s a consultant with organisations and brands who are interested in developing a more sustainable approach and output, and she helps them get there.

1:01 Alexie – Oliver is founder of Eiffel Over and Constructivist Ltd. What’s Oliver’s world? Combining creativity and design and how we can use these expansive skills to tackle climate change and the climate emergency. It’s an expansive space and serious space and full of lots of collaborations.

2:28 Previously worked at Useful Simple Trust, Expedition and Think Up.

3:15 – Lucky enough to spend a year studying at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, in Paris. Starting to blog about living and studying engineering in Paris – that’s when the Eiffel Over blog started – see some early posts here.

3:30 – ‘I’m a transport geek’ – see some of his posts about travelling and avoiding flying here.

4:00 Really lucky to work at Expedition Engineering where there is a real culture of celebration of all the things that go around engineering.

4:20 I was spending all this time blogging about the periphery of engineering and then I realised I was more interested in the periphery than in doing the calculations: creativity, nature and how we can we learn from nature, theatre – what’s the crossover between the theatre of the classroom, the theatre of the design team.

The journey I’ve been on to get to Constructivist is to realise that all that other stuff is actually useful. I’ve been fortunate to be able to create a space where I can bring all those interests back to engineering to make it hopefully useful for engineers.

That’s what Constructivist and Eiffel Over are both about.

5:38 Alexie- Was there someone at Expedition who championed that process and who enabled you to shift your perspective?

Two people really important to me at Expedition and Think Up were the founders of Think Up, Chris Wise and Ed McCann. They recognised in me someone who could do engineering ‘plus’. They championed my stuff and built my confidence, and I learnt a great deal about design and creativity teaching through them.

Engineering and clowning

6:40 Alexie – Why did you define Eiffel Over about engineering, creativity and practical philosophy?
I’ve become fascinated by the strategies that people can use to be more creative. I don’t like to idolise the super-creative, it’s not helpful. But there’s lots of ways of being that can actually help us think more creatively. I’ve realised I’ve been gathering those techniques for quite a while, and I like writing about them. Applying them is quite transformative.

7:30 I’ve recently got interested in clowning (I’ve most recently gone on training with Holly Stoppit – see more details here). The clown is an intensely curious person. The clown finds delight in absolutely everything. We have a series of filters that block off anything familiar. Through clowning we can re-discover the world anew.

If we want to come up with different approaches to engineering, different solutions, maybe we could learn from the clowns and return to that childlike curiosity.

8:50 What would be the ultimate combination of clowning and engineering? I want to develop this, and we will pilot something in 2020.

Turning something into a game makes it really playful. When things are playful, we are more creative according to (correction, I said Barbara Finkleman when I meant Barbara Fredrickson), an expert on the pyschology of happiness.. We are in a happy state, it’s fun, we challenge each other. We become unconstrained.

9:35 Alexie – is there any way that we can do some physical theatre work with design teams? Get them to approach the problem in new ways?

Experiental learning

9:46 My first experiences of experiential learning were at Think Up designing events for Constructionarium Ltd. We then started to codify these approaches. See ‘Experience-led learning for engineers‘, co-authored with Ed and Diane McCann.

It’s about a learning journey that changes your perspective with respect to the world. It changes how you see yourself. This is really important, for example with respect to the climate emergency. It’s not about learning the statistics about climate change, it is about feeling that you are an agent of change in this dynamic system and we each have personal responsibility. Some people get it through reading it, other people get it through watching a video, other people might get it through having some sort of experience that embodies that knowledge.

We made a giant footprint which was 13 times larger than our regular footprint. It represents how much bigger out footprint is than it should be. It’s funny but it’s also shocking.

We worked out that the shoe for the structural engineer would have to be five metres long. Strap a five-metre-long shoe onto someone’s foot and ask them to walk around: that’s experiential learning. And it’s also quite clowny.

Alexie says ‘We need to bring humour into our conversation about the climate emergency. There needs to be an open, honest, positive, bravery about the topic’.

All about Constructivist.

Alexie – tell me about Constructivist.

It’s the professional training end of the Eiffel Over project. If Eiffel Over is the exploring part, running playful workshops and experimenting, reading books and reviewing them, podcasting – Constructivist is where it gets distilled down into training courses that other people might be willing to buy. It’s the same background, it’s the same collaborators, it’s the same production team.

The ‘elevator pitch’ – our vision is engineers with the creative skills they need to solve the world’s problems. And we have a series of missions that help us do that. Developing specific bundles of training around aspects of creativity. This often comes back to practical philosophy: ways of living that enable people to think more creatively.

Culture of climate emergency

We are also developing practical tools to help people think about the climate emergency. What does it mean to declare an emergency? What is the culture of emergency, because I think it is a cultural thing. How do you tell the stories, how do you create rituals, how to do you control, measure, organise and exercise power. (Here I am referring to headings in the Johnson Scholes culture web model for describing organisational culture).

14:20 Alexie – What are your upcoming Constructivist courses?

Building Carbon Tools for Conceptual Design

The next one is Building Carbon Tools for Conceptual Design – delivered with Bengt Cousins-Jenvey. Lots of companies have now declared a climate emergency. But what do you do next? We want to give people in those companies strategies for answering questions about carbon. So, who are the people in the design process who need to understand this. Who are the stakeholders involved and what do they need to know? What are the potential sources of information, what are the pitfalls, and how can you structure a very logical way to talk about carbon in the context of design.

One of my great fears is that engineers risk creating BIM models of deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s a real distraction to make sure we have the perfect measuring tool. What we need is the basic question to be asked in every situation.

If we think of concrete and steel as toxic materials, if we look at what the impact is of the carbon that is generated through their creation and use, you might regard them differently. How does that compare to a different option? There’s not necessarily obvious answers but it’s important people talk about it and don’t get stuck in the minutiae.

Training on what to do after you have declared a climate emergency

18:00 – The second course is called ‘Training on what to do after you’ve declared a climate emergency’. This is a difficult time. People are working out what to do next. One of the key methods we use in Constructivist training is starting with where the learner is. Learning is based on previous levels of understanding. People develop their own understanding of new material with respect to what they have previously understood. There is no one truth.

So if we really want to help people learn, we need to work out what do they know already, and how can we affix the next bit of knowledge to their previous understanding.

This second course is about understanding the level of understanding in the room and where each individual is at.

Part of what we are going to be dealing with having difficult conversations. Actually, the training could be about how do you be brave about having difficult conversations. How do you deal with, what Jim Collins calls the ‘hard work’ rather than the ‘long work’. The long work of the climate emergency is going through and optimising every bean; the hard work is having the conversation in the first place that says we shouldn’t even be building this. We have a lot businesses at the moment that are saying, well, our business is building stuff, so what are we supposed to do. So actually, giving people the tools to have these difficult conversations, like how do we restructure our business so that we are no-longer in the business of putting concrete in the ground and yet still serving humanity.

20:56 Alexie: presumably this is where the creative thinking comes in because if you have to monetise a de-growth economy, you have to think creatively. Is it services you can weave through an existing structure? Is it something you can re-configure rather than destroy. Presumably it is also about rallying your teams about you.

21:56 Alexie: Is there more experiential learning you are doing in 2020?

The training about what to do after declaring a climate emergency is delivered in part through a webinar. The word webinar makes my heart sink every time I say it, so we try and make them as good as possible. We’ve even discussed having a webinar-based cabaret, maybe calling it Cabinar. Just to experiment with the format.

Alexie: webinars work well when there is exchange of dialogue. They can be even better when some of the participants are in the same room at the same time, so they can give each other feedback locally.

We sometimes have people on the phone in the UK and Australia at the same time, and we try and get them to do a role-play online.

What are the benefits, people aren’t flying in from all over the world to do training. And there is another benefit. People need to go into the world and reflect on new content they have learnt. How does that content match to their workplace. They need to go back and relate it.

The Constructivist approach based on reflection and problem-based learning.

23:45 – Quote from the ‘Critically Reflective Practitioner’ – ‘Reflection tailors the glove of theory to the hand of experience’ (Thompson and Thompson , 2008). In our training, we don’t always have a fixed way of dealing with the subject of the course. We start by asking what do you find difficult, and what would you like to talk about today.

Then we pull out of the trunk exercises that relate to that topic. You take those things back to your workplace, practise them and reflect on them, and then you can jump back on a webinar and tell us how you got on.

Alexie: so it sounds like you have a broad topic for the training, but within that topic you are open to their needs coming through. What feedback have you received?

Two examples

‘It was not what I expected but it was exactly what I needed’

‘You’ve reminded me why I wanted to be an engineer’.

You wouldn’t have got that from a standard set of slides. It was relevant to them. The course was our Advanced Conceptual Design course. It was getting them back into that space of ‘how do I want the world to be’, what’s my role (rather than being the victim of circumstance), how can I make a positive change, and therefore what behaviours can I adopt and adapt and have the confidence to make a difference.

Problem-based learning

Alexie: that sounds like a good tool for unlocking the potential in people. What other tools do you pair that with?

A lot of the techniques I’ve discussed so far are problem-based learning approaches. The learner identifies a problem and we help them define a solution. We do a lot of reflective questioning using ‘Kata questions’:
⁃ where do you want to get to?
⁃ what’s the obstacle that you face?
⁃ how are you going to overcome them?
⁃ who is going to support you?
⁃ when will you check in with them?

I always have a slide that says ‘you only learn when you do difficult things’, a phrase I picked up from my collaborator Prof. Søren Willert, from Denmark, who I worked with on the EU-funded ENGINITE programme around problem-based learning. He says, ‘tell me what is difficult’ because that is where you learn. If you are not doing something difficult then you are just having a nice time. That’s fine, but you’ve paid a lot of money to be here, so let’s do the hard work.

We created a series of 12 videos about problem-based learning which are free on YouTube.

Creativity and time management

28:00 It’s interesting that in creativity training, the biggest obstacle that people often mention is time management. The hard thing is not making enough time for that creative thinking. Sometimes it comes down to how do you say no to people. For lots of people you’d have more creative time if you learnt how to say no.

Alexie: the half an hour rule is a good one: when you get the brief straight away get a cup of coffee and sit down with the brief and write everything down. And then later on in down time you can come back to it, but you can’t if you haven’t taken that first step.

Creativity training for engineers – key concepts

27:00 Alexie – tell me about the creative tools that you use to get people to think outside their comfort zone. I’ve got three models

A technique for producing ideas, by James Webb Young. He talks about having ideas as being akin to using a kaleidoscope, so all I did was put the word ‘idea’ in the middle to make Kalideascope… and I like this idea. I get students to do a miming exercise with an imaginary Kalideascope.

The pieces at the end of the Kalideascope represent the fragments of ideas – they are the bits of knowledge that we already have. What we do is we turn the Kalideascope, and these form new patterns. Those new patterns are the ideas. It is the recombination of all that stuff in our head.

Why is this useful? Because there’s two things we can focus on. How can we fill our Kalideascope? For a structural engineer, it might be building examples typologies, structural forms, architects and engineers, construction techniques, materials, things you’ve seen in films + everything you are going to find out about the site you are working on. That’s all in your head.

And then the turning it, that’s the stimulus you apply to form the new connections. And in fact our brains are very good at this. But sometimes we get stuck. When you are asked to have three ideas in half-an-hour you might seize up. Research shows that creativity shuts down (see Theres Amible’s work). So how can you become more creative in those situations? That’s the sort of stuff we work on?

What are the barriers that people throw up to creativity?

32:20 People talk about the legal constraints and commercial constraints that interrupt the creative process. What I say is, look this is how creativity is, and these are the rathe clumsy processes we try to map on top of it – project management and commercial management stuff – that dampens the creativity. And then let’s try to understand what the pinch points are.

We spend a lot of time talking to design team leaders, and we think about how do they create the conditions for creativity to flourish, rather than focusing on the individuals to make them more creative.

Alexie: so that’s about understanding when to let creativity into the process and understanding where to restrict it.

Certainly just making people aware of the consequences of the commercial aspects of the job may change they way they apply those commercial principles.

Creativity training for engineers though better listening.

34:44 – We use the ‘Creative Systems Model’ proposed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1999), the creativity psychology expert, he came up with this notion that just as important as the creative individual is the audience who listens to the idea. How do you be receptive to other people’s ideas? And that is definitely something you can work with groups on.

We’ve worked with Nick Zienau at Intellitengt Action, who runs a fantastic set of training on leading and influencing. A lot of those tools are around listening skills. So how can harness those listening skills to support idea generation. Because speech is thought, and if you jump in before someone has finished describing their idea you’ve cut off their thinking. So there’s things we can do with the team that make them better listeners.

A fixed process with changing content

36:00 Alexie – How do you adapt content for different audiences?

I’d say we have a fixed process that allows the content that allows the content to adjust to whatever the participant wants. I’m resistant to people saying, I know what these people need to learn. Maybe something we can revisit challenging authority later, which comes through all this stuff and brings us back to clowning. Going and saying, what is it that this group of people find hard, what drives them, and where are they trying to get to and why is it hard. And then giving them tools to help them overcome these barriers.

Whatever tool they pick up from us, it doesn’t matter: what’s important is that they reflect on what was the impact of using this tool and what can they now do or understand as a result.

Being happy not knowing the outcome

38:20 – We are running a course in May which is called ‘How to run a great workshop workshop’ which is about moving from being a presenter to a facilitator, and this applies to trainers as much as consultants. Being happy to enter a scenario, not knowing the output, and being confident that you can get someone to something useful.

Training as theatre

39:40 Alexie – you have an audience of trainees and you are for want of a better word, entertaining them. What is the most memorable time you have had to manage that dynamic?

An example from swing dance teaching. I co-founded a swing dance performance troupe called the Mudflappers. We teach at festivals. It is amazing how much crossover there is between running creativity training and working with crowds of people at festivals.

We were at Festival No. 6, we were on a stage in a piazza surrounded by 200 people, and just giving them one or two moves, and getting them all to move in synch. And saying to them that in a few minutes you are going to be so happy dancing, and holding their trust, and all of a sudden everyone is dancing together. It’s euphoric, and that is theatre.

It’s the words between the slides

41:00 – A smaller scale example, but still important. I had listed out a group’s requested list of content for a course. And I was nervous that at the end, we hadn’t covered everything. But when I asked, the participants said, but we did cover that, in lots of ways. And I realised that people can infer and gather all sorts of information from an interaction, without you having to explicitly say everything.

The 2020 year for Constructivist

41:50 Alexie – How do you envisage 2020 and what one thing would you like to get out of 2020?

This is the year when we get a whole series of training courses running in Bristol. It’s a city that I love, and I’ve recently moved to. There is lots of creative energy here. We want to bring engineers, architects and all sorts of built environment professionals to Bristol to learn these techniques, conceptual design skills and tools for dealing with the climate emergency, and doing that in a beautiful, creative space, I’m really looking forward to it. And doing that with a really great set of collaborators.

At the same time, always experimenting with other techniques, so there’s the clowning, and deep immersion in nature to help us understand the biodiversity emergency.

I don’t know what the end of 2020 is going to look like. Maybe we can regroup at the end and review how it went.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Implications of a systems perspective for the study of creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of Creativity (12th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, S., & Thonpson, N. (2008). The Critically Reflective Practitioner. Palgrave MacMillan.

Young, J. W. (1965). A technique for producing ideas (McGraw Hil). McGraw-Hill Companies.