He has the charm of a polished street performer, the smile of an expert fund raiser.
As founder of The KaosPilots, the world's most adventurous alternative business school, Uffe Elbaek also has the imagination of an educational visionary. Based in Aarhus, Denmark and backed by companies such as Apple, LEGO, SAS, Carlsberg, and Nova Norsk, The KaosPilots is a three-year management training program designed to provide 30 Scandinavian students per "flight" with the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing, unpredictable economic environment.
"Society is moving from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy," says Elbaek, 42. "But the old business schools haven't made the transition. They still have a golf-club culture. We want to prepare young people to navigate in chaotic systems, to see change as an opportunity."
Elbaek launched The KaosPilots in 1991 on a wing and a prayer — and a $100,000 loan. What began as only "a picture of an idea" has rapidly evolved into an international learning experience: this August, students in their second year of the program will travel to San Francisco for a year of "learning by doing."
Aarhus, home of The Kaos Pilots and Denmark's second-largest city, likes to think of itself as the San Francisco of Scandinavia, with its concentration of universities and a central city marked by block after block of coffee houses and cafés. And the exterior of the group's headquarters looks like something out of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the flower-power days of the 1960s.
But inside is a scene from the future, not the past. The mind-set of The KaosPilots displays itself in the design of the space. Instead of a standard reception desk, a sheared-off metal airplane wing juts out from a wall. Across from the wing is a full-sized wooden horse taken from an antique merry-go-round. In Elbaek's bright, spacious office are the kinds of artifacts you'd expect to find in a tony advertising agency: the latest Mac, colorful posters and irreverent cartoons, exposed brick walls, and wooden post-and-beam supports.
There are open classrooms with Mac-based workstations, and a Mac-equipped workroom where students are conscientiously developing their own software and games, and testing the latest CD-ROMs that have come into the Pilots' headquarters. Upstairs there's a library with business and techie magazines from around the world, and books and catalogs designed to keep the students plugged into the digital revolution.
One floor down is the headquarters of the Frontrunners, the program started by Elbaek in 1982 as a social experiment. Hired by the city to act as counselor/teacher for problem kids, Elbaek turned the job into a movement; it began with 5 kids, grew to 250, and finally involved the entire Aarhus community in street festivals and cultural activities.
"At the time I was fascinated by street theater and performances — mime, stilts, juggling, clowning, and all the rest of it," Elbaek remembers. "I decided to turn the boys into a troupe of street performers. I finally got them to perform somersaults by convincing them that the girls would be crazy about them. They were no longer booed as dropouts and failures. They were applauded for their performances." Today Aarhus Festival Week is the largest annual cultural program in Scandinavia.
Then came 1991 and the inspiration for The KaosPilots. "We realized that enormous changes were taking place at the local, national, and global level," Elbaek says. The curriculum that Elbaek designed merges theory and practice into "an intelligence ecology."
"We never send our students on fictitious assignments," Elbaek says. "There is always an external customer for the work the students do. That means that even during their training period, students are part of the market and are even exposed to sharp criticism from their clients."
Unlike traditional business schools, nearly 30% of the training program focuses on developing each student's "inner pilot," using assertiveness training, stress prevention, group dynamics, and physical training.
The remainder of The KaosPilots training offers students the chance to develop skills they'll need to do project management. Prospective KaosPilots first practice the basics — developing an idea, working in groups, dealing with the media, handling administrative tasks — then spend three months in a host organization, and finally design and execute a cultural event or public project of their own.
Recent graduates have put their lessons to good use. Katrien Verwilt, 28, who graduated in 1993, is one of the organizers of Copenhagen '96, a $180-million year-long festival with more than 700 events — the largest cultural event ever to take place in Scandinavia. "Other people go crazy because there is so little formal structure," Verwilt says "but it's the kind of mentality we learned at The KaosPilots."
The program accommodates only 30 KaosPilots per flight; the most recent group was chosen from more than 600 applicants from all over Scandinavia.
"We consciously try to avoid what we call `mental incest,'" Elbaek says. "Each class must be able to function as a team and must consist of young men and women with a different range of experience. We expect them to learn from each other. If they are to become good project leaders and problem solvers, they have to learn to cooperate with people who have totally different backgrounds."
Dorte Hygum Sorensen writes for "Politiken," one of Denmark's leading newspapers. Uffe Elbaek and The KaosPilots can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; and on the Web at http://www.well.com/user/kaos/
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.