Last year I spent 10 days in Portugal at Holis, a social innovation summer camp. This wasn’t my first encounter with social innovation, neither my first design camp, but the most intense and the biggest in scale so far — which makes it a perfect vehicle to describe how a design camp works and why it is the ideal safe space for creative people to learn and grow.
Let me just start in the middle! I was sitting in the passenger seat of an old VW Transporter, the windows were down and Maxim, the co-founder of Holis was telling us about how locals marked the cork trees to make sure that the bark was harvested only every 9 years. It was mid-afternoon on August 23, 2019 in southern Portugal’s Alentejo region near Santa Clara, a village so small that it doesn’t even have its own railway station, just the one that it shares with the slightly bigger nearby settlement called Saboia. In a few minutes we arrived at an old brick factory, the location of our summer school, my first HOLIS camp.
This old brick factory, a seemingly long-abandoned place, belongs to a small organization called CLARA — Center for Rural Future working on revitalizing this remote part of Portugal by means of art, design, social entrepreneurship, eco-farming, ethical tourism and many more involving local communities and external partners like Holis. They were about to step up their game this year, and we came here to help them shape a sustainable strategy on how to attract new visitors to the area.
HOLIS, by official definition, is an interdisciplinary school that fosters social innovation through collaboration and collective intelligence. Place-based learning of soft skills through collaboration between design, business, technology, and other fields. In other words: a bunch of really nice people spending 10 days together while learning a lot by working on a problem on location.
This was the 6th edition in the history of Holis camps, and the first one taking place in Portugal. People were arriving at different times from different directions, and the last train from Lisbon was stuffed, so we only met most of the participants at the brick factory. There were 24 of us, different kinds of designers and students, and we were already divided into 4 teams by the time we arrived.
Team facilitators and a small core team were glamping with us in tents set up on the small hill behind the old factory, while the lovely team responsible for the wonderful, almost entirely vegan menu, the CLARA team, and a small group of other helpers were staying in other locations. Still, it felt like we’re living together with all of them for these 10 days.
During our days at Holis we were following the classic double diamond process. This method used by many designers splits the problem-solving process into four main steps. Discover the problem space. Define a scope you want to deal with. Generate multiple possible solutions. Finally, select a single concept and polish it until it’s done. Since implementation was not our job, the definition of done for us meant a big presentation at the end of the camp. How did we get there? Let me just guide you through the process in a bit more detail by telling you about how our team was working during these 10 days.
The first step in our case was split into several parts. First, CLARA did preliminary research before the camp to gather insights from people and organizations in the region. The general problems in and around Santa Clara were similar to those in many remote regions in the world: lack of jobs, people leaving for big cities, aging population, local culture and knowledge getting lost.
We quickly processed these insights and formed a few initial hypotheses about what issues we should tackle. To help find our focus topic CLARA invited locals for in-person interviews for the third day. We decided to distribute these sessions within the team and encouraged those who wanted to practice interview techniques to lead some of the discussions.
We had guests from the local municipality, someone from the tourism office, the CLARA team, local artists and small business owners, handymen working with CLARA, and young German farmers as well as foreigners living here for decades, one with a T-shirt reading “We’re not on holiday, we’re living here”, probably not by accident. We were aware of some language barriers that affected the selection of this group of interviewees, but instead of worrying about not being able to talk to every last person in a 50 km radius, we tried to work with whatever we gathered here.
“I’m living in the center of the world”, said Rui with pride when responding to another guest who referred to this region as the “middle of nowhere”. Rui, by the way, was the perfect representation of the versatility of people from Alentejo: besides working with CLARA on building our camp, he gifted us with guitar music next to the campfire, and later he also introduced us to the nightlife of local youth in a nearby forest rave. (Side note: if someone invites you to a forest rave in a foreign country, never say no.)
As people are living on farms or in small villages, many of them are jacks of all trades like Rui, they are more or less self-sustaining and rely on the goods and skills of people living around them. There’s no other way. We felt that this attitude is the essence of their identity, but after synthesizing all the insights from the research and the interviews, we still had the perception that this identity of the region is far from being well-articulated.
In the third part, somehow seamlessly, we split into 3 pairs and developed 3 ideas. Two of these concepts were about city people visiting the region for weekends and participating in various activities learning about people, culture, farming, gastronomy, and such. The third concept was rather a marketing strategy with a roadmap for 3 or more years describing how the region could promote its identity.
For many of us iterating on solutions was a natural part of our work here in the camp and in our daily jobs as well. The limited financial and human resources of CLARA prompted us to incorporate iterations in our concepts, too. The ideas were built on small initial steps, minimum viable products, that, if successful, could have been developed further in small increments. As with many service design projects, the implementation part is usually quite challenging, but proceeding in phases is a good way to succeed without too much wasted effort.
But we were running out of time and the final phase was around the corner: we had to present only one concept, not three. For our team, named the Happy Corner, this part was the most stressful. If it were to be made into a film, a suspenseful montage of 6 people working like crazy would be a good illustration of this episode. With dramatic music!
What I learned during my years in mentoring design students is that in an educational context without an external stakeholder or a project manager being present the best thing you can aim for is the team being happy with the result, within reasonable limits, of course.
So we had to get through the drama. Discussions, openness, patience and trust helped us to find a common ground without serious injuries, and we finally combined most of our ideas into one final concept. For that we also merged our 3 how might we questions into one: “How might we use existing skills and resources to create sustainable income and promote a rural lifestyle?” And Farm The Gap was born. (Yes, that’s the name of our concept, I’m sorry.)
The core of the idea is a membership service that connects urban and rural people through company get-aways designed to teach participants about sustainable farming practices. Our vision was to help shape a value exchange system that is built around meaningful, sustainable personal connections instead of flooding the villages with unwanted mass-tourism.
More about the concept on its project page.
Make sure to check out the other 3 amazing projects too!
For the final presentations, HOLIS and CLARA invited a big audience, including locals and some design and social innovation experts as well. All 4 teams presented their ideas not just with slides but with the help of handcrafted booths installed under the roof of the brick factory. Then came the ceremony closing our camp, we had a great dinner with participants and, well, we danced for a few hours. (Sorry, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to reconstruct that playlist!)
The next day we left the brick factory, but even before leaving I decided that I will return sooner or later to see what they managed to build here. Only a few weeks passed after the camp and CLARA was already organizing composting workshops partly based on the ideas born during HOLIS. The work is not done with that, of course, but I’m hopeful that this special place will flourish in the next few years.
As I mentioned in the beginning this wasn’t my first design camp. Before HOLIS I was a member of the organizer team for other camps back in Hungary. I was mentoring students at our product design course for 5 years already at that time, too. I also have this tendency to drive projects when working in a team even without an official role assigned to me. What’s more, I was already familiar with most of the methods and tools we used during HOLIS.
“Why did I apply then,” you might ask. Well, I wanted a different perspective this time: I wanted to be an equal member of the design team. That was it, I did not have many expectations before the camp and I did not even know what I could learn here. I was sure, however, that there were new experiences waiting for me, and these experiences found me indeed. Getting rid of the responsibilities of an organizer or mentor was a relief. Living together on location made us really focused and the flow we were in was incredible. Even though we were working late in the evening every day, days just flew by very quickly.
The surprise that I wasn’t prepared for came later during the camp: I had to give up being in control of every little detail and I had to suppress my tendency to drive the project and lead people around me. Not because there was someone else leading the team, but because this role wasn’t necessary here: we had to rely on the team, not just on specific members. I’m generally quite relaxed, even under stress, here, however, I was a bit frustrated at certain points, and it was a new challenge for me.
But Holis felt like a safe space in every sense. I woke up early for yoga classes. I was bathing in a lake or in the middle of a dark field with a hose and a headlamp. I took afternoon naps lying on the ground in an old brick factory. I played party songs for almost 3 hours for a bunch of people. Things I wouldn’t normally do.
And it was also safe, for me and everyone else, to try new design methods, practice new skills, or to be a different kind of team player. It was OK to be frustrated or have tension within the team. That’s part of the process anyway and here the risks were basically non-existent: you can’t really screw up anything and no one will be seriously mad at you. That’s an environment where you can be vulnerable enough to grow professionally and personally. And where you want to go back.
If the COVID situation allows, the camp will return to CLARA this September to continue the work with local communities. Another camp will happen in Slovakia in late August, but with a radically different subject: early childhood development. I’ll be there in one or two of those, but at this moment it depends on many uncertain things.
Will you be there? That’s up to you! There’s still a bit of time to apply to both camps, and if you are not convinced yet or have any questions, just ping me and I’m happy to help.
A few books people were reading and using during HOLIS:
Thanks to my friend, Gergő who helped me bring up memories, and many others for the feedback that helped me organize those memories into this post.