Dimensions of Holis School

Dominika Majewska

April 7, 2020

Tackling societal challenges with interdisciplinarity, co-creation and rural immersion.

Dimension 1 - the context

In summer 2019, a group of curious individuals from all over the world met in an old brick factory in Sabóia, south Portugal. The rural camp, established by “Clara - Center for Rural Future”, became a temporary home, and free space to explore and learn about Social Innovation, Community Building, and Service Design. We participated in Holis School, a 10-day ‘place-based’ workshop that happens each year in a new location, to learn in an interdisciplinary and rural environment. The peaceful surrounding scenery helped us stay focused and immersed in the context. “Clara” was, at that point, still developing its strategy on how to revitalise the rural area of Sabóia, and we had an opportunity to contribute to it. We were divided into four groups, led by skilled facilitators who ensured everybody was involved while bringing the best out of the team.

Dimension 2 - immersive processes

Social and service designers often aim to come up with empathetic and holistic solutions designed for a particular group of people in a specific environment in order to improve their well-being. Nevertheless, in the broader context of the design practice, and studio work, many professionals are disconnected from the people they try to help. This is partly because field research is not sufficiently prioritised due to the lack of time or budget. Precisely the opposite was the case in the Holis workshop. As part of the process, we had a unique opportunity to interact with the people of Sabóia, for whom “Clara” wants to create a better future. We were not only able to hear about their lives during an interview but also spending time together to gain an insight into their daily activities. Some of the participants went sailing with a local couple; some visited a female entrepreneur who sells vegetable baskets, while the others spent time in cafes chatting with the locals. Those interactions were insightful and immersive, allowing us to co-create the future of the old brick factory and Sabóia naturally. It helped us understand better the rural-exodus problem, see it from many different angles, and create a proposal tailored to that specific context, culture, and needs.

A walk around Sabóia - observing people, their environment and daily activities

Dimension 3 - a unique community

The Holis School community is an ever-expanding network that supports its members in the process of becoming socially responsible creators by encouraging progressive and interdisciplinary thinking. It was the biggest bonus to me, as I didn’t expect that dimension of Holis when I was applying for my first summer school. The members of Holis are spread all over the world. Even after the actual summer school, we still meet at various conferences and events, visit each other while travelling, hold monthly online meetings and attend retreats with the Holis community. Shortly after the workshop with Clara, Holis organised a retreat in South France. We visited one of the experts involved in the project, John Thackara, and his wife, Kristi van Riet. Long walks, picturesque views and inspiring talks added even more depth to the Holis experience. I also attended the Service Design Fringe Festival in London, which I discovered through Holis. That and other activities outside of holis can provide an opportunity to explore the field of service design, connect with new people and reencounter the members of Holis.

Design thinking process - ideation phase

Dimension 4 - a retreat for lifelong learners

This workshop is a perfect ‘holiday’ for those who want to combine travelling and learning. The tools and methods that one can acquire include Community Building, Asset Mapping, Design Thinking, Service Design, Sustainable Development, and Entrepreneurship. Arriving at Holis after five years of studying and collaborating mostly in a design environment, this interdisciplinary learning felt so refreshing. The background of the participants ranged from anthropology, service design, business, marketing, to visual arts. A vibrant and inspiring environment was created, thanks to the diversity of the participants, the fantastic energy of the facilitators, experts, hosts, and the Holis team. This kind of learning experience is progressive, and as the name says, is holistic, which may be just what the field of social innovation needs.

Last moments of Holis - a morning dance

Dimension 5 - opening new doors

Holis made me even more curious and determined to explore the field of social innovation, and clearly, it has also opened new doors for me. I gradually started to add another dimension to my own professional life. Building upon the methodological thinking, I am also becoming a social entrepreneur and doer. Currently, I’m participating in an Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme, which I learned about through Holis. I keep building upon the skills and knowledge acquired during the summer workshop. Together with Casa Netural, a co-working, co-living community as well as a platform that connects people and projects, we accelerate and support the revitalisation of depopulating villages. Through initiatives such as Wonder Grottole and Mammamiaaa, Casa Netural has shifted the focus of the rural areas, from their limitations to the cultural and historical assets, that they are rich in.

This is only one of the many Holis stories. To me, they are proof of how important it is to support and develop learning programs that mix different cultures, professions and approaches. They create the perfect conditions for learning a holistic way of thinking about complex social challenges in a unique and immersive manner.