Inspiring, Intense and Immersive

Gunjan Singh

February 11, 2020

Seeking a change

In the past few months, I had been craving for a design challenge, to go out in the field and get my hands dirty. I was seeking a project that would satisfy my desire of contributing to society in a meaningful way. I was also looking forward to hone my systems thinking and service design skills- explore new tools and practices through a hands- on approach.

I discovered Holis serendipitously. Holis was organizing an interdisciplinary summer school at CLARA, a recently established center for the rural future in the interior of Odemira, Portugal soon and I was interested to know more. The challenge was that CLARA, starting its operations in a defunct brick factory, wanted to investigate future scenarios that would revitalize the Odemira region. I read more about the previous Holis summer schools and thought that it was the perfect mix of challenge, context and complexity that I was craving in a feasible time capsule. After going through the motions of application and a quick personal interview, I knew where I was spending ten days in August this year!

So, did I find what I was seeking? Yes, and some more.

Getting back to sketchnoting- rusty skills. Image credit: Krstan Petrucz/Holis School

Before all the wonderful memories slowly fade away, I write this to reflect over my experience as a part of the 2019 Holis interdisciplinary school at CLARA in Santa Clara -Saboia, in Portugal.

Being at Holis

The constant chatter on Slack was preparing us for what lay ahead of us- the field, the challenge and the process. Pictures and preparation tips gave one a good idea- but being there in person was a different ball game altogether.

We were alerted to some delays in preparatory operations as we were the first group arriving at this recently established site for such an endeavour, but the white yurts in the middle of rural wilderness appealed to the nature lover in me and I was looking forward to it.

A bird’s eye view of CLARA’s nomad camp. Image courtesy: CLARA - Center for Rural Future

We arrived to a very warm welcome and were introduced to our freshly constructed yurts and notified that the toilets and bathrooms were not ready. It was a discomfort for those few early days, but not something that stopped us from rolling forward in full steam. Looking back, I do think that the makeshift toilets added a bit of a adventure to the experience. I will have a rich story to tell.

Waking up in Clara’s nomad camp and the yoga sessions at Holis School. Image credits: Author and Krstan Petrucz / Holis School

I felt so much in sync with nature, my morning yoga sessions were time for reflection and gradually I started to wake up with the sunrise, the sound of roosters and braying donkeys on the neighboring farm- to my delight, without an alarm.

At the end of the group work for the day, I would stare at the Milky Way every night on my walk back to the tent, filled with awe of being able to enjoy the numerous stars, unadulterated. It was an incomparable feeling of joy.

Apart from that one night, when an arachnid strayed into our tent and didn't want to leave it despite our many futile attempts, the days ended with satisfied deep slumber.

To top it all, there were the joys of swims in a pristine lake nearby and delicious and scrumptious plant-based food- all sourced locally- cooked by the lovely kitchen team.

From left: Walking to the lake- Image credit: Henryk Stawicki; Plant-based food by Eszter Bircsak

In retrospect, my experience of this fulfilling environment also helped me identify what will bring people to this place; why was it unique. Space, nature and tranquility- and a place to slow down and reflect - this is what the region offers to an urban individual living a fast paced life in a concrete jungle.

An immersive and intensive design process

Till now, I make it sound like a fancy camping vacation- it was not. The design process and the challenge was very real from the next day of arrival. The entire cohort of around 24 people was divided into four groups and all the teams went through their own stages of the forming, storming, norming and performing. I learnt that it is important to identify the skills and profiles of the team members earlier in the process and leverage it during different parts of the process as a team. Assigning some rotating team roles- like leadership, chaos pilot and well being officer- help maintain a balance and sharing of responsibilities.

Fuzzy front end

In my previous experiences I have observed, fuzzy front end of the innovation process and uncertainty makes it uncomfortable for the team members. Sometimes, team members are not happy with each other or the pace and how the ideas are developing. This time around I learnt that checking in at regular intervals with all team members helps in being objective and understanding how each member of the team is feeling at that stage. It is an important ritual for general team health(thanks to Henryk).

Sometimes, we tend to rush to the ideation phase as that helps us feel productive and safe, whereas steep discovery creates space for effective innovation(thanks Aditi for this nugget). And the beer metaphor that also inspired our team name( FROTH BUSTERS!) name rose from this understanding of steeping deeper and generating strong insights.

When you get rid of the froth, you taste the golden ale.

Human Centred

Understanding the context in which the problem exists is paramount. We interviewed a number of locals who were invited to the brick factory where we were based. Deep listening is an important skill that I am trying to hone, it is difficult to control my urge to ask questions when I have to be mum and nudge them to speak more.

Understanding the complex local context through interviews with different set of local stakeholders- residents, municipal officers and the CLARA team. Image credit: Henryk Stawicki

The conversations provided us with a lot of information that helped us derive some insights, but we felt something was amiss- we were still very aloof from the environment these people existed and lived in. We wanted to experience the neighbourhoods, the local customs and symbols to understand more of the sociocultural context. It was time to venture out and walk the streets of the local villages- Saboia and Santa Clara a Velha- and go on a design safari.

Exploring the nearby villages of Saboia and Santa Clara a Velha

Ideas to prototype- a journey

Being agile and adaptive to feedback is helpful- even in a setting like Holis we were quick to test and ask for feedback. When assessing and developing our ideas from our HMWs, the triad of viablity, desirablity and feasiblity along with our own checklist for success was always at hand.

We killed our darlings when they didn’t pass the test- so much that we developed and presented an idea from an earlier stage in less than 24 hours.

It is always difficult for team members invested in the idea, but if the product doesn’t stand up to the expectations of the users and market fit later, it is better to be critical and invest efforts on an concept that is more robust.

Going through the diverging and converging phases of the design process -iterations and testing cannot be underestimated. Image courtesy: Krstan Petrucz/Holis School

Inviting challenges

Exploratory and investigative research along with synthesis of observations helped us understand the causes of the rural exodus and the slowly disintegrating social and economic fabric of the area. We also uncovered roles that national politics, geography, local temperament, culture and market forces play to make it a multi-headed beast of a problem. But we couldn't come up with fully developed solution in ten days, and I think it wasn't expected either. We as a cohort came up with four distinct concepts that CLARA can trial and pilot, but a lot still needs to be done.

Only altruism or philanthropy will not revitalize the social and economic fabric in Odemira or other parts of the world suffering from rural exodus. Neither will trying to recreate what worked in the past. We need alternative economic models that are sustainable and viable product-service ideas that appeal to the young generation and their needs.

It was a humbling and heartening experience to be able to contribute some ideas for Clara’s road map through the medium of Holis. As I reflect, I want to do more and anticipate about what are the next challenges for the CLARA team. It seems like we have touched only the tip of the iceberg and there are many more aspects that need to be explored, designed and iterated. And I would like some more of that.

HOLIS PORTUGAL 2019 at CLARA . Image credit: Krstan Petrucz

Thanks everyone for making this so memorable and inspiring!