Social “Bla Bla” Summer School

Michala Lipkova

February 19, 2019

I am not a fan of buzzwords. The brief was to bring social innovation to the countryside. In 9 days. You wish, I thought. Here’s how HOLIS International Interdisciplinary Summer School defeated my skepticism.

I have mindlessly used the “term” SOCIAL BLA BLA during lunch. Zsófia found it entertaining enough to print it on her T-shirt. And a bag.


HOLIS is a place-based educational experiment. Happening already for 5th time, last week this interdisciplinary summer school brought together 24 students and young professionals from 5 continents and different disciplines, eager to learn more about design thinking methodologies and have positive impact on local community.

When Maxim and Eszter had invited me to lead one of this year’s summer school’s teams, I think I did not realize what I’m nodding to. After seeing broadness and messianic character of the topics I had realized that this isn’t going to be fun.

But surprisingly — it WAS.

(1) Bunch of smart people at one place, (2) laughing tears all day and (3) watching unusually starry sky at night — this pretty much sums up our week in Sobole.

Sobole Foundation& teamleaders crew — Barbara Predan, Dana Olarescu, Joana Braga, me & Cansu Deniz Bayrak | Photo ©️ Julia Karczewska

Why social innovation and rural Poland?

Through their values, HOLIS team promotes purpose driven business, socially and environmentally positive innovation, self-management and collaborative governance. Maxim and Eszter believe in the power of autonomy and co-ownership, they are ambassadors of interdisciplinary collaboration between design, business and technology.

That time based in Budapest, HOLIS founders naturally started to look for partners in their surroundings. In the years 2014–2016 the summer schools was co-organized with Hungarian Design Terminal. Already for second year now, HOLIS partnered with exceptional Sobole Foundation, led by Polish designers Gosia & Tomek Rygalik.

Located in region with high agricultural potential but lack of attention, aiming to become a cultural innovation cluster, Sobole Foundation became an ideal partner for HOLIS after Design Terminal shifted their orientation towards startup acceleration.

Photo ©️ Julia Karczewska

9 days to save the world. Or actually, 6.

HOLIS started with arrival on Friday August 9th and was supposed to end with final presentation on the next Saturday August 18th. With first day devoted to building teams, this gives you 6 days to “save the world”.

The teams were created based on initial personality tests, team plays on the spot, language competence (every team needed a Polish speaker) and professional skill set (participants came from diverse backgrounds and we wanted to make sure every team is balanced). Maxim has devoted whole afternoon to teambuilding and getting to know each other — and it worked.

Even before I have joined the team, Archie, Luca, Maciej, Meijin and Zsófiacame with the team name “PEERogi”, referring to peer-to-peer and Polish traditional meal “Pierogi”. Being a fan of opensource, how could I oppose :)

Already before applying, the participants were informed about 4 main challenges that the school wanted to address (1 — branding of the region, 2 — helping culinary tradition to survive, 3—public spaces , 4 — welbeing ) — and each team had to decide which topic to focus on. PEERogi decided to combine two of them = branding & culinary heritage challenge.

Our team | Photo ©️ Julia Karczewska & me (the worse one)

Tools — Don’t reinvent the wheel

We have kicked off the event with Community Canvas, that became very useful in communicating the overall goals and understanding of success. Later each of the teams has specified the goals for their own team. With team leaders coming from different backgrounds, we have agreed to use frog design’s Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) as shared teamwork foundation.

After the first day spent with team building, the second day was devoted to the problem analysis. After individual problem definition we have listed all hypothetical issues, and using Keep — Kill — Combine principle [stolen from EOS] we have ended up with 8 integrated problems. Through voting we chose of 2 main problem areas we felt like solving:

  • Low visibility and recognition of Radzyn
  • Lack of food experience possibilities

Afterwards, we have used hacked version of “RIPPLE EFFECT” exercise to imagine the effects that we’d like our future solution to bring. The rest of the day was focused on finding the right answers to ask during the next day’s individual interviews with stakeholders — to find out whether the problems we came up with are actually real.

Photo ©️ Julia Karczewska

Talking to P•E•O•P•L•E (…in Polish)

Being able to talk to local people in their language apparently became one of the key assets of the whole camp. Each team participated in the main “Interview Day” with local stakeholders that HOLIS organized, and later everybody was free to follow up with individual user research.

We have carried out several individual interviews, visited people at home, talked to people at street. Later during the ideation phase, each idea was reflected with the key insights that we’ve obtained from people.

Visiting Elżbieta, our biggest inspiration

Low budget, high usability

The design solution that our group came up with was SMAKING — a regular pop up event in the Radzyń County to exchange recipes with stories along with one or more home grown/made ingredients.

Simple rules, communication driven by automated SMS bot, simple branding of paper bags and recipe templates. We have decided to use a comic strip to tell the story and prototype the event concept during the final presentation.

Some of the locals shared their recipes and showed their interest in organizing the meetups — let’s see!

First SMAKING Made in Radzyń

Lessons learned

If I should extract the most important lessons that last week thought me about rapid prototyping, here they are:

- “Space capsule” effect works — plan for uninterrupted, offline work of small team on one remote place.

- Include everybody — there was a lot said about the importance of being an introvert — but letting everyone present their ideas [developed individually] and participate in decision making by voting works great to keep everyone equal.

- Pre-research is priceless — work with previously gathered, curated information sources, eliminate time spent online searching for facts.

- Co-design with the target group — repeatedly reflect your work in direct contact with people who you design for. Take time to do your homework, think in advance to ask the right questions, know why you’re asking them.

- Improvise —don’t plan too much. Stay conscious in the process and hack methodology on the go to support the flow. Transform failures to your advantage. Even mistakes can become style.

- Keep going — you can accelerate the decision making process by ongoing agreements on what the key problems/insights/goals are — keeping facts clear and everybody informed replaces lengthy arguments.

Try this at home

Last week persuaded me that making a difference IS for everyone. Anywhere.

Maxim is planning to scale HOLIS to other countries and we’d love to bring it to Slovakia soon. If you’re interested in joining us, contact me or follow #weareholis on Twitter or Linkedin or apply for next HOLIS.

It’s worth it.

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