Where collective intelligence meets collective effervescence

Beatriz Segura Garcia

October 5, 2023

Holis School has a unique environment where the inputs of individuals are admired, and their uniqueness encouraged. Learning here is implicit in every step of the process and your focus magically shifts from self to group the minute you join.


Recently, while reading Brené Brown’s ‘Braving the Wilderness’, I learnt of the term ‘collective effervescence’ that was coined by Émile Durkheim more than 100 years ago. This term really captivated me, and it resonated with how I felt in my week at Holis. It is this feeling of energy and harmony when people are engaged in a shared purpose. Well, I am sure what we experienced at Holis was some kind of ‘collective effervescence’.

Holis brought together a group of highly intelligent professionals of diverse cultures and experiences. But, we had this collective goal to help on-site as much as we could. The format provided a spark that flamed an intense week of something I’ve never experienced before, which ultimately resulted in exciting results that we were all so proud of.

Photo by Luc Kordas

That was just the gist of it all, but I cannot stop writing here, as it would not do justice to the experience of Holis’ 9-day design sprint. So, allow me to transport you to  Hostetin, Czech Republic and share how I learnt about the impact that social design, when practised in a safe environment, can have when looking for solutions to complex challenges we are facing as a society.

The COVID-19 pandemic halted the world in many ways and it also halted me from joining Holis. Previously, my team and I had worked for Holis School on helping them create the aftermovie of the 2021 edition, which was organized in a hybrid format. Since the Holis School relies so much on the experience and learnings from the on-site vibe and real-time connections, it was a grand challenge to meaningfully summarize, what I believe was one of the toughest editions for the Holis team.

But finally, in 2023, I got to join Holis School as a participant and also as an expert conducting a workshop on Storytelling. While the main topic for this year’s edition was building resilience of NGOs, how to support them to recover quickly from difficulties, how to deal with adversity and continuously adapt to an increasingly changing world. But after years of waiting to be a part of this and even before I got to the event, my own resilience was tested. A flight delay led to me missing three connecting flights. BOOM! How resilient are you? Well, let’s find out!

Right after landing in Vienna on Sunday at 5PM, I plugged in my laptop in the first coffee shop I found at the airport and got my problem-solving skills working at full throttle. The challenge was to reach the little town in the Czech Republic on the same day. Three hours, three lengthy phone calls and four different modes of transportation later, I couldn’t believe that I was just 30 kilometers away from my final destination. My taxi driver for that last mile suddenly showed up with a huge smile, his granddaughter who was carrying a little dog in her arms too. He was unsure if he could communicate with me in English and trusted his granddaughter more. This was already worth the journey as I already learned my first Holis School lesson: trust yourself, rely on people and enjoy the process.

We got to sit down with our challenge owner - Helena from Ferova Skola, and find out about the current status of the organization and its challenges. But this exercise was intrinsically strengthening the team bond of eight strangers from different countries with different professional backgrounds who didn’t know each other. If we wanted this to work and to find solutions to the identified challenge, we really needed to understand the power of collaboration.

Photo by Luc Kordas

After just one day’s experience, I started getting an understanding of the many layers of complexity we were about to face as individuals and as a group. The primary challenge was to bring about an impactful change in Ferova Skola, but the more daunting challenge was the difference in our approach and working styles to solving the same challenge. As days passed by, our progress was undoubtedly happening, and we were getting closer and closer to an agreed solution, while being gently guided by our facilitators and Holis organizers throughout the different methodologies.

In parallel, we were also advancing our own individual processes, by rooting strong values such as community, human centred design practices or respect for freedom. All this, nourished an aura of unlimited creativity and safeness, enriched our inputs, experience, personal points of view, sensations, learnings and emotions. This helped us all go further, not to be afraid, and encourage the group to give their all. Most of all, it allowed us to leave behind our present constraints and assumptions and allowed us to carry out creative explorations of different possible and more desirable futures for the organization.

Photo by Luc Kordas

Towards the end of the week, I stepped out from my role as a participant to carry out a workshop on storytelling in order to set some bases for the final presentation of the solutions that we came up with for the partners. Believe me, it was a challenge! Due to the intensity of the work week, the initial plan to have a 2 hours workshop had to be shortened to just 1 hour, and that took a lot of adaptation and condensing. STORYTELLING, a big topic in just one hour: challenge accepted, LOVE IT!

Photo by Luc Kordas

I wanted to take this opportunity for all of us present to rethink the power of storytelling from the perspective of our own daily life experiences: what do we get and give when connecting with other passionate humans. But I also wanted the participants to think of their responsibilities as designers to create and communicate solutions which inspire a future, sometimes inconceivable, for people when they need to be resilient. 

The session was planned taking into account three main areas of work: personal stories, practical exercises and time to reflect. But at the end of it all, it was important to arrive at a point where we would discover the fact that from the stories we have been told, we construct our reality and the way we see things. Therefore, as we said during the workshop, storytelling is like having a magic wand in our hands to create new narratives, which construct new realities and new ways of seeing things. 

Including this approach also during any design process, can boost connection to the why, generate emotions, inspire others and have greater impacts!

As a summary, I would say that the main takeaways during the experience for me were: 

  1. That I got to experience myself, the power of combining the design methodologies together with other disciplines, arriving again to the magic formula of Holis School: Collective intelligence + Collective effervescence, leading this to infinite possibilities for social innovation.
  2. A recurrent thought: “These people are awesome. Really.” Making me want to learn more from other participants, organizers, facilitators, experts, local staff…and to bring this “open-minded”attitude of profound admiration back home.