For the past two years, I have been longing to attend this atypical conference on a subject of experience design. I have been closely following its development ever since I stumbled upon a book “Gamification in Tourism” by Paul Bulencea and Roman Egger. One of the authors of the book is the co-creator of the conference held in Czocha Castle, Poland 24-28.9.2018 . The idea for the conference was born from a desire to shape learning and networking with the help of design thinking. My personal goal was to see magic that happens “behind the scenes” in this extraordinary event, so I decided to volunteer at the event.
Conference where active participation and networking are virtues
After arriving to Czocha castle, in southern Poland, I was both excited and curious of what this experience will bring me. List of attendees was impressive and just to be among people such as Paul Bulencea, Claus Raasted Herløvsen from DZIOBAK LARP STUDIOS (co-producing the event), John Low, co-founder of Burning Man as well as many experience designers respectably, both from academia and field, was overwhelming.
By now, I hope we are all aware of the existence of experience economy and human’s ever-growing expectation for meaning, personal development, bonding and need for new approach towards well-being in order to stand out and avoid becoming too commoditized. The College tries to collect both practitioners from various background and academia in order to develop the experience industry and use design thinking in the process. They call it a “transformational event that is both noetic and ineffable”.
By no means is this a classic conference. You don’t really get to sit passively and listen with little time to network or bond. You attend different workshops, eat good food, attend various experiences, get to create experiences, take part in discussions and go home a lot wiser feeling like a part of one big family. Participants (or as they say, students) of the conference have to pass through a series of trials designed by house prefects. As college is structured based on PERMA well-being model (positive relationships, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments), upon arrival students are inducted into one of 5 houses and divided into groups of 15-18 people. After the induction ceremony, they are guided through some of the secret passageways of the castle, being escorted by volunteers (dressed and playing a role of a goblin) to the room where their picture is be taken. Then they are given a college robe and a single colored tie (based on the color of the house they are inducted to) which would strip them of their “ordinary world” and titles that hold (some of) them back; and enter this extraordinary world filled with excitement for shared knowledge and co-creation.
In the evening there is enough time for dinner and networking. Morning of a second day is reserved for getting to know each other, culture of the house, and heavy discussion about three methodologies on which college is based on (figure 1). In the afternoon, there are a series of workshops, held by top practitioners on different subjects such as, drawing and place of visuals in experience design and sensory perception workshop, elements and rapid prototyping; just to mention a few. On the morning of the third day, students are given a challenge to create an experience for all college participants based on the dramaturgy tool “hero’s journey”. Houses are given few hours to work on this, they have an access to volunteer help and large amount of props, and costumes, should they wish to stage an experience, rather than present an idea. During the afternoon, experiences take place and they are followed by discussion and feedback sessions. Last day is reserved for networking and the participants themselves are holding series of experiences/workshops/discussions. Three black boards are distributed in the main hall of the castle and participants fill in the sloths based on their will to share their knowledge or test their ideas. Finally, some of the ideas are then executed or tested on site, some are planned (e.g. meeting of all academics which resulted in idea of book being born, in order to transfer the academic knowledge/frameworks into practice) and some discussed.
Volunteering that offers a sneak peak behind the closed doors
Volunteer’s journey is rather different and busy, but very insightful as you get to see what happens on the inside. After I came and attended the general briefing, I met with main organizers and talked about possibility of capturing the knowledge of the conference, as many things happen at the same time and simply it is inevitable to miss things out. The participants are even warned not to stress out about FoMo (fear of missing out), but rather to embrace LoMo (love of missing out). Out of this conversation, The Whisperer, college newspaper came to life. I, together with other three volunteers got to attend any sessions I liked, and together with graphic designer we created a newspaper where we tried to capture the most interesting stories of the day in college (picture 1). This was both extraordinary, fun and interesting task, as much as it was challenging and at times seemed impossible. We attended ineffable discussions, experiences and shows that it was hard to decide which deserved a place in the paper.
Most valuable of all was the experience of being able to see what happens behind the closed door and how this type of an event is being planned and executed. One thing that stood among many was the agility of the organizers and their will to put even new ideas to test, even if it meant modifying the original plan of the event. Amount of creativity, trust, boldness, gamification, experience creation, belonging and meaning is something that has truly transformed me and is making me question how little are we sometimes agile and how 5 P’s (proper planning prevents poor performance), can sometimes kill the ideas and creativity.
I truly recommend to all at least to visit the webpage or Facebook page of this extraordinary experience and for those willing to improvise and step away to unstructured structure, to apply and volunteer at the event next year. I will be there! After all, you should visit your family at least once a year!
Violeta Salonen, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences
Picture 1: The Whisperer – Newspaper – 2 editions