I went to quite a few unofficial rave parties when I was a teenager and when I did, what I usually enjoyed the most was the feeling of co-creation in which every guest feels a certain degree of ownership over the event. I miss this feeling when I go to one of the more established festivals these days, where almost everything is designed for you, instead of being designed together with you (yes, I know there are noteworthy exceptions - see Burning Man etc.). Last weekend I went to the third edition of Stone Soup. Stone Soup is best described as a co-creational experience design camp where a group of artists and designers (think UX-design, Escape Room Design & Game Design, Theater, Architects, Installation Art etc.) come together and enjoy a weekend with a very loose structure and a lot of momentum for people to create experience for each other. The name ‘Stone Soup’ is based on an old folk tale that exists in various forms but has in its essence the idea that if each of us contributes something small, we will all together enjoy something great. Having been my second time at Stone Soup I have learned the undeniable truth behind this tale.
I don’t want to focus too much on the individual experiences that have taken place, even though there were many that are worth writing about, but I want to share the principles that the organizers defined to create a culture that allowed for this weekend of wholesome interactions and creative explorations (the order is irrelevant).
Let’s create a space that allows everyone to feel included. While this is hard to achieve, there are a few principles that go a long way. The first and most important one is language. People always ask me why I even speak English when I go out with my German friends in Amsterdam. The reason is that we want to allow other people to join the conversation. Often it is not enough to only switch the language when other people actively join the table or ask a question. Especially in a co-creative event it is important to allow other people to overhear ideas or to spontaneously join when they hear people talking about a project they want to support. This doesn’t mean that it is not allowed to have private one-on-one conversations, but it is better to have those outside of the group. Other little nudges of inclusions are to keep the circle open when having a conversation or to always leave one chair empty at a table. Inclusion does not only mean to allow others to join, but to create an atmosphere that invites everyone to join.
This one fits neatly into the previous concept of Inclusion. Almost everything we do at a co-creational event relies on others. If we design an experience, we often need others to participate in it. Especially if the time is limited, we probably need other people to help us realize our idea or we need others to share the tools and materials they brought. The success of the event and the value that we get out of it is largely dependent on the interplay between everyone in the group. Thus, it is important to pay attention to each other and to support each other emotionally and creatively. Radical Interdependence means to pay attention to the well-being of others, respect everyone’s emotional states and try to support each other as much as we can.
Anyone who has ever done Improvisational theater is probably familiar with the idea of “Yes, and…”. This principle means that it is more constructive to reply to other people’s ideas with a “Yes, and…” instead of a “Yes, but” or - what is often actually meant - “No, because”. Of course, not all ideas are good or feasible, but it is easy to shoot down ideas too early before realizing their potential. In an unforced and playful environment, it is definitely more interesting to just riff along and try to contribute to an idea and see where it leads. Reflective Learning
Running around, playing games, having fun (or not) is one way to spend some time. It is easy to lose oneself in busyness and excitement. Yet, for deep insight it is important to sometimes step on the brakes and take some time off to reflect and harvest the insights from an experience. During one lunch the team decided to offer two spaces. One for people to sit together to talk and another one with individual chairs spread all over the area for people to sit by themselves with some time to reflect. While I wasn’t initially convinced of the idea it struck me just a few minutes later that even I ended up preferring to sit by myself for some time and listen to my own thoughts instead. My lesson from this is, don’t be afraid to build in breaks and quiet time at your event. Stimulate your participants to take some time for themselves to recharge and put their experiences into perspective.
Sometimes it is important that people take the lead. It might be just to make an announcement or facilitate a moment. We all know that some people are either the people who naturally take or are offered those positions more often. Flexible hierarchy encourages you to pay attention to those moments and change things around actively. Make sure it isn’t always the same people who get all the attention and offer responsibilities to people who seem disconnected or have been less engaged. You want everyone to feel some degree of ownership and responsibility and the more there is a feeling of a structured hierarchy the more your participants will be encouraged to lean back and rely on others.
Similarly, to the idea of rapid prototyping, we are talking about the principle of taking action. It is tempting to talk and over-analyze an idea, but nothing provides more data than a test. “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” is a famous WW1 quote and I argue that any idea or plan will change drastically after the first encounter with reality. So instead of talking about ideas, lets execute them, instead of fantasizing about how things should be, lead by example and take action to make things better. Appreciate it if other people take action and execute ideas and if you don’t agree with how they do it, feel free to step in, help them or try to change it. But the emphasis here is on doing instead of talking.
The great thing in designing experiences for other designers is that allows us immense freedom in experimentation. The participants are usually grateful for your creativity and daring, even if the idea falls flat. They will be forgiving for things that don’t turn out that well and will help you to think along about how to improve it. In this environment however it is easy to forget about safety. While physical safety is often rather easy to assess we need to keep reminding ourselves of emotional safety. Many experiences work with the element of surprise, but it is nevertheless important to let our participants know to some extent what to expect. Make sure the interactions in the experience are invitations and look for enthusiastic consent. Provide opportunities to end or leave the experience. Group pressure can build up quickly in a setting with many people so it is important to remind everyone that the levels of participation are individual decisions as we usually can’t be sure of other people’s boundaries. When looking for safety tools it is a good start to take ideas from at the the Larp scene, as the people there have much experience with exploring emotionally loaded themes in a safe way.
If you are interested in learning more about co-creational events or you want to come to one of the editions of Stone Soup (which I can highly recommend). Check out the event’s website and hopefully we see each other some time at another edition!
PS: Medeea Haruki created a sweet video of Stone Soup 2019 which I was allowed to add to this video