Two weeks ago I drove east toward Jökulsárlón in Vatnajökull National Park, which has a lagoon of floating icebergs (pictured above). I was so excited to see the country’s glacial landscape, which covers 11 percent of Iceland’s land. Just a tiny part of an iceberg sticks out above water level, and even those pieces are massive. The sight of the icebergs—some of which were moving with the water current, fascinated my friends and me. Then, nature did the thing it does best: it inspired me. I was inspired when I saw a large icebergs going through the process of calving, where a chunk of its ice breaks off at its edge.
I drew a correlation between the massive sizes of the iceberg and Saga Fest. The large amount of logistics and coordination involved with the festival, it can seem like an overwhelming project. If I could help it, I didn’t want Saga Fest to go through a process of calving—where one of the festival’s experiences loses its connection to the overall outcomes/vision.
On the other hand, I started to think about how large icebergs are broken apart into smaller pieces through calving. Perhaps, I thought, there could be a way to break Saga Fest apart in a similar way. What if instead of viewing Saga Fest as this huge, ambiguous and overwhelming project, we divided the festival into a high volume of miniature experiences that all shared the same vision? What if Saga Fest isn’t just a single festival organized by a single group of organizers, but rather, a coordination of hundreds of smaller experiences organized by hundreds of people? If we took the latter approach, could people test and reiterate mini-experiences even before the festival took place in May, and how would such a prototyping process shape the community Saga Fest is hoping to engage?
Five immediate benefits to this idea:
1. The festival becomes more manageable
2. Mini-experiences can be owned by team members, participants, partner organizations or the larger community (more people are involved with the building of Saga Fest this way)
3. It is easier for people to draw connections between several experiences at the festival
4. The smaller experiences can be tested and re-iterated before the festival’s launch date so that it maximizes its impact (experience prototyping)
5. Hosting smaller experiences before the festival builds marketing and inspires the festival’s co-creation culture
6. Most important: you build a community and tangible experiences during the process of planning the festival, instead of just throwing ideas onto a big white paper during a brainstorming session
Step 1: Examine Your Project
By the time I used what I’ve called The Glacier Method, I already had a clear vision of what I wanted people to gain out of Saga Fest. I developed the vision of the festival—which keeps the iceberg a single entity—by creating a “why” statement. I also constructed a 1-2 sentence statement on how I’m achieving the why. Although I did not know every logistical detail of our event/experience, I knew the importance of figuring out what outcomes I wanted the community to achieve through Saga Fest.
For Saga Fest, my outcomes are to (1) provide an open space where people feel comfortable to share, play and love (vulnerability); (2) allow people to build meaningful relationships with each other (community); and (3) help people understand how they can integrate sustainability into their lives (environmentalism). All three of these outcomes are related to the “why” statement of Saga Fest: Creating a festival that causes real transformation in the community.
These are the three principles that hold Saga Fest together (the glacier borders). Everything that goes inside of it (the mini-experiences, the “what”) should be designed with the intention of achieving at least one of the three outcomes (but hopefully all three).
Step 2: Break Your Project Apart
Some festivals—especially music festivals—are choosing to focus their energy into creating a small volume of large experiences that draw in as many people as possible. This might look like a small number of extremely popular headliners, constructing enormous stages or having a memorable finale. Saga Fest is doing the opposite: I want to flip this model on its head.
Putting aside the debate about whether the traditional festival approach is effective, I believe there are benefits to creating a festival that supports a large volume of smaller experiences unified by shared outcomes. This means that no matter which parts of the festival participants engage with by choice or design, they’ll experience the same transformation as another participant who went on an entirely different journey.
I also believe this approach of having a lot of mini-experiences empowers more people in the community. Through embracing a festival culture of co-creation and participation, I will create an environment where people can take on facilitation and leadership roles to shape the overall experience. It also means engaging an untapped and more diverse audience into the festival experience.
The graphic above is not an exhaustive example, but it may give you an idea of what it might look like to divide your event into several mini-experiences. Take music for instance. Instead of having a few headliners, what if we funded a large number of smaller acts to take part in the festival? Take it even a step further: what happens when Saga Fest creates a “BYOI” (Bring Your Own Instrument) principle and we train volunteers to facilitate spontaneous jam sessions? What if instead of keeping musicians on designated stages, we tell them that everything is fair game? What would a festival look like if musicians performed as people ate their meals, or as they waited in line for the bathroom or as they traveled from one stage to another?
Something also to note is that you can make the mini-experiences as general or specific as possible. I’ve chosen to make the mini-experiences as general as possible in order to give people the flexibility to dream up their own creations within that space.
Step 3: Test your mini-experiences
Now that we have mini-experiences identified (and embraced a culture of openness), we are able to isolate and test these ideas in an intimate setting with the community. As an example, I launched a backyard concert series in my house’s backyard in Reykjavík. Each month my roommates and I invite a variety of musicians (experimental, folk, singer-songwriters, opera, electronic DJs) to perform in my backyard and facilitate a series of “transformative experiences” before, between or after sets. I reflect and gather feedback on the backyard concerts after we’re done and reiterate/change the experience to make it more impactful for the community and artists.
For this post, I want to focus specifically on a dinner experience I co-hosted with experience designer Cosmo Fujiyama. I had to return to NYC briefly after my pre-Fulbright “listening tour” to get my student visa (which is now sorted out) so I decided to use the trip as an opportunity to build Saga Fest. We decided to isolate the mini-experience of “food” at the festival and brainstormed an idea to host a Living Room Dinner that brought people who didn’t know each other together (similar to what will happen at the festival). We involved them in the cooking (in this case we did a build-your-own sushi experience) and also facilitated a deeply personal conversation around transformation. The way we intentionally designed the experience allowed us to explore three different things:
1. Can people who don’t know each other leave as tight-knit friends after an intimate dinner designed around relationship building? (Community)
2. Were we able to build an open space where people felt comfortable to share deeply personal things to one another? (Vulnerability)
3. Will people leave the experience feeling more connected to environmental change? (Environmentalism)
The dinner was largely a success in the first two points (vulnerability and community) but we failed to incorporate environmentalism into the dinner. We reflected on the experience and realized that next time we could have brought plants or hosted the dinner in a garden where people could pick their own ingredients to add to their sushi. We also thought we could have explained where the food came from and the process it goes through to go from farm-to-table.
The positive was that the event brought together a diverse group of people who connected and felt comfortable to share personal stories with each other. At the end of the experience, all of the participants said they got something positive out of the experience—for some it was just a minor transformation but for others it was much more inspiring (one person wanted to get back into art after she had a deep conversation with someone she met at the dinner).
We were also able to share our vision of Saga Fest through experience and showing, rather than telling. This sparked an organic dialogue (not prompted by the organizers) on how they could help us build Saga Fest—which proved that keeping the festival as flat and co-creative as possible is something that resonates with others. The experience also allowed my mind to develop additional ideas on how food could be incorporated into the festival, which provided richer conversations with the food vendors and farmers I am working with.
Every leader and team working on producing a community arts/music festival will find a personalized way to plan and launch the project. This iteration of “The Glacier Method” works best for my team, and the method itself will probably reiterate as the festival launch date (May 2015) approaches. The important point is this: Saga Fest’s planning process doesn’t have to be limited to mapping our ideas on a piece of paper or discussing the experience around a table. We can actually build the festival by dividing it into smaller experiences, and then testing those experiences in isolation with an intimate group of people. Not only does it help build and test the festival experience, but it also serves as a marketing mechanism and inspires co-creation from the community. Additionally, because we are approaching the planning of Saga Fest through creating mini-events that mirror what people might experience at Saga Fest, we are able to build a real community and cause positive transformation even before the festival is launched.
Thus, the best benefit of The Glacier Method:
You have an opportunity to impact the community in a positive way during the planning/development phase of your project.