Lessons from the Sauna about Collective Wisdom




It’s 1:30 AM and we’re waking up and falling back to sleep as our tiny bus of nine speakers makes the way from Sweden to Norway, while it suddenly starts to snow outside. From a continuing silence accompanied by the motor engine buzzing and humming, I could suddenly hear a collective sigh of surprise, facing the unexpected white flakes falling down in the middle of May. Reflecting back, that moment was a preview of what will soon happen at the Katapult festival in Oslo: A collective, sometimes surprising and overwhelming emotion, building up as we’re there – open to absorb and connect.

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It’s the beginning of 2017. I’m reflecting on the year that has passed by, and decide to define my new-year’s key word as TRUST. Driven by the passion to understand better why I specifically chose that one; I wrote a piece about self-trust, social trust and how to build and maintain it. A short time after it had been published, I received a message from an acquaintance whom I’ve never met before in person, yet we’re connected through social media. Bert-Ola Bergstrand introduced me to Vetenskapsfestivalen in Gothenburg, followed by Katapult festival in Oslo, both are aligned with the theme of trust. We are having a conversation, and he invites me to speak at these two events, although he has never heard me “speak live” before. Wow, talk about trust!

I don’t know much about the event, and after a quick peek at the program I discovered that it’s a tech-oriented one. Now, if you know me already, you’re probably aware that I prefer writing on a piece of paper rather than typing on a smart-phone, and that the last time that I had a close look at the interior side of a computer was a few years back – when I got impatient with the machine and pulled out the Shift button. So you could imagine the dilemma I had whether this event is the right place for me to be. Yet I decided to follow my gut feeling, and replied positively to the invitation.

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Jumping forward again in time, we woke up in chilly Oslo and walked to the event venue, which was located right on the shoreline. Stepping inside the space revealed a beautiful stage setting – couches arranged for a panel and a warm light shed on it, like a cozy living room.33817813293_60a2d5d1d6_k All across the place, standing in small, dynamic groups, I noticed a huge amount of people talking, listening, meeting and even hugging – in one word: connecting. The excitement was already felt, but we didn’t get the full experience yet.

Moving after lunch time to the second venue, which is made out of three smaller spaces, a bar, a café with a pants-making workshop (!), created a new level of intimacy. It was like we were invited to a big party, where you can choose solely who to interact with. Only that this specific party contained a long list of short talks (Ted-style) given on a variety of topics, ranging from Exponential Technologies and Impact Investing to Education, Trust and even Peace Building.

In conferences and events of this kind, the participants are usually mingling during lunch break, while networking is part of their business purpose. I’ve been to some events where I felt people are hunting for their next client, pulling out quickly their business cards when the target is marked… This time, it felt different in a way that no one was trying to market me anything, seal a deal or promote themselves in an aggressive way. What I did feel was a strong will to collaborate and to create something new together, to learn from each other and cooperatively explore future possibilities for a better society.

Out of curiosity what made this event look and feel so out of the box, I listed the ingredients from a participant/speaker perspective:

Engagement. We all mingled together:33817841533_28cf055fa9_k speakers, organizers, volunteers, visitors and investors. Not even for one second did it feel like we’re separated by our roles, backgrounds and field of interest. We all came for the same purpose. 

Relationships – it’s all personal. People kept introducing themselves and others to one another, but more importantly: when new people approached the table – they were highly welcomed to join the conversation. Like I said, one big friendly party, with the theme of collaboration.

Variety and interdisciplinary mixture. I believe that the main key which made the event so aligned with the purpose of co-creation, was the variety of fields of practice and the space given to the intersection between them – which truly underpinned the intention of generating something new. Giving the trust in the process that all the different topics and people will play along so well together – gave us all a very unique opportunity that is not so common in our silos characterized society – it opened a window to tap into our collective wisdom.

So what is collective wisdom?

Do you know the case when you work together as a team, trying to solve a problem, when each one brings their own idea and finally you vote (or compromise) on a singular one? That’s not collective wisdom. Nor a brainstorming process, which prioritizes “the best idea given”. Collective wisdom is the process in which you share reflections, inputs, and ideas, and then you start building on each others ideas. Finally you come up together with something totally new, when usually you can’t even remember who brought it up! That is probably because it doesn’t have a single signature on it; it belongs to all the participants in the process.

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My talk was given in a very unique space. Behind me was a glass wall, overlooking the fjord, and the audience sat on wooden branches climbing up. In the afternoon, shortly after the talks were done, the heat inside was taken up – literally – and we were invited to be sweating in the biggest sauna in Norway. While the music was played and people were laughing, dancing and enjoying together, it seemed so obvious to mix working for a better future with extracting a better present.

Collective positive emotion was coupled with the collective wisdom, right there. We could look together straightforward, and see far beyond the fjord and the ocean – we could see a clear vision of a future thriving society, driven by passion, trust and collaboration. So yes, we came to make an effort, learn and explore; and tough issues were not absent, while we held the space to talk about mental-illness, depression, suicide, violence and disconnection. But it was treated with a look towards the future, and it didn’t feel naive – it felt like a positive human mass working hard to push our boundaries.

I’ll leave it with a few questions: How will the future look like if we will approach it in a positive manner? How will tomorrow feel if we will use creative, out-of-the-box thinking, instead of perpetuating our actions over and over? How great can we be together, if we will dare to tap into our collective wisdom?
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Photos: Lars ling, JP candiotti