Hyper Island: More than Swedish Weirdness

It is just after eight on a Wednesday morning in May 2012 when Jordan Eshpeter opens the door to his future.

At first glance, it appears unremarkable: a sparse, ground-floor space in Manhattan’s Tribeca district, replete with some mid-century Scandinavian furniture, a couple of art pieces and espresso machines.

A few days from now, Eshpeter will begin his new job as business development and marketing lead with Vancouver digital agency Domain7. He’s attending this three-day Hyper Island Master Class in New York for what he describes as a little R&R: rest and research.

The bare, white walls at 250 Hudson St. are blindingly bright in the spring sunshine. In a few hours, they will be covered by dozens of blue, green and orange sticky notes bearing cryptic, sometimes outlandish ideas and notions (eg: “YouTube parties,” “frequent trips to space,” “[Google engineer Ray] Kurzweil’s dad resurrected + he refutes all of his son’s work”) scribbled by people whose creative juices aren’t just flowing, but gushing.

Eshpeter’s classmates include CEOs and other C-suite executives, as well as marketing VPs, copywriters and PR practitioners. They range from digital natives to executives in their 50s and 60s. Each is there because they sense the transformative effect digital is having on their business and their need to adapt to the ever-changing marketplace.

Even though some attendees breathe the rarefied air atop the marketing/business world, each wears a “Hello, my name is….” sticker and carries a journal that they will fill with musings, observations and ideas over the next 72 hours. These journals will become almost totemic for participants like Eshpeter, who still regularly refers to it 14 months after completing the Master Class (“I keep it in my bag—it goes with me everywhere,” he says).

Eshpeter is one of 30 people who have paid some US$4,000 for the Hyper Island Master Class, an intense three-day program of ideation, creation and reflection. Hyper Island was started in the land of ABBA and IKEA, but has become famous around the world as one of the best professional development programs in the industry. In December, the program will be making a stop in Vancouver.

Eshpeter was staying with friends in Manhattan during the course, and would often pull out his journal at the end of the day to excitedly share the things he’d learned or imagined. “They didn’t quite share my enthusiasm,” he says.

Participants spend the three days in an entirely future-focused environment, where they are encouraged to be audacious in their discussions and exercises—imagining everything from cranial implants to the melding of man and machine, or the prospect of cultured meat produced without slaughtering animals.
“You spend a lot of time a couple of steps down the road from where you are,” says Eshpeter. “For the average person or creative, the demands of your daily life just keep you locked in the present.”

The Master Class programs are designed to increase understanding of how digital and scientific advances are changing both society and consumer behaviour, and how organizations need to adapt to stay creative and competitive.

Hyper Island’s Stockholm-based CEO Johanna Frelin (pictured) says that a big part of the program is built around changing established thinking patterns and giving participants a “new perspective” on their business.

“It’s almost like they’re laying the groundwork for the work you’re about to do,” says Eshpeter, who was so enamoured with the program that he has partnered with Eustress Marketing Coaching founder Richard Sandor to bring Hyper Island to B.C.

“You spend so much time playing and doing, imagining and pitching, and trying to synthesize things into products and conveying them to your peers, who are applauding your efforts,” says Eshpeter. “By the time you’ve done the three days it feels like you’ve been through the exercise of starting eight companies and launching 12 products at the same time, none of which exist.”

Famously referred to as the “digital Harvard” by TBWA/Worldwide global creative president Rob Schwartz (a tag Frelin says is “super flattering”) and profiled in a renowned Fast Company article, Hyper Island is a Swedish school that was established in 1996. Its focus is on industry-based, experiential learning; there are no grades, no teachers, and failure is viewed as a necessary step to future success.

Its location in a former military prison, meanwhile, also embodies what Frelin gleefully refers to as “that Swedish weirdness.” You get the sense that the mainstream press coverage isn’t necessarily welcomed. “We try to keep our brand a little bit secret and weird,” she says. “You need to experience Hyper Island.”

The learning is focused not so much on digital technology but its broader impact on business and industry sectors. “We don’t teach people how to set up a Twitter account—we’re looking at a much bigger perspective,” says Frelin. “We’re tying to get people to move from being behind to being in front of digital development.”
The Master Class is an extension of Hyper Island’s in-class instruction that caters to people already in the workforce. Billed by Hyper Island as “a fast-paced series of presentations and collaborative workshops,” it is designed to get participants to step outside of their comfort zone by engaging in some “out there” thinking.

It is also much in-demand. Frelin estimates that 5,000 people have participated in Master Class programs, held everywhere from Singapore and Sydney to Copenhagen and Miami, since their introduction in the middle of the last decade. “We are like the flying circus, with classes all over the world,” she says.

For the Master Class, Hyper Island taps into a global network of approximately 250 people who are leaders in areas like innovation and creativity, marketing, recruiting, etc. to address participants and set the tone for the workshop. “The framework is digital, but there can be a lot of competencies added to that,” says Frelin.

The popularity of the Master Class reflects the growing anxiety among today’s marketing professionals that they are not staying abreast of digital developments and feel ill equipped to handle the accelerating pace of change.

Those fears are articulated in one of the hallmarks of the Master Class, the “stinky fish” exercise, which asks participants to articulate their biggest fears about the digital world to the rest of their group.

“Some people say they’re afraid of their integrity in the digital environment, others are afraid of what digital can do to their company,” says Frelin. “Others will say “I feel old—I don’t like it that my co-workers are more competent than I am.” (Among Eshpeter’s stinky fish: “Am I an expert in this field?” “Can I speak confidently to our clients that I know enough.” “Am I what I say I am, and how good am I?”).

The Master Class enables participants to not only see their digital blind spots, but provides valuable insights and actionable advice for everything from their work process to their management style.

“I left with excitement to go create something new with my team, and I also realized a lot of things in my leadership as far as where I was playing small,” says Nancy Richardson, vice-president of digital and brand strategy for Lululemon in Vancouver, who attended the New York Master Class with the company’s director of brand strategy, Lesia Dallimore, and head of digital strategy, Carolyn Coles.

At first she felt disappointed after uncovering those leadership shortcomings. “Although I shifted that disappointment to creating the possibility to do something new. I was really happy I got that through this class.”

Richardson says that much of the big-idea approach she learned at the Hyper Island Master Class will be implemented in her strategic planning for 2014. “Part of what I brought back was the ability to be entrepreneurial, the importance and notion of experiments and what it means to embrace failure and take risks and be okay with that,” she says.

While the Master Class learnings might not always be tangible in her work, Richardson says they have helped inform much of her thinking. “The work you see us put out encapsulates a lot of the leadership I brought back from this class. I can’t say ‘That specific Twitter post was impacted by the Master Class,’ but I would say overall, because I play at a much more strategic level, it has impacted who I am as a leader, the impact on my team and therefore the work you see from us.”

A recent Hyper Island promotional vid

This story originally appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of Marketing

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