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FEATURE: Promoting more inclusive, less carbon-intensive meetings

Lucia Scodanibbio of CDKN investigates a particular model of virtual meeting that can involve more participants than usual – as well as saving on travel emissions.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to reconsider many choices and approaches which we long took for granted. Among these, is the ease with which we used to get onto planes to attend a two-day meeting on the opposite side of the world, even when we knew that environmentally, it was the wrong choice. Being forced to stay home and within the confines of our own cities and countries has forced us to think of alternative ways of reaching the same outcomes. In many cases, better outcomes have resulted from the new ways that countless organisations across the world have been experimenting with, to engage through virtual platforms.

Sida’s experiment with the hub model

The Sida Partnership Forum (SPF) is one of the pioneers in this field. Since April 2019 it started experimenting with its first digital dialogue meeting, followed by its first travel-free capacity building course later that year. Until then, SPF’s training courses consisted of on-site trainings in its Härnösand centre. At the the end of last year, however, a flight-free pilot brought together 130 participants spread throughout four geographical hubs (in Colombia, Thailand, Kenya and Sweden), which were hosted by Sida’s regional partners.

Over the course of three days, participants joined a number of

  • global Zoom sessions in which they listened to short keynote presentations, which were also livestreamed on YouTube;
  • smaller in-person group work sessions in their hubs, in which local facilitators fostered discussions on regional and local cases related to varied environmental and social issues, including potential actions that could be lobbied on;
  • twinning sessions which paired hubs through Zoom along particular sub-themes with panellists that provoked thought exchanges, and varied dynamics that deepened understanding of each other’s regions.

A subsequent training intending to follow the same modality in March 2020 (with 200 participants across six hubs and four time zones) was halted in its feet as countries suddenly started announcing the imposition of lockdown measures. In no time, the organisers had to transform a semi-digital conference – in which participants would meet in their respective hubs – into a completely online one. This meant supporting participants to be able to connect remotely through the provision, for example, of scratch cards that would enable them to buy data. Unfortunately, given the virus’s short notice, it also meant that some had to drop out of the course altogether. What became clear, however, was the critical need to enable large numbers of people to engage and connect with each other online.

Sida’s three-pronged impetus to move online

Interestingly, Sida’s experimentation with digital events was not purely driven by concerns to reduce the carbon footprint of its activities.

A second key driver was also a desire for its training courses to be more inclusive. While its in-person workshops included 20-50 selected individuals (usually a handful per country) who would travel to be trained in Sweden, the hub mechanism increased country participation tenfold. Not only did this enable more local agency, ownership and learning, but also addressing the gender imbalance that reduced the number of women participating in the Swedish-based courses.

Thirdly, the decentralised hub mechanism also meant that the process of planning and organising the conference would be much more co-owned and co-created across several organisations in the global north and south, enabling a different type of capacity building in the process too.

Each event, for instance, requires three critical roles that need to be replicated across all hubs: (i) a hub coordinator in charge of registration and logistics (including food, when participants meet in person); (ii) a facilitator in charge of speakers and contributors; and (iii) a technical coordinator to deal with the online platform issues.

Looking forward

“It’s critical for the content to be interesting and relevant, for an event to be successful. Just translating traditional events to a digital format is not enough. There’s a need to think about the format and design of the event, what the platform enables, the different levels to be targeted. For example, we set up online coffee rooms, where randomly allocated participants can chat in breakout rooms. But an online coffee break has to be longer, as people do need to stretch out and make a coffee” shares Ola Nilsson, Sida’s Programme Manager Specialist.

The SPF is currently planning its next term with digital training events for the autumn of 2020, where the idea is to experiment further with different, hybrid formats. To tackle the challenge of low connectivity in certain areas, some trainings will be stretched out over a longer time period (e.g. two weeks) in which live digital sessions will be alternated with asynchronous individual work in which participants download online pre-recorded presentations and read material stored on the platform. Group analysis and discussions can take place even in text-based manners, in which questions and answers are typed up over a period of time.

“We are really trying to think about ways to increase inclusiveness, including in rural areas. Once in-country lockdowns are lifted, things will be easier as we collaborate with local organisations acting as hubs once again. Also, once people are back in their offices, many challenges tied to technological issues or home distractions should be overcome. But we also need to beware of participant fatigue in online events. Our first events attracted participants who were curious to see how a digital workshop would work out, but as people get more used to these, the novelty factor is gone.”

While digital events may not be the panacea, they are providing much-needed alternatives to traditional options which have required us to spend time travelling across the world, separate from family and our regular work, and incur great financial and environmental costs. As they enable events to be much greener and more inclusive, we really are encouraged by these early successes that are increasing worldwide.

 

Image: training hub, credit Sida Partnership Forum

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