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Learnings from a Pseudo World-Café Online

With the world shifting online, Demsoc did not lose any time in developing its own unique approach to online participatory workshops.

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Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Annie Cook, Engagement Officer, Scotland, Daniela Amann, Local Connector, Vienna, Martina Francesca, Local Connector, Milan, Namita Kambli, Research & Policy Manager, Berlin, The Democratic Society

As a leading democracy organisation working in 24 countries across Europe, we at The Democratic Society (Demsoc) were already accustomed to working as a distributed, yet closely connected team.And yet, when the world as we knew it was forced to move online, we still had to adapt. And fast. To keep spirits high, we set up creative team challenges, drop-in lunch chats, and Howdy Friday checkouts with weekend tips.

On the work delivery front, it meant literally moving processes from room to Zoom overnight. This brought more excitement than trepidation — a chance to expand horizons and skills. It also meant a lot of hard work, even more so than usual. After hours and days of research and endless Miro vs Mural debates, we agreed to test first and hone later.

And so began our work in earnest on an online pseudo World Café. Why pseudo you ask? Without the luxury of physical round tables, and humbled by features of the tech we were still exploring, we decided to take several liberties with the classic World café format. More importantly, despite many excellent resources out there on how to run events online in general, we were, and still remain, keen on building a Demsoc approach to group dialogue that is as inclusive as it is engaging. This will ultimately tie into the work that our local government team has been doing on creating spaces for online deliberation.

The topic we chose was broad yet layered in its complexity: terminology. In our work on participatory democracy, we often see words such as ‘participation’ and ‘engagement’ used interchangeably. While this may allow for a certain flexibility, it can also lead to confusion, miscommunication, unquestioned assumptions, and unreal expectations around participatory processes, both on the side of participants as well as organisers. The main objective of this workshop was to therefore establish a shared, common understanding of participation-related terminology for our EIT-Climate-KIC Healthy, Clean Cities Deep Demonstration project that lay the foundation for our own work whilst informing that of our peers and partners. But more on that in a separate article (do keep your eyes peeled)!

Key takeaways:

1. Breakout rooms are the closest you will get to discussion tables — and disapparition.

2. Icebreakers are a means of putting people at ease - and making friends with tech.

3. Facilitators need to ‘read the room’, also online.

4. Your co-host is the Watson to your Holmes (or Robin to your Batman).

5. Use technology to include not exclude.

6. Befriend Minimalism.

7. Clear goals = clear contributions.

8. Channel the Scouts and be prepared.

9. Choose your tech wisely.

10. Conversation guidelines make for good dialogue.

11. Size does matter.

For further explanation of each of the points and examples of our practical experience, download our key learnings here.

All in all, our online pseudo World Café made for a fantastic learning experience and we hope these learnings will be as valuable to others as they were to us. Inspired by our approach, several teammates have since remodelled their own online workshops to good — and fun — effect.

As we continue to hone this approach, we remain ultra-conscious of the barriers that digital technology and participation brings, particularly for people with physical or learning disabilities, and we are giving serious thought to this much like we have always done.

As the world shifts towards a ʻnew normalʼ, however, we anticipate that online workshops will continue to be a valuable way to collaborate. Very little can replace hugs and informal gatherings in building trust and rapport, but in injecting more thoughtfulness and fun in our online collaboration, we at Demsoc certainly aspire to create a decent alternative.

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Membership organisation supporting participation, citizenship and better ways of doing government. Engaged but non-partisan.

Membership organisation supporting participation, citizenship and better ways of doing government. Engaged but non-partisan.

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