Innovation, development, and why you should drink coffee

A few months ago, I met Brian McQuinn at Geneva airport for coffee. I learned later that Brian + coffee = mile-a-minute talking, and that our rapid talk brainstorming would have unexpected consequences. Brian and I had both been contracted to facilitate an inter-regional learning exchange conference convened by the Cyprus Peace it Together civil society network, with the support of UNDP, USAID, World Vision, CYINDEP, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the EU. The conference aimed to promote the exchange of knowledge between Europe and the Arab region on the role of citizens and civil society in stimulating social change during periods of transition.

So we all know what these conferences look like, right? The conference would bring together 150 participants over 3 days. That’s maybe 3 plenary sessions, 3 group work sessions and a declaration of intent at the end. Useful networking happens, people learn what others are doing, and the declaration galvanizes actors to keep up the good work. Nothing wrong with this process… but this time it was going to be different. What Brian presented at full speed in Geneva airport was the vision for a conference that would foster innovation among civil society actors working in transitions. This was not just about sharing best practices and networking, it was a chance to come up with new ideas for action.

The problem was that we had no model for how to do this. How could we hold the space for innovation? Specifically, what process design would create an atmosphere that fostered innovation by balancing collaboration between participants and competition among participants? This is not a common approach in the development world, not the way we’re used to programming. But there is another industry where innovation happens at big gatherings: technology. If we wanted to go from identification of problem statements (what are the priorities for social change in transitions?) to development of innovative prototypes (concept notes for small grants), then technology conferences had a lot to offer. We would design a process that looked more like a hackathon and less like a traditional panel discussion.

That might sound a bit like a pipe dream, but the Power of One (#pof1) conference took place last week, and it was in every way an actualization of this vision. It ended up being a potpourri of elements from different tech events. From the experience of ICCM and the Standby Task Force we took the idea of a private online social network (a Ning site) for participants to share views and get to know each other before the conference. Once at the conference, participants spent one day in facilitated small group brainstorming sessions to flesh out the role of and priorities for civil society in transitions. At the end of day one, participants were given the chance to sign up to present one innovative idea for action for social change in transitions. These “spark presentations” were delivered the next morning to the entire conference, and took the format of Ignite Talks (1 presenter, 5 minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds per slide).

Sparks were an opportunity for individual participants to champion an idea for change and get other participants interested. 28 sparks were presented, ranging from using history curriculums to bridge gaps between conflict groups to building eco-sustainable villages to integrating anthropology perspectives into peacebuilding. Right after the sparks, much like a Random Hacks of Kindness event, presenters moved to a ‘souq’ (market) to further explain their idea and gather supporters. Spark presenters would need the skills and expertise of other participants if their idea was to develop into a funded project. Within minutes, the place turned into a chaotic market place of ideas, with people shouting from chairs, selling their thoughts and shopping around for projects to join. An hour later, 7 sparks were abandoned due to lack of support, a process of selection that combined collaboration and competition to strength the initial ideas.

With their group of supporters in tow, spark presenters now had 24 hours to develop a 2-page concept note and a more elaborated presentation. In that mad dash, a number of ideas merged, leaving the final count of project concept notes at 17. These final 17 presented their project ideas back to the entire conference, and participants then voted for their favorites. The top three project ideas will now be fast-tracked for a USAID / UNDP grant for innovative inter-regional projects for social change. The remaining 14 are also eligible to apply for another three available grants from USAID / UNDP.

The three project ideas that came out of the conference will no doubt go on to make a difference in the region. That alone is a great result. But the Power of One conference is also a proof of concept. It is a model that can change the way the development community thinks about and acts on innovation. The sparks and concept notes generated are useful for more than just disbursal of small grants to civil society actors. They are the concrete priorities for action of civil society, thought through with a fresh perspective – not a bad place to start when deciding on programming priorities for Europe and the Arab Region.

Here’s a secret of the past week: we didn’t know all along that this would work. There was a huge amount of uncertainty and organized chaos in the process. We could have had no sparks. Or uninteresting sparks. Or full-on disengagement of participants. One participant told us that he thought he was coming to a conference and realized when he arrived that it wasn’t a conference at all! At times, it felt like something between a block party and a mad house. And this bit of madness was the key to success. Full credit is due to the leadership at UNDP Cyprus for taking the risk to go along with a team of fantastically enthusiastic facilitators, who all bought in to the process design early on. (Heidi Rosbe, Ilke Dagli, Sebastian Dworak, Akis Christofides, Sylvie Mantis, Brian McQuinn – pleasure to work with you all!) It also helped that the hosts of the conference – the Peace it Together network – are no strangers to innovation. Not only do they regularly use facebook and twitter, they also have their own blog, a partner who focuses on community media, and recently launched a project that uses crowdsourcing to monitor “what the walls are saying” about peace and conflict in Cyprus.

Most of all, the diverse, active and inspirational participants made the conference possible. It was remarkable to watch people reacting to the challenges of innovation, collaboration and competition. Working together and under pressure, participants brought out the best of their experience and formed lasting connections. The older practitioners advised the inspired youth. Academics provided research advice to action-oriented civil society workers. Bulgarians advised Tunisians who then drew links to experiences from Cyprus. This lively knowledge sharing doesn’t end at the conference. Thanks to the establishment of the Ning, participants will continue to collaborate on project ideas initiated at the conference, and perhaps on other future projects. It’s an instant community of practice, building on the momentum of the conference.

A few years ago at an ICCM conference, I remember the organizer telling us that we had collectively managed to drink three times more coffee than any other conference held at the same venue. Which leads me to a final conclusion: innovative people drink copious amounts of coffee. (The Power of One facilitation team certainly drank enough frappes to fill a bathtub.) Or perhaps causality runs the other way. It seems to me the best ideas come from mad caffeinated moments – perhaps caffeine not only accelerates the heart rate, but also helps suspend disbelief. So there you have it. If you want to change the world: learn from other fields, take risks, and drink coffee.

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