GHR Blog | The future of convening: technology, form, and function

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  • 2020•04•28

    The Global Health Reflections series brings together opinion pieces, commentaries, and summaries of major issues related to global health. It is informed by the research and activities of UNU-IIGH fellows and our partners.

    by Emma Rhule

    Participants at the What Works in Gender and Health Workshop, April 2019. Will we ever return to this convening style in the era of pandemia? (Photo by UNU-IIGH) Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0


    Bringing people together is essential for generating and sharing ideas and information and is critical for the advancement of culture, knowledge, and our understanding of the world. There is an art and science to convening effectively to ensure that the right people are brought together at the right time in order to garner the collective knowledge and intelligence to address a shared problem. Success or failure could depend on the mix of knowledge and skills, representation, or facilitation. The agenda, including the sequencing and timing could have an impact on the flow of the discussion and the outcome of the gathering. Critically the format of the meeting; symposium, colloquium, workshop, seminar, roundtable, panel discussion – provides the structure or set of activities.

    Many of us still prefer to meet in person. This is particularly the case when the intention is to build new relationships, conducting negotiations, or to communicate complex or ambiguous information. However, face to face meetings, especially those bringing together international participants, have been facing increasing criticism. The main charges levied are that they are a waste of resource, both time and money, that participant lists are insufficiently inclusive, and that they extract a large environment toll.

    Over the past decade, there has been a rapid proliferation increase in technologies that have made remote convening easier. These range from the commonplace (e.g. videoconferencing) to the elaborate, including scientific conferences within gaming platforms or novel virtual environments. Through combining different platforms, it is possible to replicate many elements of an in-person gathering – presentations are given, group ideation takes place, side conversations occur. Additionally, there can also be advantages to the participant experience; for instance, people report feeling more comfortable speaking to senior people in virtual engagements than in real life.

    However, virtual meetings add an extra layer of complexity to the considerations of effective outcomes of convening. The effectiveness of the meeting formats relies, to a large extent, on social affordances offered through personal contact and relationship-building. Denstadli and colleagues found that videoconferences were most beneficial when participants already knew each other and ideally, had met face to face before.  The obvious advantages of videoconferencing lie in the convenience of access, the short amount of planning time required to set up a meeting, and overcoming the inconvenience and cost of travel with a concomitant reduction in carbon emissions.

    There are still challenges in incorporating the technology with the desired outcomes of convening. We need to think beyond the technology as an enabler of extant convening formats and refocus on understanding the integrated experience of participants both with the content of meetings and the technology. That means thinking deeply about how we can design virtual meetings that allow individuals to connect and build relationships

    Convening at UNU-IIGH

    As the United Nations think tank on global health, there are three major components to the work that we do. The first is to support the generation and analysis of evidence to inform decision and policymaking, we work with others to strengthen the skills and capacity needed to use that evidence, and we convene diverse stakeholders to ensure knowledge exchange and transfer.

    The convening function provides the opportunity to understand the dynamics of evidence to policy translation through topical deep dives, agenda setting, roundtable events or large gatherings. By coming together in person, we aim to provide spaces in which people can share knowledge and focus on a challenge in a way that is increasingly difficult in hyperconnected workplaces. We also seek to build trust and understanding between diverse stakeholders, often with differing opinions and priorities, to facilitate sometimes contentious debates.

    Convening people from across the world to discuss and debate global health issues is an approach that is not without its critics., The first criticism is that many conversations essentially take place within a global health echo chamber – it is the same voices at the table (or on the panel, representing a narrow range of countries, many of which are not the countries where the greatest disease burden lies, and with a limited appreciation of the political economy and cross-sector engagement. Secondly, the location of many convenings is problematic with the majority held in developed countries. Assuming that participants from low- and middle-income countries are granted visas, the cost of travel can be prohibitively expensive, denying access to key community stakeholders.

    Participants of the LEAP Forum at UNU-IIGH, April 2019. (Photo by UNU-IIGH) Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0


    The concerns raised above inform our strategy for convening. UNU-IIGH is located in Malaysia, a middle-income country, situated in a culturally diverse region with relatively inexpensive travel between surrounding developing economies. This contributes to the Institute’s ability to assemble panels that represent a broad range of context, to engage participants from across both the global south and north, and to support South-South models of collaboration.

    To make sure we’re staying true to these goals, we scrutinise invitation and attendee lists to ensure we have a diverse representation of countries and stakeholders, and work with our partners to do the same for co-convened activities. The data are collated and reported back to our International Advisory Board. When people are unable to travel to meetings, we facilitate online attendance and where possible, we make recordings of our events publicly available. Additionally, we publish articles and policy briefs on our website, and pay for open access to publish peer-reviewed papers written by our fellows.

    With over a third of the global population having experienced full or partial lockdown and uncertainty about how long the current situation will last, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for virtual convening and is challenging us to think about alternative ways of working. At IIGH, we are using this opportunity to innovate how we move this area of work into the digital space. The following are the major considerations:

    • Clarity of purpose. What are we trying to achieve by bringing people together?
    • Optimising engagement. How do we ensure that participants feel comfortably contributing?

    Only once we know what we’re trying to achieve can we look at how technology can support that process.

    Function before form

    A consideration of ‘why’ we convene always precedes planning ‘how’ we convene. Take for example What Works in Gender and Health: Setting the Agenda, a meeting co-convened with the World Health Organization in April 2019. As well as reflecting on past activity, that meeting aimed to identify new ways forward. If we were to reimagine that meeting as virtual event, rather than a single conversation lasting for multiple days, we may consider a series of short, focused conversations sandwiched between larger plenary convenings.

    Research suggests that ideation processes which combine individual and group brainstorm sessions generate a higher number of diverse ideas. Furthermore, by combining video calls with cloud-based collaborative workspaces participants can interact asynchronously, allowing us to capitalise on their global distribution. Providing people already know each other, this format would also be well suited to consensus-building convenings.

    Relationship building is another major driver of convening, both personally and professionally. IIGH brings together a wide range of stakeholders at its meetings, many of whom do not ordinarily interact. Here, the model may be to have a single longer meeting that mixes plenary discussions with breakout rooms.

    Through designing the composition of the breakout rooms and carefully facilitating the discussion, stakeholders with differing views may discover areas of common agreement that can serve as a foundation for exploring the more contentious points of disagreement. Furthermore, as interjecting is harder on video calls, people generally have to wait to talk which results in less rambling and more thoughtful contributions. Looking to the future when social-distancing measures are relaxed, blended approaches using a mix of virtual and in-person gatherings in a ‘hub and spoke’ are another option.

    Adapting our convening approaches to the new normal is a work in progress. All these approaches assume that people have the technological infrastructure (be it hardware or software) and digital literacy to participate. Indeed, there is a risk that technology, touted as the great equaliser, will actually perpetuate inequities. As a convenor, we’re exploring ways to substitute travel grants with equipment support. Once people are ‘in’ our virtual space, we must still contend with the challenge of keeping people engaged when they are participating using technologies that are inherently distracting.

    In continuing to iterate and develop our approach, we are striving to not just translate the analogue experience to a digital one, but to harness the unique opportunities that are presented by remote convening. In doing so, we hope to find ways both to broaden the voices participating in global health conversations, reduce the environmental toll, and contribute to tangible improvements in health for all.

    The views expressed in this post are those of the author and may not reflect those of UNU-IIGH.