This is how you mobilise 150 people to design a conference session together

Picture credit: Youth In Landscapes initiative
2015 Youth In Landscapes Initiative. Paris, France

By Michelle Kovacevic

What happens when you take 150 people and ask them to design a session together?

Some might say chaos, others might say equitable participation. At the Youth in Landscapes Initiative, we subscribe to the school of the latter – no matter how much trickier diversity may make processes, it is important.

So when it came to running our fourth youth session at the Global Landscapes Forum (see the first, second and third ones) we decided to mobilise our global alumni base to collaboratively design the session together. Virtually. Over 3 weeks.

We decided to use Facebook as the platform – mainly because that’s where everyone spends most of their virtual time so it’s not really hard to grab their attention. David Thomas, facilitator extraordinaire and CEO of Danaqa World Chic, kindly offered to facilitate the process for us and keep us on track.

We started off discussing our desire and intention for the session – did we want to brainstorm, innovate, get feedback, express youth attitudes? Promoting innovation and real solutions came out on top.

We then started to discuss the big problem we want to solve. A seriously interesting conversation emerged. Here’s a small selection of the many ideas thrown into the ring:

  • Upscaling: In most sustainability and landscape-related issues there are many successful experiences, but at a small scale, isolated or pilots (agro-ecological production systems, integrated catchment management, value chains,…for example). But in order to tackle climate change (just to name one wicked problem), they need to be implemented at a much larger scale and relatively fast.
  • Being consumers is all we know
  • The great disconnect: from physical places, ourselves and our communities
  • Rural-urban migration of youth
  • The pervasive negative perception of “rural” work and life
  • The failure of education to prepare graduates for the current world’s needs
  • Access to finance, particularly for rural youth
  • Power concentration and dysfunctional hierarchy
  • Intergenerational inequity
  • Engaging youth in the new GLF model

It was a real challenge to pick but we agreed there was a convergence of themes emerging:

1. The great disconnect/the lack of “interconnectedness” – the link between urban migration, the perception of rural work and the disconnect between consumers and producers.
2. Youth engagement in the new GLF model.

We then attempted to rephrase these themes as a challenge – i.e. what would we be challenging ourselves to achieve/solve/discuss within the 90 minute session? We were mindful of not being too narrow or too broad so that several solutions could emerge.

We had an excellent wide-ranging discussion and sharing of experiences on the ground. On the topic of interconnectedness, one person shared:

“I have just worked with communities in central Brazil who face issues with lack of interconnectedness. I think lots of us work with something like that, actually.”

And on migration, this story emerged:

As someone working in the Indian Himalayas in a remote rural area, the idea of discussing migration appeals to me. This can be something youth with landscape related experience can do to reach out to youth who live in these landscapes but want to get out since they see no value in it. I think the YIL can come up with great ideas for this.”

But as agreed, we came up with a bunch of challenge statements:

  • From Disconnection to Interconnection: How to establish a stronger and fairer link between nexus of sustainable consumption and production and rural/urban dynamics?
  • What are the best practices and strategies for securing equal access and ownership rights to land for rural youth (especially young women)?
  • How to make research relevant for sustainable development? The new generation fills the research-field gap!”.
  • Inclusive agribusiness-How to increase funding for businesses that create an impact?
  • The challenge of migration: The role of youth in shifting perceptions and presenting solutions to the rural-urban migrations

Way too much to cover in 90 mins we have available to us in the session so we did the only thing we could do – we took it to a vote. The challenge of migration was a clear winner.

Now with a session title decided, it was time to discuss our audience – who is the subject relevant to peripherally? Who will be fans of the subject and who will be sceptics? And who do we want in the room?

The Facebook group
The Facebook group

You may be wondering why we would talk about audience before delving into the details of session design. The reason, we were told by David, is to make sure that when we look at the “how” and the details of the session we have a broad framework of who we are doing this for and with. If we design the “how” before considering the audience there is a danger of unintentionally excluding people that this challenge really effects. By honestly thinking about who sceptics and fans of the subject are we can then consider the tools that will be best used to discuss with the sceptics and utilise the fans.

We decided that the session was targeted at rural and urban community members, international governance agencies, policymakers, researchers and NGOs working in landscapes with R2UM (rural-to-urban migration). We see the challenge as inter-generational; it’s about not just working with youth, but youth working with other actors, recognising that there is so much to be gained from different experiences having lived in different times along these migration trends.

While we recognised that solutions to the challenge should be appealing to a broad range of policy makers, researchers, youth and community leaders, we discussed the way that people might dismiss the ability of youth to present solutions to this topic. There maybe skepticism to the need for a solution to migration within youth communities themselves in both rural and urban settings. 

We concluded our discussion by looking at the “how” (that aspect of planning a session that we always seem to jump to first): What will be the most effective structure of the session to actually find solutions to the design challenge, considering who we are targeting? So what would the agenda look like? What techniques might be effective to provide the session with a beginning, middle and end?

Two ideas that emerged really strongly were storytelling and designing solutions.

So we decided that the session MUST be grounded in real stories and experiences of individuals who have had to face a migration challenge. Using these case studies as the starting place, we decided that the session will utilise group work and engagement to openly design solutions to the specific landscape challenges presented. You can see more information about the session here.

While a collaborative design process may not be the most easy way to design a conference session, when done well it has the power to make the session a woven tapestry of the experiences of so many people from so many parts of the world. It’s also served as a way to galvanise our community – to make 150 young people working in landscapes everyday who won’t be at the Global Landscapes Forum feel like they are still a part of it. And that is the kind of participation that we all should aspire to foster.