How USAID Brought Co-Creation Online in the Era of Social Distancing: Part II

November 23, 2020

By Emily Langhorne, INVEST Communications Specialist

This is the second blog post in USAID/Mexico’s Virtual Co-Creation Series.

In the summer of 2020, USAID’s Mission in Mexico began funding and implementing an activity to catalyze investment to improve land management practices and finance smallholder producers. After issuing a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA), USAID scheduled a co-creation workshop in Mexico City for late April. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mexico Mission had to make a tough decision: change to a traditional funding award process or find a way to take the co-creation online. Ultimately, USAID/Mexico decided co-creation would be the best way to garner the multi-sectoral, systemic solutions needed to increase sustainable land management practices in Mexico.

With less than six weeks until the scheduled workshop, USAID/Mexico and USAID INVEST had to pivot to the unprecedented virtual environment and carefully plan the best methods for facilitating an online workshop that would be engaging and effective.

Co-creation is an untraditional process that involves trusting and engaging with members of other organizations, many of which have previously regarded one another as competitors.

“Through co-creation, USAID brings other voices and perspectives into the room because by working together these actors can design systemic and sustainable solutions,” says Elizabeth Warfield, former Mission Director of USAID Mexico. “That sounds obvious, but it’s a comparatively novel to the way that development work has been done, and it’s often a new experience for the co-creation participants, too.”

“Add to that new experience the aspects of using a virtual platform for facilitation, and participants may feel anxiety about the process,” says Robin Young, INVEST Strategic Investment Advisor.

Although USAID/Mexico has extensive experience in conducting co-creation workshops, this co-creation was its first time hosting one virtually. As such, USAID/Mexico not only faced a lot of unknowns, but also had to plan for those unknowns. To do this, USAID/Mexico decided to completely overhaul their original plans for the in-person workshop to ensure the virtual version would be a success.

Step 1: Put Together the Right Team

Before the decision to switch to virtual co-creation, INVEST released a request for proposals (RFP) seeking a Spanish-speaking firm to help with the facilitation of an in-person co-creation session. The sudden shift meant canceling the original RFP and releasing a new one to find a firm capable of supporting the virtual facilitation.

“Virtual co-creation requires an additional set of skills,” says Lauren Zinser, INVEST activity coordinator. “We needed a firm that had experience in facilitating digital learning and collaboration so that we could hit the ground running.”

Ultimately, USAID/Mexico and INVEST selected CollaborateUp, an international consulting firm with experience hosting co-creations virtually and in Spanish.

CollaborateUp’s expertise in delivering virtual events geared towards collaboration and learning gave them the experience necessary to transform USAID’s proven process of co-creation from an in-person workshop to an online one. “They also had facilitators located in Mexico, which was important because USAID/Mexico wanted the co-creation to reflect the local context and culture,” says Zinser.

Once the co-creation went digital, INVEST also brought on board an information and communications technology (ICT) specialist. Participants were going to have a range of technological experience and varying internet connectivity, so they needed a member dedicated to mapping out the technology required for an interactive workshop and troubleshooting ICT issues was essential.

Step 2: Think Through How to “Make it Human”

Human interaction is integral to the co-creation process. Participants must transition from a competitive mindset to one of cooperative competition, which requires establishing authentic and trusting relationships. Because USAID/Mexico was looking for multi-sectoral solutions to the problem of deforestation, facilitating alliance building was particularly important for this co-creation.

“We wanted to bring in the appropriate international expertise but marry it with local expertise to find solutions that resulted in systems changes that sustain beyond a typical USAID activity timeline,” says Warfield. “Building trust and engagement through interaction is a huge part of forming these partnerships.”

Fortunately, CollaborateUp’s experience leading co-creations meant that their facilitation leads understood the challenges that a digital environment can create.

“Co-creation is about fostering new ideas, synthesizing those ideas, and then building on them together,” says Mari Sierra, Facilitator Lead at CollaborateUp. “In person, there are organic ways to do that — with a whiteboard, shared paper, mapping activities — that create a rhythm of collaboration. When people are not physically sharing an activity space, they are more conscious about interrupting or speaking over each other. That politeness combined with lag time or bad internet connections means generating ideas can be a less effusive process than at an in-person workshop.”

To overcome these barriers, the virtual co-creation team had to come up with the best strategies for mimicking the in-person experience and encouraging collaboration.

“Making it virtual, you really have to rethink every interaction,” adds Zinser. “At an in-person workshop, there are so many opportunities for participants to meet naturally and develop relationships organically — coffee breaks, registration, waiting in the hotel lobby. We had to think about how to recreate those opportunities using digital tools. The first main decision point was picking a platform because that ties everything together. It’s what enables people to connect; it’s the foundation of a virtual workshop.”

Step 3: Find the Right Virtual Platform

Between the co-creation participants, USAID/Mexico and INVEST staff, CollaborateUp’s facilitators, and other advisors, the facilitators anticipated hosting more than 50 people for the workshop. Finding the right platform required testing different options. To narrow down the choice, the virtual co-creation team followed three guiding principles: security, connectivity, and usability.

Security and protection of information were top priorities, and the security requirements of USAID, such as a restriction against downloading applications on USAID computers, helped eliminate certain platforms and digital tools from the get-go.

To better gauge the circumstances of participants, the co-creation team sent out a survey asking them about their connectivity (via phone, hotspot, wireless, etc.) and their experience using different tools and platforms. The team tested multiple video conferencing platforms — Zoom, WebEx, BlueJeans, and Google Meet, among others. They thought carefully about the different features of each and the needs of the co-creation. Breakout rooms were essential for facilitating small work groups. Polling techniques provided the opportunity to measure engagement and enthusiasm. Chat functions could be used to encourage relationship building via private messaging. Ultimately, however, the driving factors for selection of the platform were the simplicity of its use and the strength of connectivity in areas with low and unstable bandwidth.

“After we tested a bunch, we decided that Zoom has the audio-visual, plenary, and breakout capabilities that we needed,” says Young. “And we wanted to keep it simple. We confirmed with USAID that we could use Zoom, and we took extra steps — using access codes and waiting rooms — to address some of the security issues that had arisen around the platform.”

Step 4: Combine Technologies to Maximize Collaboration

In a co-creation, participants use a systemic approach to develop solutions for complex problems. For the virtual co-creation, the team had to figure how to replicate collaborative experiences digitally. They needed a tool that people could touch virtually and work together on, something that enabled interaction and allowed everyone in the small work groups to have ownership of the collaborative space. Again, simplicity was key. “Ultimately, we replaced poster boards and markers with Google Docs,” says Zinser.

Using a Google Doc, with structured questions and a template customized for each workshop session, participants could simultaneously contribute their ideas to the same document, editing and refining them as they evolved over the course of the work group sessions. “Google became the online collaborative platform of choice because it’s easy to access and secure,” says Solis, the team’s ICT specialist. “It’s an environment that participants feel comfortable with because its interface is like that of Microsoft Office. However, it also has layers of security via access permissions that can be adjusted based on files and folders.”

For many participants, however, activities that involve visual storytelling are an important feature of an in-person co-creation, so the virtual co-creation team hired a graphic notetaker to create illustrations from the information presented during the workshop.

“A lot of people participated in the co-creation… get ideas from visual documents instead of just reading text,” says Karla Toledo Gutierrez, Acting Director of USAID Mexico’s Office of Sustainable Development. “Having an illustrator was a good complement to all the writing on the slides and in the Google docs.”

Because they lacked a physical space to display participants’ work, the co-creation team set out to make a digital one. They developed a Google microsite accessible only to co-creation participants and USAID staff. Each day, Solis would update the site with the agenda, presentations, Google Docs, illustrations, and other useful information.

“Instead of poster boards on the wall, we developed a one-stop shop to share everything from the co-creation, which would still be available after the workshop finished,” Solis says.

Step 5: Plan Out Everything, Including What Can Go Wrong

Once the co-creation went virtual, it required much more detailed planning than outlined in the original agenda and work group activities.

When scheduling the workshop, the co-creation team knew that they had to consider the fatigue that can occur when people experience too much screen and seat time. They also had to take into account new work-from-home challenges brought on by the pandemic and subsequent social distancing policies. The team determined the typical two-day intensive in-person workshop schedule would need to be adapted. In the end, the co-creation was scheduled to take place over five days, beginning on Wednesday, April 22, for 2.5 hours, and then continuing from Monday, April 27 to Thursday, April 30 for 4.5 hours each day.

Every aspect of the co-creation had to be carefully thought out in advance. The workshop materials, created or stored in Google Drive, were organized into multiple folders and subfolders with a tree of access. The owner of the alpha folder — in this case USAID — had to grant other users access and editing capabilities for certain documents.

The small work groups, each containing about seven participants, also had to be assigned beforehand.

“We thought a lot about the best way to organize the breakout work groups and whether we should let participants choose their own or assign them ourselves,” says Zinser. “Given the logistics of what had to be done for a virtual co-creation, we decided to structure the initial break out groups. We had to think deeply about the configuration — who we were putting together and why. For a multi-sectoral approach, each group needed representatives from across the spectrum: local, international, private sector, forestry, finance, agriculture, etc.”

Overall, putting on a virtual co-creation requires more facilitators than an in-person co-creation. At an in-person workshop, facilitators can move from group to group. Their mobility is an advantage. They can work the room. In addition, the work groups have the ability to be a little more self-directed: if they have a question, they can approach a workshop facilitator or technical advisor. Moving in and out of breakout rooms on Zoom is disruptive and ineffective, so each of the small work groups had a facilitator from CollaborateUp, a technical advisor from USAID Mexico or INVEST, and, for certain sessions, an external advisor from the private sector.

“We built in redundancy for the roles as a backup plan,” says Young. “On our team, we had people on different internet providers marked for the same role so that if one’s service went down, the other could jump in. We had contingency plans to keep things running smoothly.”

Constant communication among the co-creation team was essential to creating a seamless experience for participants. They used WhatsApp groups to communicate across their three organizations and respond quickly to any issues, logistical or other, that arose during the co-creation.

Likewise, they set up an extensive system for communication with participants. They created a centralized, event-specific email address, and they had a WhatsApp group that provided participants with real-time, personalized ICT support from Solis. For instance, if a participant was locked out of Zoom or a Google Doc, Solis would know about it instantly and begin troubleshooting it.

Before the co-creation began, the team also communicated the “new norms” of a virtual environment with participants. CollaborateUp shared some best practices for participating in digital workshops, such as making sure that that you have enough battery power (including a backup battery if needed) for multiple hours in case the power goes out, staying hydrated throughout the day, keeping your coffee near your work area, closing other applications, and more. This early communication set the tone for a co-creation that considered personal circumstances without sacrificing quality.

“We knew that because of COVID-19, people were working from home in unusual situations,” says Young. “They might have child or parent care issues. They might get sick. We went into the process with a certain level of empathy so that we could be flexible and make adjustments while still having strict enough parameters to make the co-creation function. For instance, we immediately established that organizations couldn’t have participants hand off sessions between each other because that essential relationship building requires the consistent presence of the same people, but we tried to work the schedule around participants’ circumstances.”

During the weeks leading up to the co-creation, USAID/Mexico and INVEST spent a lot of time on each detail of the event and anticipating potential problems, yet in the days before the co-creation, there was still one question they couldn’t yet answer: what would the virtual co-creation experience be like for participants?