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

November 23, 2020

By Emily Langhorne, INVEST Communications Specialist

This is the final post of USAID/Mexico’s four-part series on hosting virtual co-creation workshops.

On April 30USAID’s first virtual Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) co-creation workshop had come to a close USAID, along with many others in the international development community, eagerly awaited the results of the workshop, wanting to know whether the virtual co-creation could have the same success as an in-person event.

“There were a lot of eyes on this co-creation: a lot of people were interested in the process and its results,” says USAID INVEST Activity Coordinator Lauren Zinser. “The virtual process has so many moving pieces. It has many additional layers, so it needs a lot more support. We had a lot of hands involved in its development because we wanted it to be flawless: we wanted each participant to have a positive experience, to get the most out of it.”

Getting the Most Out of It: The Benefits of Going Virtual

By using the BAA with co-creation, USAID’s Mission in Mexico aimed to find innovative, systemic solutions for increasing access to finance for smallholder farmers and related small and medium enterprises, and thus improve land management practices and reduce deforestation across Mexico.

“Using a multi-stakeholder co-creation process to identify and solve problems is enriching because it pools talent, lets people speak to one another freely, debate with one another, work alongside USAID, and have honest and frank conversations. It’s a very liberating process,” says Dr. Charles Kiamie III, Deputy Director of USAID’s Office of Sustainability, well known for his co-creation enthusiasm at USAID.

Despite the unforeseen disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, USAID Mexico, working alongside INVEST and CollaborateUp, managed to move forward with the co-creation process by bringing the workshop entirely online.

“We wanted to see an integrated, systemic approach to solving this problem,” adds Elizabeth Warfield, former Mission Director of USAID/Mexico. “Moving the co-creation online allowed us to continue developing this approach rather than postponing or shifting to a different process. By successfully facilitating a virtual co-creation, we managed to have different actors come together and develop solutions systemically. That was a real achievement.”

Moreover, hosting a co-creation online has the potential to increase the diversity of its participating organizations.

“Co-creation has already been a real game changer [for] organizations that haven’t regularly worked with USAID because there’s no 50-page proposal required to enter the process,” explains Kiamie. “The shift to virtual also lowers barriers to organizations’ access. Though the rate of acceptance of invitations to co-creation is incredibly high, there are inevitably groups for whom participation would be a challenge — financial barriers, visa and other travel issues, and the like, depending on where the co-creation workshop takes place.”

Often, when organizations receive an invitation to an in-person co-creation workshop, the host does not pay travel costs or accommodation for participants. These financial obstacles can inhibit smaller organizations from participating, especially since attending a co-creation workshop does not guarantee future funding or contracts.

Kiamie says that despite these obstacles, the “number of smaller organizations who engage the Agency for the first time through a BAA and co-creation is remarkable. Groups see the investment as worth the price. Participation gives them a chance to meet others in the room for future collaboration beyond the BAA, gives them access to USAID officials and staff alike, and helps to inform the way the Agency thinks about problems and strategy. There are many knock-on effects for both the Agency and participating organizations.”

Once, an organization even told Kiamie that the convening power of the Agency was worth more than the money USAID had offered for an award because the organization forged partnerships during the workshop and later received funds from other donors because of those relationships.

Virtual co-creation could potentially offer many of these benefits while further reducing some barriers.

“I am very much of this idea that you can reduce a lot of the cost and gather different actors from a variety of places by using a virtual co-creation,” says Mari Sierra, Lead Facilitator at CollaborateUp, an international firm with experience facilitating in-person and virtual co-creations. “If you’re running an in-person co-creation without the budget to fly in different participants, there’s a huge plus of using a virtual co-creation which will increase your chances of having diversity in participants.”

Karla Toledo Gutierrez, acting director of USAID Mexico’s Office of Sustainable Development, explains that these same financial barriers also limit the participation of many local organizations at in-person events, which can bring valuable local context, knowledge, and experience to the conversation.

“Virtual co-creation provides access to a variety of actors that may not be able to travel, and I’m not talking about international organizations,” she says. “I’m talking about local organizations within the country [Mexico] that won’t engage in this process if there are upfront costs for them because they can’t afford it. They don’t receive an immediate financial benefit from participating so they can’t justify the expense. Taking this co-creation virtual gave us the opportunity to include more local actors.”

A virtual platform featuring all participants on the same screen creates a surprising amount of accountability for workshop attendees. While engaging in a workshop via a computer creates certain temptations — the urge to check email, surf the internet, use chat functions, etc. — participants at in-person workshops struggle to overcome similar distractions.

At the virtual co-creation, participants wrote down ideas in a shared document as they were being discussed, so it created a record, visible to all members, of what was said to what was ultimately created.

“At an in-person workshop, some ideas get lost in the physical shuffle of paper,” says Sierra. “During the virtual co-creation, the use of the Google Doc for collaboration kept all ideas organized and tracked, making everyone responsible for considering the contributions of others in the group.”

Proceeding with the co-creation virtually during the pandemic rather than delaying until an in-person workshop was possible arguably resulted in one additional, unique benefit: increased understanding between participants. While meet-and-greet opportunities and relationship building aspects of an in-person co-creation were hard to replicate online, the virtual co-creation gave people the opportunity to connect over the shared collective experience of social distancing.

“People have specific challenges right now: they have their kids at home all day every day, they’re sharing a small work area, they have pets in the room. Over the course of the workshop, you could see people becoming more comfortable with sharing that experience,” says Toledo Gutierrez. “As they became more familiar with the others, they began to relax. They began to dress more casually. This challenge is worldwide, and these virtual windows are making us more empathetic because we are becoming more aware of what everyone is dealing with at home, and, right now, everyone is dealing with something.”

The Trade-Offs of Connecting Digitally: The Downsides of Going Virtual

While the virtual co-creation offered many advantages, going digital did have some challenges. The co-creation team used a variety of tools to increase engagement and relationship building between participants; nonetheless, remote participation inevitably makes it more difficult for attendees to form organic connections.

“In person, bonding often happens naturally between participants,” says Zinser. “In this case, the technology and the virtual platform has limitations because it’s more structured. People can’t have an impromptu side conversation, so they can’t just hit it off and bond while sitting at their table or standing at the coffee station.”

Because the virtual co-creation team understood that the connections made between participants lay the foundation for a successful co-creation, they purposefully set aside time for informal conversations to allow participants to get to know one another prior to working together on the structured activities. Overall, however, the experience of meeting people virtually caused the relationship building to progress more slowly. As such, the schedule for a virtual co-creation would ideally include more time specifically dedicated to relationship building than the schedule for an in-person event.

That need, however, creates a challenge for facilitators. Virtual engagement seemed to drain participants of energy more rapidly than in-person interaction. The co-creation team used a variety of tactics — stretching, breaks, visuals, infusion of local culture, and more — to keep engagement up, but the group’s energy inevitably lagged throughout the day, especially after plenaries. Participants’ most frequent critique of the experience was the days were too long, even though they were about half the length of what an in-person workshop day would be.

“It’s quite challenging because every minute was planned, and we used the time wisely, but we were always wanting more time,” says Sierra. This push-pull over the need to increase time online to build relationships and the need to decrease time online daily was one of the greatest obstacles of going virtual.

What Did the Co-Creators Think? The Results of the Participant Survey

Following the workshop, the co-creation team sent out a survey to participants, inquiring about the virtual experience. Approximately 70 percent of participants responded.

Overall, the survey results indicated that participants felt positively about the virtual co-creation with nine percent reporting that it was “exceptional” and 70 percent reporting it was “satisfactory.” By far, the most common criticism of the workshop was its length. Around half of respondents said that the time commitment required for participants was too long and said they would have preferred three-hour sessions spread across six days. Some survey respondents suggested that inviting fewer participants would have been an effective way to shorten the workshop.

Despite the complaints about the co-creation’s length, almost all respondents labeled the facilitating team as satisfactory or above, with about half saying it was excellent.

Respondents had mixed feelings about the use of the virtual tools. Ninety-seven percent felt that Zoom had been a good choice for a virtual platform. Most felt that they did not require additional virtual tools to participate in the co-creation process effectively, yet many said they would have still liked to have more digital tools incorporated beyond the Google Suite. This desire came from a belief that conveying ideas visually is important to converging them and that design-thinking activities specifically call for more dynamic tools that can simulate a “collective board:” a physical space where participants can move ideas around and organize them as they co-create. Of course, the more complex the tool, the steeper the learning curve, which may create a challenge for less tech-savvy participants.

Others commented that, despite great execution by the co-creation team, the virtual workshop was not the same as an in-person event and that the fatigue of being online for hours hindered their willingness to engage in post-workshop networking. However, they simultaneously acknowledged these limitations as inevitable when operating in a virtual environment, and most commented on the feat of USAID and CollaborateUp in bringing the co-creation online, effectively moderating a large group over the internet, and fostering active engagement in a virtual space.

Moreover, despite these limitations, the co-creation workshop resulted in the intended outcome: participants produced collaborative solutions for using blended finance to promote sustainable land management. USAID Mexico received 10 concept proposals, each submitted by a different combination of participating organizations acting as a consortium.

The Future of Virtual Co-Creations? Other Aspects to Consider When Deciding to Go Virtual

While a virtual co-creation is in many respects more inclusive, it comes with its own specific set of barriers to entry. For instance, participants must have internet access, a stable connection, time to devote to the workshop across multiple days, and some basic level of IT know-how.

“I think we were lucky that for this first virtual co-creation most of our participants had pretty good internet connections and technology experience,” says INVEST Strategic Investor Advisor Robin Young. “In a lot of the less developed countries and rural regions where USAID works, connectivity and issues of access would have been more challenging. We had some very favorable conditions that eased potential technology problems.”

“Many areas of Mexico also have challenges in terms of internet connectivity,” adds Toledo Gutierrez. “For this co-creation, we had many multinational participants, but for smaller, local, and rural organizations within Mexico, technology accessibility could be an issue.”

The focus on Mexico also meant that participating organizations were, for the most part, operating in similar time zones despite being in nine different countries. The time difference between participating organizations is another important consideration when deciding whether to host a virtual co-creation.

Making sure the event is held during work hours is especially important when taking into account screen fatigue. Virtual participation requires more energy and focus because the attendees must work harder to process non-verbal cues. Likewise, being on camera all day makes participants feel as if they’re always being watched, even when they aren’t speaking, and the feeling of “performing” all day can result in increased fatigue. All the above makes a workshop outside of working hours a less-than-ideal time for creative thinking and active collaboration.

Because participants don’t travel for virtual workshops, many have other responsibilities, both at work and at home, that they need to address after the sessions conclude, and, after hours of sitting and staring at a screen, many simply aren’t interested in attending a “virtual happy hour.” Similarly, most virtual participants view scheduled breaks as a sacred time for stepping away from the screen, not a chance for starting up private video conversations.

“It’s true that the experience of informal networking — networking beyond the workshop’s structured activities — is altered by the virtual environment,” says Young. “It places a greater onus on participants to be intentional about finding the time to get to know one another and work together outside of the workshop. We encouraged the virtual co-creators to [network] by using the digital tools provided or taking advantage of the other tools out there to engage with each other beyond the workshop.”

Participants seemingly made use of this advice: almost all of survey respondents indicated that they had communicated with other participants outside of the virtual workshop sessions.

Overall, USAID/Mexico’s virtual co-creation experience demonstrated that the process can be brought online successfully and that people can adapt — that they can continue to do positive work in challenging situations.

“Before the pandemic, I was speaking on a webinar about the possibility of doing co-creation virtually,” says Kiamie. “No one could hear me: a technology glitch made it sound like I was talking through a paper towel roll. I thought, ‘See? The tech is what the 300 people on the line worry about with digital workshops.’ But then COVID-19 happened, and the tech has proven us all wrong. Worldwide, people have moved to remote working, and the systems have held up. There’s been a willingness to embrace our new reality. Using co-creation gets us more solutions, and while virtual co-creation leaves out some aspects of the in-person experience, it gets us 85 or 90 percent of the way there. USAID and its partner organizations are seeing the value in proceeding virtually rather than waiting for those solutions.”

“Although there are challenges and trade-offs with the virtual aspect, the co-creation still went really well, and it was an amazing workshop,” adds Toledo Gutierrez. “The tools are out there; we just haven’t been using them. This experience has shown that things change and when the situation forces us to do so, we can figure out a new way that works. We should learn to be flexible all the time and customize our approaches to different situations rather than waiting for a pandemic to force flexibility. Everyone knew that a virtual co-creation wasn’t what we were used to, but they were willing to work together and make it happen. I think that’s the spirit of doing new things, and we learn from it.”

Facilitating virtual co-creations will likely persist after the pandemic has ended, especially when a virtual approach can increase access and reduce barriers for small and local organizations. Moving forward, it’s probable that organizations will alter their method for workshop delivery based on the circumstances of the problem needing to be solved via co-creation, implementing virtual facilitation when doing so will produce the best results.

“In a post-COVID world, virtual co-creation still has the potential to reduce barriers for participants — and it can be more cost-effective for USAID,” says Kiamie. “But I don’t see a space for a hybrid approach. For instance, people have been asking for years if they can have invited participants call in to an in-person workshop. The problem is that most of the magic of co-creation happens on the margins, with people brainstorming in the hotel lobby at 3 a.m. or scribbling on the flip-charts during coffee breaks. You can replicate some of that online, but it’s hard to create that magic if one person is dialing in and on speaker phone for 16 hours. Of course, that could just be my own limitation in not visualizing a hybrid approach at this moment, but I definitely see a future role for virtual co-creation with other USAID Operating Units, especially now that the Mexico Mission has laid the groundwork.”

The virtual co-creation was the first chapter in this story of USAID Mexico’s effort to use blended finance strategies to reduce deforestation and improve land management practices across Mexico.

The Result of the Co-Creation

In August 2020, less than four months after the virtual co-creation workshop, USAID Mexico made an agreement with a consortium composed of Conservación Internacional México (Conservation International), MéxiCO2, Root Capital, SVX MX, Accenture, and the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (International Center for Tropical Agriculture aka CIAT). These organizations will help producers in Jalisco, Chiapas, Campeche, and Oaxaca transition from parcel-by-parcel subsidy receiving cooperatives, rural production societies, and unions with diversified production systems into collective business entities that can manage their land sustainably and access buyers and financing after the activity ends.

The activity will support the development of three collective business entities in each region — marketing, logistics, and financial services — which will be owned by the local producers. It will advise the entities on market-driven business development and provide their leaders with learn-by-doing trainings on financial management. These complementary entities will build sustainable land management business models and help producers attract buyers and financing.

This agreement is also creating a blended finance engine to mobilize private capital alongside government aid and philanthropic resources. The consortium will launch two investment funds. One will target pension funds and will be registered under the Mexican Stock Exchange. The other, the Sustainable Landscape Mutual Fund (SLMF), will provide loans to small-and medium-sized enterprises to help these conservation-conscious businesses become “investment ready” and overcome the challenges of raising risk tolerant capital and meeting investor expectations.

While this approach is still in its early stages, the shift to a virtual co-creation has demonstrated that, in the face of rapidly changing circumstances, USAID has the capacity to adapt in ways that allow it to continue to make progress on the world’s development challenges.