Co-producing a digital conference: first steps and initial learning from our Digital Group

This blog has been written by the International Resilience Revolution Conference Digital Group – a mix of practitioners, academics, parents and carers who come together to support the development of the International Resilience Revolution Conference 2022.

It’s both obvious and a massive understatement to say Covid-19 has had an impact on everyone’s lives in the past year. Whether you are a child or young person, parent/carer, person with lived experience, policy maker or practitioner; our lives have been touched by national lockdowns, school closures and regional restrictions in some way.

For Boingboing, and our partners at the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice in the University of Brighton and the Resilience Revolution in Blackpool, this has meant a whirlwind of changes in how we offer resilience-based support and learning. We have had to figure out new ways to work co-productively, remotely! One of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome (and are still overcoming!), was moving our International Resilience Revolution Conference 2020, to a new date in 2022 (more information about our conference can be found here).

Now that working, schooling and accessing services from home has become the norm during the pandemic, we realised that we must also have a really strong digital offer for people not attending the conference in person. This means we want to make sure that anyone who doesn’t or can’t come to the conference in person, is still able to access content digitally. We especially want people and communities who are the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, and those of us who find this stuff hard, and those of us who don’t have easy access to IT, to be offered the opportunity to attend digitally. With this in mind, the Digital Conference Group was born!

Our group is made up of people with different backgrounds (Boingboing, Resilience Revolution, University of Brighton) and different roles (practitioners, academics, parents/carers) but with one common goal: to create a strong digital element for the International Resilience Revolution Conference 2022. With this in mind, in our first meeting, we thought really carefully about the purpose of our digital group and what we wanted to achieve for the conference. Some of us were feeling a bit anxious about joining the group, for various reasons:

“I only joined these bright young things a couple of months ago, and my first thought was ‘What am I doing here?’  I’m the least digitally savvy person you would ever choose to meet! I don’t even have any apps on my phone! So, I can only imagine my main contribution will be to make sure that everyone, no matter how technologically challenged, can join our Resilience Revolution and enjoy our first International Resilience Revolution conference. Our aim is to be as inclusive as possible, no matter what your background, where you live, and what experiences have led you to either join us in person, or take advantage of this new and exciting digital endeavour.”

“As a researcher in the Resilience Revolution with some experience using Microsoft Teams, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to help or contribute much information to the digital group. As the team got off the ground and we had more meetings, I realised that the aim of this team is not only to think about how we can make an inclusive, accessible and safe digital space for our future conference, but also make everyone feel comfortable using digital platforms. I think in order to effectively support others in a digital space, the process of hashing out the pros and cons of the digital world makes us all more confident in our own expertise.”

Even though some of us were a little nervous, everyone in the group was bringing their own important experience that could be used to benefit the group and create a strong digital offer for specific groups:
“The purpose of this group is to use the expertise and knowledge of a diverse group of people so that the International Resilience Conference 2022 takes into consideration all aspects of how digital technology can enhance the conference. My role in this is to use my own knowledge and experience to offer advice and suggestions and also to support young people to access the group.”
Of course, we came together to make sure that whatever the digital offer was, we could be sure that we had made decisions co-productively. Co-production is the corner-stone of our work in Boingboing and the Resilience Revolution, and our digital team is no different:
“At the Resilience Revolution, we have co-production at the heart of everything we do, so we have a mix of parents, carers, young people, administrators, research academics and practitioners. All of us have something to bring in terms of perspective, knowledge and experience which is so important as we want the conference to be as diverse as it can be, both in terms of content and attendees.”
Part of our group’s responsibility was to figure out how to make sure we created awareness of the conference among as many people, groups and organisations as possible. The internet is such a powerful tool that we have used in the past to contact conference speakers and promote general awareness. In our group we are re-emphasising how we can make targeted contact using emails, calls, online meetings etc.
“I’m of a generation where reaching out to an international audience involved making a visit to the local post office and buying a blue, tissue thick air mail letter. Putting pen to paper and using minute writing to make sure every word fit on one sheet, was the biggest challenge!  For those of you who haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about, don’t worry. Just rest assured, the digital age has put you at a distinct advantage. The plethora of instantaneous communication methods makes engaging with people around the world ‘as easy as pie’. But the benefits of the personal touch shouldn’t be overlooked. Who doesn’t like receiving a special invitation that feels like it’s only for you? So in amongst all of the e-mails, tweets, and blanket invitations let’s not forget how powerful it can be to talk to, and inspire our contacts, friends, partners and colleagues to join us”

Our aim is to make sure local, regional, national and international people can access the conference easily as an attendee. It’s really important for us to think about the strategies we will use to raise awareness with different groups in different parts of the world. Our digital team began working on this straight away.

“Currently we have split into groups to reach out and create contact lists including the connections already made around the world to advertise the conference and giving the option of attending virtually especially during the uncertain and constantly changing current circumstance. We have contacted universities around the world and offered the option of allowing them to connect to the conference via a live stream to allow as many students as possible, who may not have the funds or ability to travel, to join virtually from home. We are currently in the process of ensuring that we have captions running during presentations and looking at the most suitable platform to use to make the conference accessible in multiple ways.”

“If there is no existing relationship, it may be difficult to engage both national and international organisations, so we need to consider carefully as a group how we approach this. A good idea could be to glean information at the registration stage, with a view to connecting with the digital attendees in advance of the event. I think we need more input and advice on how we digitally engage vulnerable groups of people.”

We also thought very carefully about how we can engage more vulnerable or disadvantaged populations, including some of us in the digital subgroup who don’t find this stuff easy and/or don’t have easy access. For example, how can we make sure people or communities in low average income countries have access to the online offer? How can we make sure children and young people find their way around the online platform?

“I think we have to use as many different sources as possible, for example I think social media is something we need to use to our advantage and effectively. Especially if we are going to engage with young people from around the world. I think it is important to take into consideration that not everyone will have access to the internet so that may be an issue for them finding out about the conference.”

Another really difficult part of prepping for an online conference is that across the globe there are differences in access to resources; some people and families won’t have a smart device they can use to join the conference. Even within countries such as the UK, there are inequalities in accessibility to digital devices. The UK has tried to lessen the gap in inequality for some but not all children and young people and their families. It’s also going to be difficult to engage friends and colleagues from countries or areas where there is poor bandwidth. Unfortunately, the reality of unequal access to strong internet and digital devices (among lots of other inequalities) for some of us, means it would be naïve to say that we will be able to reach everyone we want to. Even though we are limited in our ability to help, the digital group wants to make is as easy as possible for those of us who do have the resources to come to the conference. Taking a resilience perspective, we are focusing on what we can do!

Our next step was to carefully deliberate over the platform that would be best for offering our digital content. There is a lot of talk around online safety now that many of us are using online services for work, school, healthcare etc., and we wanted to make sure we made an informed decision about the platform we decide to use.

“I believe we should be using the digital space to engage powerful national or international organisations and challenge them to become more co-productive and inclusive. I think if we can showcase a really inclusive and accessible digital element of the conference, we can reach attendees who may not have previously thought to come to the conference. The strength of the digital element of the conference is being able to reach people who might not have ever thought about resilience the same way we do and get them to challenge their own ways of thinking in a safe space”

“We are currently discovering different platforms to make the conference as accessible and as interactive as possible. We are working with experienced and trusted digital colleagues who are able to help and guide us when ensuring the platform is safe and secure and enables us to use all functions to our advantage”

Popular platforms that we discussed included Zoom, Teams and Google Hangouts. Members of the team had different experiences using Zoom and Teams, and we each presented the pros and cons of each platform, so that we discuss together which one might be best for the conference. In the end, we felt most confident using Teams, for now. There are loads of digital platforms that are geared specifically towards conferences and we will be looking into those too. One of the biggest issues to consider when deciding on a platform is to make sure we are making an ethical decision. For example, Zoom is a really popular platform that is easily accessible to many, but unfortunately there are some ethical issues around Zoom’s privacy and safety. This made us wary of using the platform even though we know there are ongoing improvements being made.

“When considering which platform to use for the digital content of the conference, members of the group had different perspectives; this was a great way to understand the tension between functionality, popularity and privacy, or in other words: accessibility versus online safety. We also had outside help from our Blackpool Council IT contact about possible issues in using our chosen platform. This really opened my eyes to the number of issues you have to consider when you use a digital platform; I really hadn’t thought about any of these things before! As a group, we considered exactly how much of the conference we would want to offer digitally. This is an ongoing consideration for the group, we are wary that offering too much may disengage and discourage people from attending physically, while also accepting that for others, physical attendance will not be possible, hence the necessity of the digital offering.”
Using a digital platform is really helpful for our conference to reach lots of different people in different places, but this is only half the battle; we need to be organised and prepared just like we would be in person:

“I’m lucky enough to have attended and planned a few conferences in my time.  They’ve all been planned, prepared and practised to within an inch of their live and quite rightly so. The thought of creating a virtual on-line conference alongside the real-life experience has taken me right out of my comfort zone. I attended an on-line Forum recently where young people took centre stage (digitally of course), and showed us how it could be done… if you were brave enough!”

Part of the group discussions were about exactly how much of the conference should be available online. Too much included in an online offer might dissuade people from coming in person, but too little means that those of us who can’t attend in person will miss out on important information. It’s necessary for us to find a balance between these two options, that works for everyone . This has been really tricky, because we must also prepare ourselves to have a fully online conference. We cannot know for sure what the future will look like; more regional lockdowns or school closures and the ongoing red list international travel bans could pose a problem well into 2022. Even now, we have news of another variant of Covid-19 in the UK. 

“I personally think that we should encourage participants to physically attend the conference and that the online availability should be a second option if you are unable to attend the conference physically. The online platform needs to be able to allow participants to engage with the conference and not just watch and listen, they need to be able to contribute like the ones that are there. I also think it is vital that we create some form of online space within which the online participants can ‘hangout’ with other online participants and network during the break times etc.”

Even though it is difficult to find a balance between the digital conference offer and the physical in-person offer, we all agreed how important it was to make sure we could offer both to as wide a range of people as possible.

“One of the unmistakable benefits of a hybrid conference, must be the opportunity to link up with a much wider and diverse audience. Our aim must be to engage with as wide a group of delegates as we can. Local, national, international and even further afield if at all possible is a fantastic aim. Nothing about us without us, is one of our mantras and the conference will be our way to share our Resilience Revolution with everyone who wants to listen.”

Regardless of the way a person will attend, it is important for us to be able to support everyone’s learning in resilience, especially for those who do not usually get to attend a conference.
“My hope is that the conference will be a place for young people, parents/carers, practitioners and academics to be able to share their experiences and knowledge around resilience. I think it should be a chance for adults to learn from young people. I think the conference should offer opportunities to learn from different cultures from around the world and their work into resilience. I hope that local communities, young people, volunteers can show some of the amazing work that is going on here in Blackpool to an international audience.”
“Even in a digital world we have plans to create a virtual networking and social space”

Importantly, just as we would in-person, we must make sure that the digital element of the conference is inclusive of all people regardless of background or knowledge of resilience. Equally as important is accessibility: we must make sure everyone can access and use the platform in an effective way. This means making sure we can cater to the needs of everyone as best as possible, including those of us with learning difficulties.

“I really want to try and engage people from all over the world but I also recognise that as vast and powerful as the internet and digital platforms are, they are not without their limitations. It’s going to be important to work with different groups to test out what is best and think about how we can have a digital platform that is interesting and can support a diverse range of needs (e.g., hearing impaired).”
The Digital Conference Team has some experience in attending other conferences online during the Covid-19 pandemic and we have used our insights from this to guide us. For example, the use of different interactive elements for digital attendees, to increase engagement and make sure everyone can take part in conference activities.
“Attending the ‘Blackpool Young Leaders and the pathway to the 2021 Resilience Conference’ forum, was innovative, engaging and insightful.  The use of polls, Mentimetre, and different workshop spaces, to mention but a few, showed us how the experience doesn’t have to be one-dimensional”

“From experience of a virtual conference, I have gathered that it would be useful to include interactive functions like a frequently asked questions page where some questions are answered in advance if you need support and we can have interactive poll questions and live chat. Another beneficial function to avoid sitting at the computer all day is being able to view the conference after the event.”

“Interactive activities during breaks like interviews between young people and presenters about the conference programme, asking delegates to take a picture describing each day and post on twitter including the hashtag ‘#’ (doing something special with it at the end).”

“There are plenty of ideas to think about and we are currently in the process of making them happen. We have also created a conference guide for people attending the conference in person. This is available here

Learning together about how to tackle creating a hybrid conference has taught us so much about the intricacies of virtual networking, digital platforms and online inclusivity and accessibility. We are taking our first step into the digital world but we are confident that we will be able to provide an engaging and empowering experience for everyone, but especially for those of us who don’t find this stuff easy and/or don’t have easy access or can be hard to reach. The difficulties that have happened because of Covid-19 have opened our eyes and made us realise just how important it is to offer a strong digital component for physical events. This learning curve is an important one for everyone who wants to create an inclusive and accessible event and shouldn’t end when Covid-19 has become a thing of the past! If we have the resources to do so, we should always be aiming to work hard, collaboratively and collectively, on making sure everyone can access a space, virtual or otherwise.

We are so excited to continue going forward together, to create the best hybrid conference ever! If you are interested in our International Resilience Revolution Conference, you can find more information here or sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date here. We welcome everyone interested in resilience research and practice and would be very excited to see you there! If you have any ideas for how we can improve our digital platform, or have any general suggestions, please get in touch with Rosie (PhD Student and member of digital group): [email protected].