Our 2020 Digital Summit: helping us imagine a more inclusive digital future

Our 2020 Digital Summit: helping us imagine a more inclusive digital future

COVID-19 has changed everything. The future seems unpredictable and for many, the current situation remains defined by the realities of lockdowns, social distancing and drastic changes to daily life as we know it. But is online working a sign of a more inclusive future? We think it might just be.

Here at the Alliance in the run up to our 2020 Digital Summit, held on 24 September, we faced a question which is becoming increasingly familiar to many of us: how do we do recreate the vital opportunities for collaboration and networking in a world where we can’t meet in person?

Our conference focused on the future beyond COVID-19, and as we moved the event entirely online for the first time, we realised that although this would be hard to do, it could open a new door to a more inclusive, climate friendly and international approach to this kind of event.

While there certainly were challenges, our first fully-online summit showed us some of the amazing potential of digital events, both during the current crisis and beyond. With over 200 attendees dialling in from 19 countries around the world, and speakers from across Scotland and beyond, our global development summit was able to be genuinely global, perhaps for the first time... Learn more about the event.

One of the biggest challenges of working in any sector can be getting ‘stuck in a bubble’ – it’s sometimes easy to look beyond those immediately in front of you. In the world before COVID-19, where most work was face-to-face, it was easy for people whose voices should be heard to get left out if they couldn’t be there in person to represent themselves.

Even within Scotland, I’m sure most of us have had the experience of partners and colleagues outside the Central Belt struggling to engage with networks and coalitions purely because of the difficulty and cost of travelling for meetings and conferences.

This is amplified further in the international development sector, where large geographical distances, expensive travel and visa requirements can often be barriers to participation.

With social distancing, travel limitations, and many of us working from home, it’s undoubtedly easy to feel alienated, but this has also removed some of the barriers above. It has been really exciting during recent months to see people and organisations overcome the fear of moving online, and as a result seeing much more active participation from international partners and from people who would struggle to join in-person events.

Of course, digital events aren’t a panacea. Internet access and computer literacy, which are easy to take for granted, are by no means universal, and the costs of engaging with digital meetings can be prohibitive, particularly in poorer communities. We need to be careful, as we adapt our ways of working to incorporate online work, that at all stages we are thinking about how to make our online events inclusive in all the ways we can.

That said, for our sector the possibilities are clear – digital events can be much more accessible than in-person events, particularly for small organisations with partners in other countries. And it’s not only even about participation on the day – at this year’s conference, we’ve been able to digitally record our event without prohibitive cost and can publish recordings and live transcripts of all our fast-moving and information-rich panels, offering both text and audio options to engage. The potential is huge, and we  think events like September’s conference demonstrate some of the ways we could move forwards through COVID and beyond.

There is certainly a steep learning curve, and at the Alliance, preparing for our first fully-online conference was not without its big questions and unexpected pitfalls. How do we make sure things are accessible for people without access to unlimited data or strong internet connections? What happens if something goes down? What can we do to create spaces where people are able to speak and network as freely as they might in person?

We don’t have all the answers yet, but the lessons we take from the changes we are all making during this time might just help all of us build towards a more accessible, inclusive approach to international development.

We want to hear from you!

Did you attend our digital summit? If so, we want to hear from you...

Above all else, we want to keep the conversations going on all the important issues we looked at over the course of day. There are number of ways you can do this: