3 mins

How to hold an international event when everybody is stuck in their homes?

Jenny Koutsomarkou

Imagine the impact of the pandemic on an EU programme that finances and enables exchange and cooperation - and therefore travelling - between cities. Travel restrictions across Europe and restrictions on in-person meetings have been in place for over a year. Certainly there have been worse aspects of the pandemic, but when it touches your own core business all you want to do is stand up and make the most of what exists out there to encourage the talking, networking and working. That's what URBACT did.

Most of our communication platforms and tools have been digital and online for years now, as it is a Europe-wide programme. But, during the pandemic, no one and no tool can replace the atmosphere, vibes and interaction a large in-person event offers.

In 2019, we started to prepare the fourth summer university to strengthen the skills of 350 people in participatory and integrated policy-making. This would take place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in July 2020. In early 2020, compelled by the pandemic, we decided to adapt and experiment for the first time with an entirely online training event, an e-university.

Online fatigue was starting to set in at that moment, so instead of a full 2-day physical event we organised eight 2-hour modules over the course of a month. To make it dynamic and diverse, we opted for a mix of live studio sessions, plenaries and small working groups, allowing interaction among participants. And we used, for the first time, a new audiovisual platform to meet our needs. Our approach was to lead by example, and show our city beneficiaries the myriad of possibilities with online distance learning.

Communication-wise, our objectives were twofold: attract as many participants as possible and retain them in the programme throughout the whole month, and increase traffic to our newly developed URBACT toolbox for city makers.

Before the event, the campaign started with a dedicated web page containing the programme, biographies of experts and speakers, a live chat, and resources pages with relevant training materials and links to the URBACT toolbox. Social media helped us raise awareness with video teasers and the hashtag #eUniversity2020.

During the event, besides the speed-networking sessions, plenaries and working groups with online whiteboards such as Miro, participants were also invited to interact on Twitter with the #eUniversity2020 Twitter challenge. The most active participants were celebrated at the closing plenary.

After the end of the event, all the live sessions, presentations and materials with links to the toolbox were made available on the e-university's web page.

Results-wise, we won the bet: 350 people attended all the modules throughout the month of September 2020. Four times more unique visits to the toolbox were recorded during the e-university, and there have been more than 1 500 downloads of tools.

As the cherry on the cake, at the participants'demand we organised a follow-up e-university alumni event on 3 March 2021. This was an online gathering, full of networking and inspiring talks, with 300 participants to catch up on how they had been using the tools they learnt about during the initial training.

A year after the beginning of the pandemic, things have not returned to 'normal' in most countries. We are still planning online events for the course of 2021, one of them being the URBACT City Festival planned for 15-17 June 2021. Open to local governments and urban professionals, the #URBACTfest will demonstrate how practices are transferred from one city to another and how changes are possible even in the context of COVID-19. Unlike the e-university, targeted towards URBACT beneficiaries, the city festival is open to anyone interested in urban policy and making cities better places to live.

Although the digital transition is not always easy, with technical hurdles, we have learnt from our mistakes and we are still learning by testing. We want to share what we have learnt with others, to help them save time and get better at organising and communicating in online meetings. That's the purpose of the URBACTtoolbox and the guide on 'Hint s and tips for online facilitation'. And for more customised assistance, three URBACT digital support experts can further support URBACT beneficiaries in designing their online meetings.

In this new reality, we embrace the benefits of not travelling too much (fewer public-funded plane trips, less CO2 emissions, more time spent with our families, well-prepared online meetings) but we look forward to seeing our city community gather again as before, in person. A balance between the two will be there to find once the pandemic is over

Jenny Koutsomarkou is Partnership Officer at URBACT

This article appears in Rural areas: an eye to the future

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