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What Does COVID-19 Mean for Policy Learning and Co-Creation?

Vicky Shaw and Ed Steinmueller of the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium consider the need to rethink business-as-usual and experiment with new ways of working.

Learning and co-creation are the foundation for TIPC’s work on research, experimentation and evaluation. The consortium has invested in resources and methods to help align participants’ expectations and understanding over the past three years that deserve further testing and development.

This year, we originally planned to deliver face-to-face events in at least four regions. These help us to aggregate learning, understand the experiences of practitioners and researchers in their local context and build a global agenda for transformative innovation policy.

During disaster or crisis, adjusting to the new normal occupies most of our attention and energy. TIPC members are engaged in this process now, facing threats to daily lives, jobs and loved ones, while established plans, behaviours, and routines shift or vanish.

Looking ahead despite these unfamiliar circumstances, the work of TIPC members on understanding the changing landscape and building capabilities for new ways of working will be more important than ever. It is already clear that the social and economic consequences of the pandemic will be far reaching. The steps being taken around the world to contain the disease and mitigate its effects will pioneer new directions and alter expectations about the future.

COVID-19 as a tipping point

In China, COVID-19 has been a ‘tipping point’ for online learning, bringing it to the forefront of the national policy agenda. The shutdown in response to the virus affected over 200 million students and rapidly accelerated the transition to digital tools and platforms. As the folk saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. The market is now expected to triple by 2023 and raising the effectiveness of online education will become a high priority globally.

Along with millions of others across the world – such as our partners at EIT Climate-KIC – TIPC will be forced to rethink business-as-usual and rapidly experiment with new methods for communication and engagement. We are entering a steep learning curve as we adjust to different ways of transferring and co-producing knowledge.

Changing our ways of working

The situation will test our abilities as individuals and groups to innovate. It will also trigger changes in underlying assumptions about the way that we collaborate and learn.

‘To gain a human connection online, we need to change the way we relate to each other, involving new ways of doing, organising and thinking,’ say researchers at the Dutch Research Institute For Transitions (DRIFT) in a blog on the art of connecting online. They found that while many online communication tools exist, the social innovation required for their meaningful use is less widespread.

So what social issues might we face using online technologies to sustain and nurture our learning?

Securing engagement

DRIFT’s top recommendation for online meetings is to ‘be fully present’. But online contact reduces body language and eye contact, with the added distraction of background sounds and household members.  How do we strengthen the engagement of participants working across time zones and coping with these limitations and distractions?

We will test ‘contracting’ to aid engagement in online meetings – the agreement between the group about what they want to achieve and how to go about it. In an online setting, this might address the length of the meeting, individual roles or expectations about how we behave, such as whether we agree to mute microphones when others are speaking, or mutual agreement to avoid working on other tasks.

Networking

Policy practitioners and researchers value learning events for building professional networks, but it is not easy to replicate the spontaneous, informal discussion that takes place over lunch or during a coffee break leading to new relationships and opportunities.

We will be experimenting with tools and techniques to supplement what is missing from face-to-face group interaction, while the crisis in itself is prompting greater empathy and connectivity. Online ‘check ins’ have become more common, notes Sandra Boni, professor at INGENIO [CSIC-UPV]. ‘We, as academics, are not so used to sharing our feelings like this (at least, in our work space). Having a moment to say how are we doing in these circumstances can be healthy and reinforce group cohesion.’

Co-creation and deep learning

Collaboration and co-production lie at the heart of TIPC; the synergies between people within and across our member organisations are equally as important as those between participant and ‘trainer’. Online platforms tend to be geared towards a ‘host’ or lead participant, which risks moving into consultant-client or teacher-class territories.

There are a wealth of facilitation tools, platforms and protocols to maximise effective participation, such as those in this Distributed Collaboration Manual, supported by EIT Climate-KIC. But, like the ‘iceberg model’, these often address structure and behaviours, without speaking to the underlying human processes.

For second order learning that challenges the organising principles of a dominant culture, we must also question assumptions, redefine rules and collectively reconceptualise. We think this involves careful thought to structuring agendas and activities that facilitate sharing of values and beliefs.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety is an essential requirement for deep group learning, as it empowers participants to give honest feedback, reflect, identify gaps in understanding and offer ideas. Amy Edmondson, author of an influential paper on the theme, says it can be achieved through tools and the design of activities – and also through behavioural interventions, such as demonstrating humility, curiosity and fallibility.

TIPC will test both – employing facilitation techniques to ensure that diverse voices are heard, while considering how qualities such as authenticity and vulnerability might be signalled in a digital space.

Renegotiating social cues

One interesting aspect of a shift to online group interaction is the renegotiation of social cues, conviviality and rules we observe in the presence of others. Virtual group meetings can throw up insights into the lives of those in the cohort, introducing pets, hobbies or children.

This opens a window to new forms of conviviality that disrupt existing social rules – if we allow it to.

In his 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, social anthropologist Erving Goffman compared people to actors performing on a stage. He said we control or guide the impressions of others (while seeking to obtain information about them) to help us understand a situation and bring coherency to the interaction.

Will we ‘stage manage’ this access into our lives to preserve existing powers or hierarchies or allow it to unlock a different way of relating to one another?

Group dynamics

Perhaps the most challenging question for online learning and co-creation is how we maintain the ‘alchemy’ of the group –that special power which groups have to transform into more than the sum of their parts.

UCL professor, Anthony Costello, has written about this in relation to global health, highlighting the success of women’s groups over experts in tackling wicked problems such as maternal and newborn mortality.

This dynamic, described by facilitation researcher John Heron as the ‘combined configuration of mental, emotional and physical energy’ is hard to pinpoint, but when harnessed can lead to creative and problem-solving breakthroughs. Is it possible to recreate this dynamic in an online setting, and what are the impediments to doing so?

Collective experimentation

In a recent blog, transitions researchers Bipashyee Ghosh and Johan Schot describe COVID-19 as a landscape shock that could lead to fundamental change: ‘Lifestyle changes need experimentation, and this crisis can become a collective experiment in how to change the way we live and work.’

Through our learning activities, TIPC will continue to experiment, reflect and question our assumptions and framings to find out which new practices generate positive impact and can be continued when the shock subsides. We will work towards second order learning, rather than a back-to-normal scenario, using this period for reflections with our partners on how we do our work and what we can change.

Vicky Shaw and Ed Steinmueller work with TIPC members on learning and capability building across the consortium.  Vicky is TIPC Programme Director and an accredited group facilitator (AoF). Ed is Professor of Information and Communication Technology Policy at SPRU. His research interests include the social and economic consequences of information and communication technologies.

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