Our reliance on virtual spaces dramatically increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. When we could no longer gather in person, many of our group interactions – from design sprints and hackathons to innovators summits and showcase days – were relocated to Zoom and other online platforms.
At SecondMuse, we believe diversity is fundamental to innovation. Therefore, we found it vitally important to use the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic as an opportunity to intentionally redesign virtual spaces to make them more inclusive, to bring together more diverse actors, and to ensure collaborators in these virtual spaces feel connected, supported and inspired.
We have long partnered with DSIL Global, a social innovation company, to design and deliver transformative experiences for our program participants through different initiatives. Last year was particularly special, as we delivered the Circular Innovation Jam—a design sprint focused on developing solutions to ocean plastic pollution in South and Southeast Asia— in the midst of the growing pandemic. Though initially planned as a 48-hour in-person event, it was transformed to a one-week online event.
As a result of this partnership, together we developed “Humanizing the Virtual Space”, a guide to cultivate inclusive facilitation in virtual settings. It includes our story of working together across sectors and geographies and the lessons we learned along the way.
Honing learnings and best practices from Circular Innovation Jam
Circular Innovation Jam involved over 500 participants, including 75 mentors and 30 facilitators representing “country tracks” across India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. We ultimately threw out the original design for the program and – with our partners – came up with a completely new design. We wanted to be sure we were creating intimate virtual settings that enabled connection, collaboration and better innovation.
For example, we considered that many participants may have smaller mental bandwidths in light of the pandemic, and would benefit from elements to reduce fatigue and provide flexibility. We also brought many more hands on deck, engaging and training additional facilitators in order to provide a rich, personalized virtual experience for all the participants. This approach had the important added benefit of representing more youth, women, rural and remote communities in our programming than ever before.
Along the way we honed some practices that we believe can be valuable to facilitators everywhere who want to make the virtual spaces where they lead more inclusive – and therefore transformative. The “Humanizing the Virtual Space” guide highlights and explains these key recommendations, from learning how to listen deeply to being willing to make mistakes and share them with the group.
One important strategy principle that emerged for us was: “Move at the speed of trust.”
This principle recognizes that safe and inclusive spaces are co-created. Facilitators encourage a culture of reciprocity, collegiality and mutual support, but it’s important that each individual participant feels safe and supported interacting with the group. For facilitators, this means being ready to speed up or slow down programming based on the level of collective trust in the group. They may need to set aside sufficient time to build trust with group exercises that encourage vulnerability, open-sharing and authenticity.
Collaborating in virtual worlds does not have to be isolating or dehumanizing. But building quality partnerships takes effort, intentionality, time, and commitment to one another as much as to our goals. We hope this virtual facilitation guide can be a useful resource for facilitators around the globe to draw from and practice inclusive facilitation.