Corporate news4 June 2020
Like many organisations around the world, the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP) is feeling the impact of the Corona crisis. One of the most tangible effects on NWP as a network organisation is the fact that many conferences and events have been cancelled or postponed. However, just as many have been redesigned as online activities. Fortunately, this virtual shift is leading to highly positive outcomes and, sometimes, even greater international participation. We share here an overview of our own internal transition to embracing online events and the lessons learnt, which are guiding our events strategy both now and for the time beyond the Covid-19 crisis.
Last January, a Rapid Response Team (RRT) visited El Salvador to assess the situation around the drinking water crisis that arose in the country as a consequence of unusual algal blooms that affected the Lempa River. Following up on this initial diagnostic mission, EL Salvador was planning to identify the technology and expertise that local authorities and entities need to tackle these challenges and it requested the collaboration of NWP to find Dutch water expertise. On 25 March, Janett Tapia, Project Manager at NWP, hosted the El Salvador Information Meeting.
“Organisations that had registered their interest in working on solutions for El Salvador were invited to this call to present their expertise to the Ambassador of El Salvador in the Netherlands,” explains Janett. “The best thing about the online setting was that it was easy to connect Dutch experts and organisations with water authority representatives in El Salvador. Given the urgency of the situation, we were pleased to create an immediate opportunity for interaction between these parties. The experts in the Netherlands were able to showcase their solutions to water authorities in El Salvador.”
Algal blooms, but one of a different type, was also the central topic of the Sargassum brainstorm meeting on 3 April 2020. Over the last decade, the North Atlantic Sea, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico have experienced massive blooms of Sargassum brown algae, which intermittently discharge large amounts of decomposing Sargassum along the Gulf coast of Mexico. This phenomenon is negatively affecting the environment and socio-economic livelihood of communities in Mexico. Seeking solutions for this problem, a meeting was set up by the Partners for Water Delta Team Mexico.
“With regular onsite events we would have had a chat with 15 or so participants, and would then have organised focused follow-up discussions with our Mexican counterparts,” says Janett. “But now, in coordination with our local Embassy, we actually generated synergies and gained new local insights by having all the participants join the same meeting. It worked out really well. Not only did we have people from various countries in one call, we also had researchers, start-ups, and technology firms all together. Under normal circumstances there is no natural place for them to meet around this very specific topic. Many of these groups are developing technologies and methodologies on the same issue independently so bringing them all together to brainstorm was very helpful. This has certainly sped up the process. In fact, we very recently had a follow-up meeting and we are already in the process of identifying a core team to develop a pilot.”
Based on the fact that water is a key area in which the Dutch resilience sector can add value to collaborations with local partners all over the world, NWP hosted its first Urban Resilience sector meeting of 2020. The fact that it was an online event did not prove to be a disadvantage. “In the end we had some 60 participants in the session,” Janett recalls. “Most of them were Dutch companies, NGOs and institutes and they looked at how we can best combine the strengths of the water and the urban resilience sectors. What was interesting in this call is that our audience included representatives of development banks, embassies and international firms looking to do business with Dutch partner organisations. These were exactly the entities to which the Dutch water sector wishes to connect. Some of the international participants commented that they were pleasantly surprised by the fact that so many Dutch organisations were taking part in the same call in such a unified way.”
All together, Janett and her colleagues are satisfied with the uptake and outcomes of these online sessions. But in times where many people are starting to grow tired of webinars and online events, the challenge is to keep the sessions engaging and to include valuable content. “You have to work really hard to turn the events into interactive experiences,” Janett says. “Fortunately, we have been trying out and discovering good ways to maintain the interaction with large audiences. We have found it particularly important to have a strong and well-defined programme. We put ourselves in the shoes of our audience and link the programme to our core ambition of ‘creating impact with the Dutch water sector’. We always ask ourselves why someone would want to attend this meeting? Is valuable information presented? Can organisations find new opportunities and connections? Will it lead to cooperation and tangible results?”
Annemieke van Zuylen, NWP’s Project Manager Events is used to working around the globe and has felt the effects of Covid-19 on her work perhaps more directly than any of her colleagues. One thing she is certain about: online events can never replace face-to-face contact and the personal matchmaking possibilities of live events. Nevertheless, she is also witnessing interesting changes and new opportunities. “The interesting thing is that so many people around the world have suddenly become used to online collaboration and conferencing,” she says. “It is much easier to invite participants from all over the world and from various sectors. And at the same time, you can organise more in-depth discussions with focus groups on certain themes. The costs are much lower than in live events. And obviously, it is better for our planet if we reduce the amount of air travel. People who choose to join an online event are usually committed and involved. By asking them to use the chat function or by creating polls you can gather a lot of information and data from them. Recognising opportunities and their preferences helps us to better serve our participants.”
Looking at NWP events, she expects an increase in the number of online events, especially in the near future. But looking further ahead, she also believes that there will be a growing demand for hybrid events. Annemieke says “Imagine that you have a group of experts together at a live event, discussing specific topics. But you also have room for an online audience that can be as big as you allow it to be. There are many ideas that we are thinking about and developing at the moment. Over the coming weeks, NWP will host an online water expert session to share experiences and learn more about the impact of Covid-19 on global topics related to water. NWP members will be informed very soon about how to join this webinar.”