Global exchange in the age of Coronavirus

Last week, the WHO officially declared Coronavirus a pandemic. Since then, a feeling of being out of control is spreading around the world. One by one, governments declare national emergencies and implement lockdown policies. The streets of London were quiet this morning, and for those who are not socially isolating themselves, ‘social distancing’ is becoming the norm. As a result, poverty, unemployment and loneliness are growing concerns, everywhere. 

Finding new ways to do what we do

Whilst conferences and activities are being cancelled for most organisations, and travel bans are widespread, finding new ways of fostering these connections for the current world in which we live is a priority for many organisations. For SIX, this is particularly pertinent. Bringing people together, facilitating purposeful conversations and creating global exchanges is the core of our business. We are known for the unique way we design and facilitate our retreats, study tours and events. 

The global climate crisis and the need for all of us to reduce the carbon produced by taking international flights have already made us reflect on our model. COVID 19 has accelerated our need to explore and combine physical and virtual ways to connect. But there are also programmatic reasons which have urged us to find new approaches. Namely, our exploration into power and philanthropy.

Exploring (the topic of) power by experimenting with power

Over the next few years, our work with foundations will interrogate the relationship between power and philanthropy through the SIX Funders Node ‘Year on Power’ programme. Philanthropy is entrenched with power dynamics which can perpetuate the very inequality the sector seeks to help solve. To decentralise power, we believe funders need humility and an acceptance that this entails the inevitable surrendering of some of their organisational and individual power. It also needs organisations like SIX to innovate to encourage and support this transition.

We can’t convene foundations to have a conversation about power without addressing power legitimately without reflecting on the way we host this conversation. 

We need to democratise the knowledge generated and shared at gatherings beyond the top levels in an organisation. Many of our activities, particularly our global retreats with foundations, are restricted to senior leaders. We chose to work with these individuals as they can influence change in their organisation, but we need to make this knowledge and experience accessible across organisations. We see the current global crisis as an opportunity to make sure knowledge and power are shared throughout the organisations we work with, not just foundations.

A year of experimentation

Over the coming year, we will innovate our methodologies as a way of exploring new ways of democratising power, whilst also talking about power. Our focus will still be on people and facilitating purposeful conversations, not just the technologies.  

Recreating a retreat virtually is not as easy as just transferring to an online tool. How do we build trust virtually? How do we recreate a pair walks? What do breakout discussions look like? How do we prepare the participants? How do ground rules change? How can we approach the way we use time in a different way – for example, hosting a meeting over a few weeks rather than an intensive 3-day retreat on Wasan island? How many sessions do we need to host to recreate these relationships? Over what period of time and how regular do they need to be? What is the optimal size of a group and how can groups grow and contract? Low – tech solutions, like going for a walk and making a call, may sometimes be the answer but they require more creativity.

Timezones will always be a challenge if we are to do more global virtual convening – could we use a relay approach to simulate global exchange and the building of new ideas?

We will revisit the things we have already tested and rework them. In SIX’s first few years, we partnered with Cisco and hosted more than 40 global Telepresence discussions where global learning accelerated action – topics ranging from the best lab models to social impact bonds, to how to scale social innovations. With Skype and Zoom less well established, using Telepresence meant that people needed to get together in a city, rather than sitting in their own houses and joining as an individual. The mix of physical and virtual was key to many of the relationships that remain core to SIX today.

Sharing what we learn

We would like to make sure we are sharing what we learn. We have already started an open Google doc to share interesting models and methods of global convening, and what makes them interesting and useful. We invite you to take a look and contribute your own ideas.   

This approach does not only apply to our work with foundations. We will be exploring how to do things differently across our programme areas. If you want to work with us and help us experiment with new techniques, please get in touch. 

This crisis is shining a light on inequalities and systemic challenges all over the world. Finding new ways to do things, learning from our global neighbours, and empowering ordinary citizens is the only way we will get to the other side. This is the time for social innovation.