Case study

REN 21: A Virtual Conference

We are thrilled with the feedback we have received from participants and speakers. We would highly recommend them – as a team they are professional yet human and great to team with!

Rana Adib, Executive Director, Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21)

Reflections on an event we’re very proud of

In light of the ongoing pandemic, REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century) knew that a physical conference wasn’t possible but was determined to offer their community a time and place to come together so that they could accelerate renewable energy uptake. Time is running out to address the climate and development crises.

With REN21 being at the forefront of nurturing a global community of people who help to drive innovation and work to shape policy, it was crucial to still be able to bring people together to not only have conversations but to trigger action.

How we helped

REN21 asked our EU office, ImpactBasis, to help them develop and deliver their Academy entitled Renewables Now from Evolution to Revolution. Together we aspired to create a sense of being there as much as possible. Something that would enable conversations, knowledge sharing and learning. But more than that, we jointly aspired to create an environment that created sparks. Sparks through genuine ‘hands-on’ collaboration to trigger action. Through the opportunity to speak to the other side and have controversial discussions and debate. Sparks through engaging the next generation of change-makers in the world of renewables to challenge the status quo and grow the community and make the renewable voice more influential.

Over four consecutive days and nights in a virtual space called Remo, in four buildings, even a rooftop bar with a photo booth and live caricaturist, the ImpactBasis team worked in true partnership with the REN21 team to plan, organise and deliver the event that welcomed over 390 people from an incredible 77 countries. It was awe-inspiring!


But it’s not just the numbers, it’s what people did: conversation and creation

Over four days, people came together to have meaningful conversations and create tangible outcomes. Kicking off with the Young Professionals Day on Sunday. Over 100 people gathered to rock the boat of the status quo through inspirational talks, career conversations and workshops that created the environment to develop and share new perspectives. In fact, part of the day was set aside with a structure but no agenda, enabling the Young Professionals to work within an Open Space and do the work that is pertinent to them and their community right now.

As we went into the three days of the REN21 Academy – Renewables now! From Evolution to Revolution, inspirational talks from people inside and outside of the renewable energy sector triggered deep, emotional debate. Some truly important conversations happened.

On day one this came from Rick Torseth who shared the importance of choosing leadership to mobilise movements that tackle the wicked problems in the world. Rick also focussed on the need to acknowledge loss and the importance of reaching over the fence to those whom we would normally not engage with. His mantra of “test positive for leadership” was felt and acknowledged time and time again throughout the event. 

As days progressed these reflections continued, with conversations involving people from a diverse range of sectors and industries. However, these were not passive, one-way conversations. Each conversation was held with continuous Q&A in a ‘fishbowl’ type method, generating an ongoing cycle of meaningful reflections to feed into discussions.

The next step was to start to connect participant’s reflections and articulate them in the form of wider problems; always expressed in the positive form of “How Might We…”, reframing problems as opportunities for design – solutions are possible! It was once we had started to recognise these wider problems and articulate the opportunities, that things really heated up. We incorporated lots of workshop structures, including Liberating Structures to enable the work to flow from conversation to actionable outcomes. Panellists on Day two discussed the potential of the oil and gas sector to move from providing fuels to producing electrons – quite a controversy. It sparked a fiery, combative discussion. It was perfect. What could more energise people to question, explore and ultimately find solutions than debating with those they would normally disagree with?

This conflict pushed us to work hard, to get serious, and to ask, how can we strategically catalyse the solutions to the problems participants had identified? It was time for action. Participants finished day three by bringing the analogue into the event and writing their “letter to myself”, committing to actions to make the change they’d spent 3 days discussing a reality. Small actions committed to, and stuck to, by many becomes a revolution before you know it. Closing the conference, Dr Griff Thompson (of the US State Department for Renewable Energy no less!), reminded us that sometimes you have to make a problem bigger before you can tackle it. Once you start to make connections between what’s going wrong, you start to see the connections in what you should do. That’s what bringing nationalities, sectors and industries together in a conference is all about. It’s why we’re here. The excitement was real.

ImpactBasis collaborated with us on the design, delivery and facilitation of our virtual REN21 Academy 2020. This event, in its third year, is normally an ‘in person’ event but due to Covid-19, we took the bold decision to take the REN21 Academy into the virtual space as we don’t have the luxury of time.

From the outset, ImpactBasis teamed with us to develop the virtual REN21 Academy based on our brief. They totally delivered on the brief!

Specifically, ImpactBasis helped us design and facilitate a highly interactive and engaging Academy; sourcing and managing a platform that allowed for this, co-developing the agenda, leveraging their contacts to provide speakers and other experts like film production and live drawing, that made all the difference to the event.

Rana Adib, Executive Director, Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21)

More about facilitation

An event of this magnitude doesn’t go off without some deep learning. Not only about how to organise and run such an event but also what it takes as an individual and as part of a team.

We’re passionately proud of all of us.

Months before the event Katharina led us in wide research into the right platforms, always staying acutely aware of the REN21 requirements. She did this right in the middle of producing another huge event for the United Nations. Whilst Dennis was very much the person who held us to focus, Rebecca and I became a dynamic duo who worked daily with the REN21 team to not only design and refine ideas for delivery but also to maintain the drive and positivity needed if things got tough.

Moving into the event Katharina and Max sought out and secured some amazing producers to assist the facilitation team. They ensured that they were trained and skilled-up in such a short timeframe that I can only be in awe of their ability to teach the skills needed. In fact, it’d be fair to say that in the event, the production team became co-pilots, helping us to adapt to the learning we were doing session to session. I can’t even go into the complicated organisation of configuring registration and delivery platforms that they led on, my understanding of such things can’t stretch that far. 

The facilitation team of Rebecca, Dennis and I – well, we kicked ass. You know when you know your craft so well that it didn’t feel like work? Yeah, that. That’s not to say that there wasn’t an occasional bit of candour in our conversations when we needed to pull each other to task. Between the three of us, we not only designed the flow of the whole event alongside the REN21 team, but we also took on mentor roles to help expand the understanding of the event’s potential.

Katharina, Max, Steffie, Nick, James, Dennis, Rebecca and I truly embodied what it means to be a team. At all times we had each other’s backs. Able to pick each other up when they were down. Able to support, guide and challenge each other when needed. Communication was constant and transparent without a need for a role-based leader. Indeed, as Rick challenged us to on day one, we all chose to test ‘positive for leadership’.

So what did we learn from this experience?

Where do you begin? So much! Technical skills to one side, the true learning for us came in the shape of how we interacted with each other and the client;

Before the event:

Do the work, worry less later. When things slip, tension gets high. Easily resolved with candid conversations and clear actions but also easily avoidable if the work itself isn’t avoided. 

Just ask. No one is the whole package so instead of guessing, making assumptions or avoiding – just ask the question. Seek the clarity you need and revisit point

Close the loop. When ambiguity is high, close the feedback loop. We held daily stand-ups with all hands to ensure that we were there to support each other and remain accountable for the activities that fell to us.

Keep it focused yet fun. Organising just a huge event is stressful and fraught with complex moving parts. Focus is essential but so is fun. Without the balance of stress and fun, no one has a good experience and this will bleed into the event. Avoid.

Play your part, not other peoples. We all bring component parts to the success of such an event. No one person can be all things. Be clear on what you bring, be aware of what others bring, where there are gaps – fill them. 

Test, test, test, test. Practice and rehearse until you can do it with your eyes closed. Holding pre-events help to iron out problems

Plan for the shit to meet the fan. Have a plan, ready and waiting to step in. You can plan for everything other than the internet or platform outage. Have a backup.

In the event

Build-in buffers. Nothing runs to time. People need more time than you could ever plan for so build in buffers. For every hour, we planned 40 minutes so that people could orientate, move around or have longer conversations. 

Size matters. People who know their sectors deeply have a lot to say and value time to talk. Instead of having long meandering conversations in big groups, create an environment where smaller groups can have more focused space and time. Build-in structure to diverge and converge.

Brief, debrief, repeat. Before each morning and at the end of each day. You’ll be tired and want to shut down but there is total value in daily briefing and debriefing to reduce tension, make sure that any issues are ironed out and celebrate success. 

Listen, learn. Everyone’s suggestions on how to improve need to be heard. Ideas on how to tweak can come from anyone at any time and have an environment where these can be heard and incorporated.

Plans, and then some. Yes, structure, plans and agendas are crucial to successful delivery but have no doubt, they must be able to change. We were able to adapt to feedback constantly and this enabled a better and more effective delivery which maintained attendance numbers through the whole event (and that’s rare right?)

How do we feel now it’s over?

Tired, but to be honest, buzzing.

There’s nothing quite like the energy (renewable, of course) that comes from bringing people together to have these kinds of vital conversations.

We feel a deep sense of pride in being able to bring so many diverse conversations together. It’s the important work that we cherish. So we also feel a deep sense of gratitude.

We’re gonna be brimming with solar power for quite a while. But first, we might get some sleep…

All cartoons above drawn by the team at Drawnalism! Check them out on twitter at @Drawnalism

Case study from Matt Barnaby, Basis & ImpactBasis

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