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2020: The year of online participation

Published on 08 January 2020
Updated on 05 April 2024

When Greta Thunberg travelled by boat and train to attend the recent UN Climate Change Summit in 2019, she sent a wake-up call to diplomats and policymakers to search for innovative digital diplomacy tools, such as online conferencing, to reduce flying and thus, their carbon footprints.

Fortunately, the technology is available. There is a wide range of tools and platforms that can facilitate engaging meetings at an affordable cost.

For us at DiploFoundation, online participation has been vital in serving diplomats from small island states for the last two decades. For many of them, online courses and meetings were the only way to actively participate in global policy processes. In 2019, Diplo’s online audience grew to include 1667 participants. In addition, we have had over 500 students attend our vivid e-learning and online courses programme.

A flagship example of online participation are the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) Briefings on Internet Governance which take place the last Tuesday of the month, and are a platform for the international digital community to discuss monthly digital developments. The second most attended online events were our series of Cyber-diplomacy web discussions. This series, organised with the support of Microsoft, brought cybersecurity experts from prominent organisations, to discuss cybersecurity issues. In December 2019, the UN’s Open Ended Working Group on cyber-security (OEWG) held an intersessional meeting with the same stakeholders, many of which were panellists at our online events. The list continues with our WebDebate webinars on the future of diplomacy, tackling the modern day dilemmas faced by diplomacy practitioners. More than 300 people followed our live Cyber-diplomacy web discussions.  

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In addition to the above-mentioned events organised by Diplo, earlier in 2019 we shared our expertise with the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (UN HLP), and provided support for online participation of their Town Hall meetings. This was an important step for the UN HLP in acknowledging the importance of inputs from a worldwide audience that is unable to attend meetings in New York and Geneva, but wants to take part in the discussions. Apart from the Town Hall meetings, the UN HLP held a round of consultations with African and Latin American stakeholders, also using online participation platforms. Combined, these UN HLP events had more than 400 participants in 2019, underlining the importance of online participation for people around the world. Efforts by the UN HLP were a milestone towards a more meaningful participation in discussions on the future of digital policy. At the end, all inputs from online participants found their way into the UN HLP’s report, ‘The Age of Digital Interdependence’, culminating their work.

The year 2020 marks 20 years of Diplo’s constant work in the field of online participation, including online courses, webinars, and the online participation of events. This year will also observe the 5th edition of the Geneva Engage Awards which will be held on 29 January.

Online participation is a set of resources that allows for increased openness and inclusiveness, particularly in global policy processes. Therefore the Geneva Engage Awards will recognise institutions which helped start this process, which will be, in our opinion, a long and thorough transition. We have witnessed that remote work brings changes in many sectors. Aside from the obvious and tangible changes – enhancing efficiency, speeding up processes, and keeping us connected without the need for extensive travelling (let us think about the environmental factors again) – they can sometimes be subtle and related to our work routine, social skills, and habits that we have developed working in teams. For all of this, we will need persistent efforts, and for institutions to be open to push this on their agendas. Of course, the addition of remote participation should not degrade the quality of in-situ participation. Systems must protect the integrity of the in-situ meeting.  

In the last few years, ‘online observation’ has slowly overtaken online participation. This can be observed in the steady rise of podcasts (audio shows that are not inclusive in terms of participation, resembling radio shows), gaming stream services like Twitch – where younger generations are immersed in observing one player going through the game (without participating), and the YouTube abundance of suggested videos. All of these trends are indicating the steady rise in online observing rather than participating.

More on this, and on the main reasons why people attend conferences (networking, presenting the work to others, and serendipity), and how that can that be addressed via online participation in the second part of this blog which will be published in the build-up to the 2020 Geneva Engage Awards (29 January 2020).

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