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The future of network-building is digital

By Sanni Juoperi on Dec 22, 2020 12:26:28 PM , updated on Apr 27, 2021

The German Federal Agency for Civic Education has been running the cross-European NECE network for over 15 years. Previously, their work has had a strong focus on co-creating in a yearly physical conference. Now the common journey is built on a digital platform. 

The German Federal Agency for Civic Education (the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung or the ”bpb” as it is referred to in short) - is a federal public authority providing citizenship education and information on political issues to all people in Germany. A central function of theirs is to run the NECE conference and network, an international community of European civil educators. In addition, NECE maintains close ties across the world of international civic education, fostering knowledge exchange and shared learning.  “NECE is not a network with an institutionalized structure - it’s a network of partners that has expanded with us and has an international advisory board. Our mission is to keep the network active and alive. An annual conference with additional workshops is at the heart of keeping the network alive and to trigger advancing civic education-related activities Europe-wide.” describes Christoph Müller-Hofstede from bpb. 

As it was quite clear in the spring of 2020 that the most important yearly event for NECE was not going to happen as is, Müller-Hofstede, together with their long-term external partners Lab Concepts, consulted facilitators Dirk Hulverscheidt and Tanja Murphy-Ilibasic on alternatives suitable to the audience and current environment. In mutual exchange, the initial ideas expanded to what if the network would not just focus on finding an alternative solution for the conference but would rethink the way the network works and offer multiple possibilities for people and organizations to come together online throughout the year? This new concept was accompanied by the recommendation to deploy the Howspace digital facilitation tool to utilize in the pre-events, conference as well as engagement in between the events, easily opening participation up beyond a solely European audience to a global one.

In search of a digital network solution

“Before 2020, NECE wasn’t focused on many digital activities. We had been looking for tools to fit our purpose before, and we had a shared information database for the network but it was not in active use. The challenge was how to engage people to add data when there were no interactive elements to it. We were looking for a tool that would really allow us to breathe life into a network within the digital space. Covid fast-tracked us to radically transition to the digital world - Zoom being the first step. But there remained the desire to find a facilitation platform that could keep the work ongoing between our meetings and allow those unable to attend to remain an integral part of the process. So when Howspace was introduced to us, it was immediately of interest”, Müller-Hofstede describes.

A virtual collaboration campus tying together over 30 events

The solution that Hulverscheidt and Murphy-Ilibasic built in collaboration with the NECE team was a digital campus environment with over 30 smaller events leading up to the traditional 3-day conference. The process was a success: once the ice was broken there was new kind of input coming in. The difference to previous ways of working was huge: as there is a possibility to continue engaging after events, people continued commenting on events and workshops that were 2-3 months ago, keeping the discussions and topics alive. “A key element of Howspace is that you need only a minimum of  technical know-how to fully engage and that it offers  so many different types of interaction to be a part of a process - this is so far beyond just participating in a video meeting”, Hulverscheidt and Murphy-Ilibasic describe.

For the new NECE concept, Howspace was the central tool holding more than 30 very different events together. “As is natural for this kind of process, some participants interacted more and some less on the platform. But it definitely helped us to deploy new working methods. From June onwards, we prepared a new declaration for the importance of civic education during the pandemic. This declaration process was running throughout the campus events, and, as a result, we were able to present a truly co-created declaration. Many individuals and NGOs were involved in the process and their perspectives became visible in the content. Involving this group of people in this kind of process of documentation is something new for NECE, and it will definitely be a one of our ways of working in the future as well”, Müller-Hofstede describes.

New working methods for years to come

“We want to encourage others to use Howspace based on our own good and extensive experience - it’s such a multifaceted, highly customisable tool for anybody running an interactive project or process with people with the wish of going beyond a single webinar or lecture. I recommend it to anyone who's interested in getting people engaged and onboard. This is the core aspiration of our work - what we try to do as developer, promoter and advocator of civil society Europe-wide”, Müller-Hofstede concludes the experience. “Embarking on this digital journey and integrating a digital facilitation platform is something that really changed both the mindset and work methods for NECE for years to come. Even though the pandemic led us to it, by no means is it simply an emergency solution. Instead, it changes our working methods and possibilities for engagement in our network for the better.

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