Todd Porter in Japan and Stephan Balzer in Germany, working in tandem, filled their two hours with a diverse international line-up to highlight collaborative action around the planet. France would present a range of public administration professionals and scientists.
Canada’s Jess Weisz and Dan Jacob planned to pick up many threads of discussion with a large range of speakers, and weave it into a cohesive whole from a highly personal perspective. In China the team led by Ellen Cheng and Yvonne Li took on the difficult task of drawing out individual experiences from a wide range of different people, while in the US, Daniel Kraft placed the emphasis on high-profile individuals able to present scientific and technological perspectives. In India, Puja Puja and Deep Bali would create a conversation around mental health and well-being during and after the crisis.
Portugal’s segment would serve as a particularly instructive example of our way of working. It started out as a conversation around hacking the crisis with technologists and bio hackers, but eight days out several team members around the World remarked on a gaping hole in the programme — we needed more Africa voices. Pereira agreed and after several fruitless approaches, called Stephanie Busari, a CNN anchor from Nigeria, while Lara Stein contacted several people around the continent, including Nivi Sharma, an internet infrastructure entrepreneur in Kenya. “You have 12 hours to find speakers” they told them on Friday. Remarkably, Busari and Sharma delivered, and a four-speaker Portugal session became a shared Portugal / Kenya session with eight speakers, including drummer and singer Mouthoni, though their final run of the show would only be ready by Sunday, leaving little time for preparation.
Whether going through “official channels”, fishing out existing contacts from their address books, or pulling favours from friends and acquaintances, everyone filled their desired speaking slots with people of impressive substance, and were rewarded with speakers freely sharing their knowledge. The speakers, too, took away useful insights of the value of working with professionals from other fields. One epidemiologist, initially not convinced about why he should take part at all, eventually enthusiastically commented on how valuable and refreshing it had been to talk to an economist on the show.
This, of course, reflected one of the deeper reasons why Boma exists at all, and that is to help people and organisations to smash intellectual and professional silos. Multidisciplinary collaboration is important at any time, but really shines in a moment of crisis.
Boma’s Head of Global Partnerships Becca Pace, put it most succinctly: “This was a global conversation which needed to happen. Closing of borders and nationalistic tendencies will not help — viruses do not respect borders, and this problem will not be contained till it’s eradicated. We need deep, ongoing collaboration.”
As the 23rd neared, the multitude of Slack channels built up to a steady 24-hour hum of conversation, filled with information, editorial ideas, notices of rehearsals and, particularly appreciated, news of successful partnerships or particularly impressive speakers snared, in the Winning channel. To Deep Bali, this all seemed like “a distributed New York Philharmonic, with people taking turns as conductors and as performers.” Bali was the latest addition to the Boma global network, and found his head was spinning at the sheer energy and commitment of the team members. “I would see a Slack message come up in the middle of my afternoon and realise that people were texting at 2 a.m. their time. The passion, or rather obsession, with the desire to get this done made the air crackle with energy. And that passion was infectious, if you pardon the expression. We were getting commitments from some truly extraordinary speakers, who could sense that this was something they needed to be part of, even if they could not fathom how we were putting it all together, aligned and synchronised across the time zones.”
Key to this synchronisation, of course, lay in investing as much time as possible in preparation. Every successful event is built on a foundation of weeks and months of pre-work, including coaching speakers in order to draw out their best, and hone the clarity of their delivery, but how much preparation could we put in when people who had been working their entire careers towards exactly the kind of moment were expending all of their time and energy on helping patients to not die?
So, since we could not fully control the preparation of the speakers we had to be fully prepared ourselves. That meant repeated technical run-throughs and rehearsals with support from the Zoom and Facebook technical teams — and that level of close collaboration was new territory even to them. We ran multiple rehearsals for different geographic areas, with regional Zoom reps answering a multitude of detailed questions. Trouble was, of course, each answer would usually generate two or more new questions. By the Saturday, at the end of one last session of practicing hand-overs between the Polish, French and Portuguese teams, we thought we had practiced enough to be able to not make a total dog’s breakfast of the Summit. We were ready.
In the end, albeit with minor technical glitches, it worked. Mutual trust made it possible for this distributed network of motivated individuals to deliver a complex project, on zero budget, within a time frame that stretched the definition of “agile.” This was a good example of the sharp distinction which organisational theorist Karl Weick had drawn some decades ago, between heedful action and habitual performance. Heedful, because the team’s attentiveness to the goal, the details, and each-other, provided the fulcrum of thought and energy around which the entire project revolved.
We will need all of that heedful attentiveness going forward. Traditionally, or as are now coming to call it, in the BV era (not hard to guess that this stands for Before Virus), most money in corporate events had been in private label productions, and many of the various Boma teams around the World had made some or most of their revenue from those. This has now been thoroughly disrupted.
Speaking a week after the Summit, and immediately following a successful live streamed discussion which he had just concluded, Michel Levy-Provençal reflected on the frugality with which we were now living. BV, staging such a live stream would have cost thousands of Euros, and taken days of preparation. Instead, the discussion which ran on the French Huffington Post site to an audience of over 14,000 viewers, had taken four hours of his time and cost nothing.
Of course, it also made nothing. If we are to remain a sustainable, relevant voice, we need to find new methods of generating income for our team members or our ability to fulfil our proclaimed mission of facilitating intelligent debate and helping to find solutions to really big problems will be short-lived. Still, “we did impact the World” as Marconi Pereira said to me when I spoke to him in the course of working on this article.
Yes we did. And we will do it again, soon.