For a long time, it seemed that the bandwagon of people who wanted to work on interesting social issues relating to technology, digital technology and design etc. essentially all falling under the general rubric of ‘humanitarian innovation’ were literally moving en masse from conference to conference. The ‘usual suspects’. This is something that is pretty commonplace in the humanitarian sector but was amplified by the Innovation crowd who also wanted to throw Hackathons and design-thinking into the mix as the icing on the cake. When was everybody going to find time to actually do the work everybody was talking about?

From my recollection, I think we hit ‘peak’ humanitarian innovation conference with the advent of the Mediterranean crisis. Organisations such as Techfugees, but many others including a number of national and international organisations, wanted to direct collective efforts of students, entrepreneurs, engineers and designers towards the crisis. A huge social calling on everyone’s doorstep: tech can help! But where do we go? Let’s start collaborating. Great, but the problem was that an echo chamber formed. Some naive, some ignorant, some simply not getting anything back from a jaded, bureaucratic humanitarian sector – and critically, some who cut through the white noise…but not many. How to engage with these well-meaning individuals? Come to the conference was the mantra! A number were held. We went to some. They seemed OK.

It’s hard to say how much impact they had, either for the refugees themselves, or the issue publicly, or the organisation exhibiting or associated with them. What I do know is that it drew the ire of many, ourselves included. We got fed up of solutions looking for problems and unrealistic ideas that didn’t match the needs we were seeing on a day to day basis in situations where UNHCR, for instance, had consistent field presence and delivery.

We took it as far to actually write on our website ‘we don’t do hackathons’ and an internal shaming of anyone who went to a conference, or even considered going to one.

Through this period of shaming and being shamed (NB: probably more of the latter given I went to a number of conferences/events!), I’ve come to a more nuanced middle-road on them. This is my attempt at making sense of it all:

  1. Go for the right reasons. Does it relate to something within your power to affect? Can it help you specifically do your little bit of the puzzle? Ask yourself whether there is somebody out there how is in a more suitable position to go – perhaps somebody closer to the issues? If so, why aren’t they going? Is there a good reason? We have to remember that every trip costs money in travel, daily allowances and your own staff costs. Is it worth it? How will this deliver? You should absolutely be able to defend these expense because every dollar spent a conference is a dollar not spent on humanitarian field delivery.
  2. Conversely, don’t ‘not go’ for no reason. It’s not really great to be considered aloof, or disengaged and not going to things can make you / your organisation appear like either or both of these. I’ve spoken at length on the importance of collaboration and coordination, and not being part of an effort to bring people together seems counter-intuitive. It just needs to be done in the right way. If you know there are important partners there, or issues which are relevant to your organisation and team then think about how you can most add the most value. This list will help, but there may be other aspects too.
  3. Be prepared. Do your logistics in a timely manner, map the town and venue. Work out who will be there. Find out what they will speak on. Who else is attending? Try and trace them down. But go the next step too. Reach out and schedule bilaterals in advance. Use the opportunity of face-to-face – something of a rarity in a world of teleconferences and constrained travel budgets – to make real progress on shared agendas and practical/operational collaboration. Thoroughly research what you’re speaking on, if you are speaking. Best way to actually do all of this? Create yourself a detailed Terms of Reference highlighting what you’re trying to achieve. If you don’t have this, it says a lot.
  4. Represent your values, both personally and organisationally. The Innovation Service believes that diversity strengthens dialogue and this applies to conferences too. We need to be cognisant to not only not contribute to ‘manels’ but to actively call them out if they are being forced onto our unsuspecting audiences. This can apply at any level of an organisation. Think about whether your individual contribution supports this idea. This doesn’t mean that we’ll subject only women to conference going, but think about it all holistically as to the outcomes and how you can best support this objective. Maybe everybody is from one continent talking about field delivery in a continent that isn’t represented in the people there? Let’s make this right.
  5. Work out what you can do for others. While you may be the one invited, there may be thousands of your colleagues who have points to raise, agendas to put forward and value to be gotten out of attending this conference. Think about what they might be and reach out to them. You’re representing the organisation and sometimes, the real value comes from being able to think about how you can support your colleagues’ agendas. Plus it’ll win you brownie points with them, and they’ll owe you one. Absolutely no reason not to do this.
  6. Don’t hang in the background. I have to say this one gets me frustrated. I see people shipped off to a conference by an organisation and they spend all the time by themselves, without making an effort with people. This isn’t in the spirit of collaboration. To note this is not an issue with introverts or introversion as a trait. It is about understanding the value-added that can be gathered through connecting with people. This can also be done quietly and subtly but you cannot simply spend your time in the hotel spa and avoiding the networking event.
  7. Take care of yourself. I think everybody remembers a time when they were at a conference and one of the participants went overboard at the cocktail reception. This isn’t to accuse you, dear reader, of doing anything similar. But conferences do come with their dinners, drinks, networking and so forth and while this is important to be part of (see above) you need to make sure you’re feeling energised, active and on the top of your game. This means good rest, no competing priorities (set your out-of-office to ‘on’!) and;
  8. Optimise your time. Does this really need to be a week long out of the office? Perhaps it would be possible for you to do the speaking gig and have the bilaterals within two days? Just because you’ve been invited for the duration doesn’t mean you need to be there throughout. Think critically about your time and where you spend it. Make sure you factor in rest (see the previous point) but also about when you arrive and leave. It’s sometimes a tricky balance as there may be certain expectations. Are you going to miss something critical?
  9. Bring business cards. Or don’t. Easier than jotting down details you know this already so I won’t labour the point. But even if you don’t have them LinkedIn does wonders nowadays. One of the most important immediate takeaways of a conference is the contacts of amazing people you wished you’d been working with for a while, so don’t be shy, step forward and exchange details.
  10. Don’t look at it in isolation, and find the action points. I find one of the best ways to try and explain this is to consider it as part of a wider narrative – this will help you work out more strategic long-term implications and goals of being part of it. If we’re speaking about engaging with refugees, think about how to bring them into the event ‘untokenistically’. If we’ve got a narrative around building the competencies of our friends and colleagues across sectors on the issues we work in, is the event a space where this can be done? Events may be a snapshot of an organisational personality but our approach to them can help reinforce the narratives we want to build. We should use our participation wisely and try and come away with things that make the trip worth it.

So yes, if you follow all of these points, and you’re the right person to go (if you should go!) then you’ll make the most out of it when you’re there, for your own goals, your team, the organisation, and most importantly our constituents – communities themselves. All while being as efficient and as cost-effective as possible.

Finally, this was meant to be a listicle of 10 but I’m going to use sacred point 11 to explain a bit about Hackathons.

  1. What about Hackathons? A bit of a different one but we can confronted with this a lot. And while this could be another post in its entirety just a couple of quick thoughts. Hackathons can be great. Lots of smart, amazing people get together and trying and put together solutions for challenges. We’ve been part of some that have worked well, and have also faced some challenges. When do they go wrong?
    1. Great Ideas, then what? Often with hackathons the tricky part is not the hackathon itself, but what comes after which requires a lot of effort and coordination, and also resources whether human or financial to keep things moving.
    2. Let’s address this challenge….with nobody affected by the challenge present to sense-check. Hackathons could be perceived as inherently top-down. People get together in a conference venue to ‘come up with solutions’ that are then applied in humanitarian situations in a location far away from the context. The only way to apply this is to try and bring the challenges from these situations (which we’ve tried to do in the past to some success) to the Hackathon. The preferred method is to systematically engaged affected populations from the context early in the design stage and ensure their meaningful participation throughout, guiding and steering teams of experts. Better yet, do the Hackathon in the location where the solutions will be applied to make this easier for them.
    3. Let’s solve this rather vague challenge without any subject-matter experts! Not only affected populations but if you’re trying to devise whatever types of solutions without the relevant expertise whether that be tech or even around humanitarian issues from irrigation to cash transfers, it is good to have these experts around the table.
    4. Love the idea, but sadly it would be massively inappropriate or even illegal. On occasion, we’ve seen a team say for instance “wouldn’t it be great if we took all this data about this individual to create a messaging solution tailored to them”, or “let’s use this radio spectrum to do x,y,z”. On the former, this would contravene our data protection policies, the EU GDPR and general good practice around the use of individuals’ personal data. The latter would usually be illegal or unauthorised where due process i.e. licences from telecoms regulators needs to be secured. We have to maintain our principles and comply with the rule of law.

So, you get the idea. To make them work the challenges needed to be grounded in the needs of the people they affect – they need to be part of it. You also need subject matter experts who can bring you a sense of why or why not things would / wouldn’t work for any countless number of reasons. Finally the most important is that if some great ideas emerge, how does the work get taken forward? This is one of the most tricky so the only thing I’ll say is…work it out in advance!

So will you start doing Hackathons again?

Probably not. We feel our critical value-added is probably elsewhere, and we’ll continue to work with communities on innovative solutions where they are. But next time we get approached by a group of eager students/entrepreneurs/global shapers, rather than scoff, maybe we need to give them a little more of our time to help point them in the right direction?



We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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