“Oops, we forgot the keynote”

Breaking the mold of an online conference

By Annelies Tjebbes with support from the gathering design team

On June 16th and 17th, the social R&D community in Canada came together for a 2 day gathering to learn from and with one another. The global context within which we gathered was a challenging one, amidst a global pandemic, black lives matter protests calling for change in a racially unjust world, and a climate crisis left on the back-burner as news cycles are dominated by other stories. Over 200 participants joined this online gathering to explore the question:

How are Canadian social innovators addressing complex challenges in this changing time? How can social R&D tools and practices strengthen their efforts?

We’re not the first nor the last to have hosted a virtual gathering, but we’d like to share some insights and learnings that came from the experience and how we leveraged social R&D to design this event in a collaborative and experimental way. If you are eager to learn more, we’re happy to share insights over a virtual coffee. 

We organized the gathering around key principles and this blog highlights what we tried and learned within each of the following areas:

  • Sharing the stage
  • Cultural accessibility/Inclusion
  • Collaborative design
  • Holistic human experience
  • Simple bold design
  • Solid adaptable team
  • Getting the tech right

Sharing the stage

Intention: One of our core intentions was to shift power in the gathering and put the microphone into the hands of different, new, and diverse practitioners. 

What we tried: We intentionally didn’t have a keynote, nor did we include any lecture-style presentations. Instead, we encouraged dialogue, sharing (not telling), and co-creation of content. 

Learning: We heard feedback from some attendees that it took a lot of energy to participate in the gathering because it was so participatory. They expressed interest in having a few sessions where they could listen and absorb without feeling pressure to contribute and engage deeply. 


Intention: We sought to democratize knowledge in this gathering and not to own or define the social R&D field. This is an emerging field and a key goal of the gathering was to honour different definitions of social R&D and to support individuals to show, not tell about the work they are undertaking. 

What we tried: During one session, we featured 15 storytellers who brought examples of social R&D in action across Canada. During another, we supported attendees to float up the most pressing topics that needed to be addressed for self-organized discussions.

Learning: As a result of not seeking to define or own the social R&D field or language, some newer practitioners were left yearning for a strong introduction to the field. In future we will run a pre-gathering session to help onboard newer practitioners. 

Cultural Accessibility / Inclusion

Intention: Accessibility and inclusion were core focus areas for our design. We sought to expand and diversify the practitioners who engaged in this gathering and center and feature BIPOC voices. 

What we tried: A majority of our session speakers and hosts were BIPOC. Some speakers addressed issues of racial injustice in our society and raised support of movements that are working to bring about positive change. We also shared this event through new channels and shifted it from an invitation style event to an open platform. By hosting it online and offering free or PWYC options we were able to open the event up to a much broader audience.

Learning: While the session speakers and hosts were mostly BIPOC, our core design team was mostly white. We are committed to ensure that more BIPOC voices are at the next design table and to centering diverse voices and perspectives. 

Learning: While we as hosts alluded to racial inequities and the revitalization of the Black Lives Matter movement, we didn’t make a formal statement about these events and are committed to doing a better job at acknowledging our context and our support for these movements. 



What we tried: Accessibility around language was also a core focus for us and we had bilingual (French & English) co hosts sharing contributions in English and French as well as live bilingual whisper translation being offered throughout the event. 

Learning: There are many more than just 2 languages used in Canada and will explore ways to feature and support Indigenous languages to be represented in future sessions and translation. We also know that it’s not just about translating words, and that some concepts (including social R&D itself) don’t translate as well into other language contexts. 

Collaborative design

Intention: In response to the rapid changes that are going on in the world we wanted to hold space for emergence and for sensing what would be needed at this moment for the field. 

What we tried: We co-created this event with the established social R&D Community of Practice, an advisory committee, and with the input of interviews and surveys leading up to the event. We had different co-hosts from the Community of Practice join us for various components and this helped link the past work in this field and feature a variety of voices. 

Learning: We brought on an Indigenous facilitator to lead an opening exercise and ground us in relationships and the land. This was a beautiful start to the event and we are committed to putting more work into decolonizing the overall design of an event like this one in the future. 

Holistic human experience

Intention: It was important for us to counter zoom fatigue and to make this event was an engaging one that honoured the whole human experience and needs. 

What we tried: 

  • We included music (by Desirée Dawson), movement (by Restore Human) and breathing exercises (by Ravyn Wngz with the Laboratory of Artistic Intelligence) during the opening and breaks. 
  • We had a Drawing Change graphic recorder who brought a visual element to the event. 
  • We made it an opt-in/out experience so participants could take care of other childcare, work and personal needs throughout the event and a concierge service if participants arrived during the middle of a breakout group. 
  • We leveraged breakout groups to make it engaging, interactive and personal. 
  • We even had a dance party!

Learning: These were some of the most positively rated components of the event, but participants still shared that they were tired afterwards and yearned for full breaks to disengage. We also designed with 2hr slots and breaks between, but the overall experience of two back to back days was likely too much and we will explore splitting them up by a week next time. 

Simple Bold Design

Intention: Because we were designing from scratch in this virtual space, we had the opportunity to get creative with our design. We focused on keeping the gathering fairly simple and really nailing each component. 

What we tried: We were bold in trying out creative engagement opportunities like open space and peer input processes and open about this experimentation so that participants felt part of the journey. We honed in on our objective around building relationships, and thus decreased the pressure for skills sharing which we now have the opportunity to take on in follow-up events. 

Learning: We gained a lot of key insights from the event and are still working to sum it up and share it back. We did planning in advance around harvesting for the event, but for next time we would place more emphasis on how we would leverage the outputs to share back. 

Solid adaptable team

One key element to our success was our solid design team (Annelies Tjebbes, Cédric Jamet, Chloe Waretini, Devon Bond, Gabriel Reis, Karim Rizkallah, Michelle Semple).

What we tried: 

  • We had each other’s backs and did thorough walk-throughs to make sure we could cover for one another if needed. We didn’t stick rigidly to roles, but instead jumped in for whatever was needed. For example on the first day when the MC’s internet connection cut, another one of our team smoothly picked up her script and continued the show.
  • For each session we had a lead on design and facilitation, and dedicated supporters who were ready to give feedback and support on the day. We could be bold because we knew that others would catch any balls we dropped without any shame or judgement.
  • We adapted the design in the weeks leading up and on the day-of based on feedback.
  • We laid ourselves bare and were open about tech challenges and changes we made.

Get the tech right!

What we tried: We hired a digital lead who helped us take care of the details along the way. We leveraged new technologies such as Miro to help make the event more engaging, but also stuck with tried and tested technologies like Zoom, google docs and google slides to make sure things were more familiar for participants. 

Learning: One tool we used (Miro) received polarizing reviews. Some were extremely excited to see all of the buzz and activity of participants and others found it overwhelming. Next time we would make it more clear that these harvesting tools are an invitation not a requirement so that people who love them can use them, and others don’t feel pressured or intimidated. 


Breaking the mold, being design-led, keeping it simple, focussing on what matters and being prepared for emergence were all key elements to this convening. We are eager to facilitate another convening like this one in 2021 and can’t wait to leverage the feedback we received to design an even better version 2.0. Here’s to testing, learning and adapting!

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