telecentre-europe: networking telecentres in Europe

I was invited by Ravi Gupta to write an article for www.telecentremagazine.net. They asked me to focus on an overview of telecentre-europe and the recently concluded Telecentres Leaders Forum in Riga, in about 2500 words.

So I grabbed different documents, reports and blogposts written on the telecentre-europe process and on Riga, and "puzzled to fit" the underneath text. Your comments and feedback are welcome, so we can still add or change before sending out to the telecentremagazine PRESS:) The english will be corrected by their editor, so never mind spelling mistakes etc.

Co-authorship by Christine Prefontaine, Meddie Mayanja, Maria Garrido and Lize De Clercq.

Download the edited version of this blogpost:
Revitalising the telecentre movement in Europe (.pdf)
Revitalising the telecentre movement in Europe (.doc)
Download the Telecentre.org Magazine of June 2008:
0630-TcMagazine_june08.pdf

telecentre-europe: networking telecentres in Europe

telecentre-europe is a project for networking telecentres in Europe. To date, network partners have agreed in principle to coordinate efforts, seek solutions and integrate resources at an international level in an effort to improve the capacity and management of community-focused telecentres.

The vision of telecentre-europe is to become a viable network of telecentres and practitioners in Europe who are collaborating and sharing knowledge with counterparts within and outside of the continent. telecentre-europe provides a unique opportunity for participants to coordinate efforts, share skills, compare experiences, integrate resources, learn best practice and strengthen connections across the diverse e-skills and e-inclusions programs in Europe.

The creation of a telecentre-europe network has grown rapidly since its emergence in June 2007, when telecentre practitioners from around EU gathered in Barcelona and decided to discuss new ways to grow and sustain efforts to support economic empowerment through the field of e-inclusion programs in Europe.

Today, the telecentre-europe community includes more than 100 telecentre practitioners, program leaders and development partners from non-government organizations, and organizations that fund telecentre activities from 23 countries in Europe and beyond

From Barcelona to Riga

On June 19-20, 2007, more than fifty telecentre practitioners from across Europe gathered in Barcelona to share best practices on e-skills for employability programs, and to discuss new ways to grow and sustain efforts to support economic empowerment through this field. They observed that the European Union (EU) and NGOs in the e-inclusion programs had similar targets and underscored the importance of collaboration and knowledge sharing among all key players.

The participant NGO resolved to establish a mechanism for knowledge sharing through which telecentres can collaborate on developing training curriculum, monitoring and evaluation tools, benchmarking impact on communities, finding funding opportunities and influencing policy at European level. The proposed strategy called for the creation of a network of telecentres that consolidates the voice of NGOs working on e-Skills programs and provides a venue for collaboration and sharing: telecentre-europe.

Accordingly participants elected a taskforce to plan and create the telecentre-europe network that would spearhead knowledge sharing processes and provide a unified voice for all players as they engage with the EU on implementation of the Lisbon Strategy (2005) and Riga Declaration (2006).

The occasion became the genesis of telecentre-europe networking efforts. The elected taskforce has since spearheaded a number of activities, aimed at sharing experiences amongst programs and building a networking spirit. Through its taskforce, the network also developed a vision & a mission.

Major in-roads into European Union e-inclusion programming had also been established. Nevertheless, the taskforce realized there was more to be done to help the network in providing value-added services to its members and make it sustainable. Most urgent the need was felt to create and build a community of people who believe in the power of Information and Communication Technologies as tools for development and appreciates the value of knowledge sharing.

Telecentre Leaders Forum – Europe in Riga: learning and working together

From April 8 to 9 more than 60 telecentres practitioners, from 43 organizations representing 23 countries across Europe met for the European Telecentre Leaders Forum (TLF-E) in Riga, Latvia. Participants shared innovative practices on e-inclusion and identified how to help NGO and telecentre practitioners find resources they need to be sustainable.

The agenda was interactive and collaborative, designed to let those present share their knowledge while seeking insights and finding answers to challenges they are facing in their work. Sessions featured exciting projects and innovative practices, while also considering issues of strategy and sustainability of the telecentre networking in Europe. All participants were encouraged to take an active role in shaping the dialog and helping to create event outcomes.

opening & welcome
The Latvian Information Technology and Telecommunications Association (LIKTA) — the event's host — was ridiculously well organized. Registrations went smoothly and, along with the regular papers and swag, participants even got Latvian history books and Black Balsam in their welcome kits.

Professor Imants Freibergs, LIKTA Board Member and President of the Latvia@World initiative, Meddie Mayanja from telecentre.org and Melissa Pailthorp from Microsoft welcomed the crowd to Riga.

As the audience was a mix of experienced telecentre practitioners and new birds - that were unsure if their technology centres and public libraries are indeed telecentres – Meddie Mayanja underlined the operational definition of telecentres: a place where people can get help to access computers, the internet and other digital technologies that enable them to gather information, create, learn, and communicate with others, while they develop essential 21st-century digital skills that enable them to find better employment opportunities or to improve and transform their lives.

speed dating
Allison Hewlitt, the facilitator, took no time for introduction and inmediately led participants in a speed-dating session. It was a welcome change to the typical go-around-the-room-and-say-who-you-are-and-where-you-are-from. Each selected a fellow participant, shared with them for three minutes, and then moved on and repeated the process. In that way, participants were able to meet different people in a speedy timerecord.

introduction
Enters the taskforce: Krassimir Simonski from iCenters (Bulgaria) and Gabriela Barna from EOS (Romania) run us through "from Barcelona to Riga..." reflecting on how the network started, what has been done so far and what appealed to participants to engage.

Krassimir Simonski gave an overview of the development of the telecentre-europe network over the last year, highlighting the volunteer task force's achievements: more and better communications, the development of a strategy, a mapping of e-skills projects in Europe (which also includes potential network partners, their areas of expertise, and ways they may contribute), engagement with the European Commission on e-skills, the development of project ideas, a survey of potential members, and the preliminary work on a knowledge-sharing website.

Gabriela Barna, Director of EOS, then gave her vision of the current state of the network. "I want us to take a moment to reflect on why we are doing this," said Gabriela. "This work is only relevant if it is relevant to everyone. We are project managers, telecentre managers, grassroots workers, and high-level workers. Everyone has something to bring and will have something to take home. We are united by a common commitment, we have a direction and a strategic framework, we have support and enthusiasm from prospective members, we have opportunities in the larger environment, and we have resources to build an online presence and vibrant knowledge-sharing space. Let's do this together and share everything we've got. We've reached the bridge now let's cross it together. Please, I invite you to embark on this journey."

Gabriela then provided a vision of a way forward: "In the short term let's engage and define what the network can and should be for us. Think about these questions over the next two days: How do we want to share knowledge? How do we foster connections that support our work? What do we want from our network? How do we want to participate and contribute? This is our chance to get our network right and make it useful for us."

Gabriela emphasized long-term opportunities: more voice to collective work, a stronger telecentre movement, increased individual capacity, more resources, and the ability to make a difference. "We can create a knowledge base that the EU can use," she said. "We can offer it to them and say 'This is what is going on in our projects and our countries. Take it. Use it.' Then the EU strategy will be more relevant for us and for our countries."

Gabriela noted that Nick Batey, an EU representative would be attending day two of the sessions — a huge achievement for a nascent network — and explained that there is a lot of interest in Telecentre.Europe's activities: "Not only the EU, but companies through their CSR programs are interested in this work. We are generating interst and so let's grab the opportunities and generate more resources."

Gabriela finished the session by asking participants to spread the word. "Talk to your partners. Tell them about what we are doing and invite them to join us. I hope that there are lots of chances for each of you to learn from your peers here. Ask around. Maybe someone has done what you are planning to do and you can leap ahead."

It was a moving presentation from Gabriela, who passionately recounted her personal experience to illustrate the network benefits and what can be achieved together. The power of her presentation was visible; during tea break that followed, participants expressed the desire and enthusiasm to know more and engage.

café conversations
Then it was time to start working. The room was full of round tables and Pawel Makowiecki from Responsible Business Institute (Poland), introduced participants to the principle of “collaborative dialogue through café conversations”: at each table, a ‘host’ is elected that introduces, leads and resumes the conversations the ‘guests’ at his table are engaging in. When a first “conversation round” finishes, ‘guests’ change tables, but the ‘host’ remains at his or her table and receives new ‘guests’ from other tables.

At Riga, we held three rounds of “café conversations”. Tables were covered with huge posters and everybody was invited to take notes with a coloured felt-tip. Each round was introduced by a key question launched by Pawel:

1. Please reflect on a partnership or networking experience in which you were involved and share what things contributed to its success (i.e how it got started, who was involved, what enabled its success, what happened?)
2. So now thinking about this network (telecentre-europe) what inspires you the most?
3. What do you need from our network (telecentre-europe) to be fully engaged in the work?

It was a very smart way to share information and exchange ideas among different participants, and with a host referring to the preceding café conversation, it was a very fast way to receive a report and some feedback of what other participants had said or proposed around a same topic.

open space discussion sessions
After lunch, Allison invited participants to co-create the agenda for the rest of the meeting. People put their ideas on brightly coloured cards, provided the group with a short explanation, and placed them on the wall in a grid with time slots. Each of these would become a session, led by the initiator of the idea. There was a palpable sense of enthusiasm and ownership.

The rest of the day and the next morning was devoted to participants' sessions. Participants sat in tight circles, intent on each other, sharing, asking questions. They digged in on issues of interest which included european volunteer exchange programs, sharing success stories and knowledge on e-learning production, communication tools for knowledge sharing, sustainability planning, breakthroughs in fundraising, european lobbying, eSkills for employability, the future of telecentres, the “ideal” telecentre, telework in telecentres, discussions on network strenghtening, collaborative actions, ideas for joint projects, development of partnerships, networking inside the network etc.

Along one wall of the room the organizers set up resource tables and a documentation centre with computers and printers. Allison provided session leaders with report-out templates, which were all filled out in a record time, were printed out and hang out at the wall so everybody could review and catch up with some interesting discussion they might have missed.

A specific outcome of one of those sessions was the creation of a social network site for members the internal communication among members. "Ning" - the social networking online tool - was the talk of the Forum. The site (telecentreeurope.ning.com) was inmediately up and working and this immensely informed the network's options to the extent that at the end of the Forum, participants had sign-up and started inviting colleagues to thematic groups. A task group called “communications” was also appointed to develop the “official” website at www.telecentre-europe.org for external communication to sponsors, potential members, researchers, telecentre operators or managers, government institutions and development agencies.

EU representation
The European Commission has engaged and provided a lot of input. A representative of the Directorate General for Information Society and Media, Nick Batey from the European Commission, participated in the event, sharing insights into EC issues and raising the level of discussion in several instances.

Nick underlined the importance of e-inclusion and therefore telecentres to the prosperity of Europe. You might already have heard the line "...telecentres are a social investment”. But Nick provided another dimension: "...telecentres are also an economic opportunity. Did you know that Europe could reap Euro 35-45 billion over the next 5 years by investing in efficient telecentre activities that drive e-inclusion? A good percentage of the population in Europe doesn't have access to ICT the EC reckons. The private sector is interested because of the potential to increase the quality of the market - and you know what next - more sales!”

ice-breaker and final circle
And then there was this wonderful moment referred to as “the ice-breaker”. Everybody was sitting at one big circle and Pawel Makowiecki started explaining some strange story about russians, drinking, and not loosing control over body and mind... before we knew, everybody was following his lead and started moving arms, legs and leap, singing, clapping... it was a hilareous way to drive the event onto a moment of complete...catharsis?

Anyway, we found back our seriousness to look back at the event and pass the micro to every single participant for a personal impression of why it was worth coming to Riga. Again, there was this kind of feeling to belong to a community that is capable of surprising itself in many ways.

conclusions
The structure of the event meant that firm decisions and actions were agreed throughout the 2 days. Every group session and plenary would potentially bring back an action. In several cases, participants agreed to undertake joint activities such as Bulgaria (icentres) and Romania (EOS) who went as developing a proposal. In the case of EUTA, it was dissolution of the Association and participate in Telecentre-Europe network.

Other outcomes include:
1. Expansion of the steering committee (which was previously called taskforce) Four members volunteered to join the committee to support planning and coordination of network activities. The steering committee will develop a network governance and services plan by June. Members later met to agree working modelities.
2. Gabriela Barna (Romania) and Pedro Aguilera (Spain) were elected as chair and vice chair respectively.
3. Two smaller working groups on Knowledge sharing and EU Advocacy were also created. They will help in planning practical activities in respective areas.
4. The European Commission engaged with practitioners that have a key to success of e-skills an e-inclusion program in the Union. Practitioners were equally energized to learn - directly from the EC - that their efforts are valued and that the Commission wants to stay connected
5. Beyond the agreement to increase knowledge sharing, participants shared concrete experiences, strategies and discovered tools.

In the overall, one of the most important outcomes is that the network entered a new stage - active participation by members. This gave enormous confidence to the steering committee as practitioners expressed enthusiasm to engage.

There were so many interesting things that happened during these two days of the Telecenter Leaders Forum... many lessons and ways for the network to move forward. But the most relevant learning we took back with us was that networks are about people who care for each other personally, first and foremost. Networks, as a form of organization, do not provide much value if personal relations, trust, and care for each other at a more deeper level is not present in a group. During these two days became very evident that we see value on a European network because the people who are part of it at this stage care for each other as individuals first, and community leaders and e-inclusion advocates second.

For networks to be valuable there needs to be a commitment to put that bit of extra effort, extra hours of work to share, learn, and take advantage of each other's experiences. All of that exists simply because we consider each other friends and care about each other's work. Competition is not a word that you will find in this group. From Barcelona, to Riga, to wherever else this initiative takes us we must have this lesson very present: we are friends, we trust each other, and we want each other's project to succeed just as our own.

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