On the workshop treadmill

Benjamin Seibel reports from our day-to-day work.

By Benjamin Seibel

The following article appears with kind permission of Tagesspiegel Background and was published there on April 19, 2022.

How long has it been since you last took part in a really good workshop on digitalization? In other words, one in which you were involved the whole time, gained important insights and afterwards felt you had invested your time wisely?

If your answer is “too long,” then you and I have something in common. And it’s probably not because we don’t attend enough workshops. Ever since we found out – thanks to the pandemic – that a combination of Zoom calls and online whiteboards makes it easy to “workshop” from home, appointments of this kind have become more and more frequent. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of their quality, and that’s something I find increasingly annoying. 

Of course, they exist in the smart city context, too: Well-moderated, efficiently structured and result-oriented workshops. And they are a blessing every time they happen. But they are an exception to the rule. Far too many of these events are still aimless simulations of work that muddle along, tying up an awful lot of precious time and producing extremely poor results.

To illustrate this somewhat, I’ve put together a fictional workshop of horrors made up of some things I’ve actually experienced myself recently. It might go something like this.

Online workshops: what regularly goes wrong

A four-hour session on the hype topic of Digital Twins is scheduled for Friday afternoon. The objective is vague, there’s no real agenda. For this purpose, a very broad invitation was sent out: after all, all the relevant stakeholders have to be “brought to the table”. 37 people appear in the Zoom call, though most of them don’t even know why they’re there. The organizer of the workshop – who is not using a headset and has positioned his camera at a peculiar angle – first proposes a round of introductions. Each participant talks about themselves for a bit – and 45 minutes have already passed.

Now the workshop is significantly behind schedule, so things move on quickly with some “expert input”. A representative from a consulting firm has brought along a few slides. Unfortunately, the screen sharing function does not work. But that doesn’t matter, because the talk doesn’t really fit in with the topic anyway. Instead, we learn that the consulting company has a lot of clients up and down the country who have paid a lot of money to look at these slides or ones like them.

After the presentation, there is general perplexity, and an important-looking department head takes the opportunity to give an unsolicited co-presentation about the challenges of digitalization in general. Before anyone can respond, the moderator – who by now is permanently on the phone due to technical problems – leads the group work. In breakout rooms, we are asked to note down the “opportunities and risks” of digital twins on colorful sticky notes. At least we think that’s what we’re supposed to do: the instructions are not really clear. Just as something like a discussion is about to take place for the first time, our time is up and we are catapulted back into the main room

To avoid making this article any longer than it needs to be, I’ll spare you the gory details of how things continue after this – but you’ll be familiar with it anyway: there’ll be “flashes” from the group session where no one listens, and at the end a photo documentation that no one will ever look at. The moderator will apologize with a bad joke for running over by half an hour and state in conclusion that another workshop is urgently needed to “explore these valuable outcomes on a more in-depth basis”. And so the treadmill continues to turn.  

Workshops are not an end in themselves

It has unfortunately become common practice in many Smart City projects to regard the mere holding of workshops as a valid outcome and even as a success – there are many case reports where under “Results” it simply says “Three workshops were held”. This is one of the reasons why we too rarely discuss their quality.

In fact, of course, workshops should never be anything but one of many possible tools that can contribute to the success of a project under very specific circumstances. And only if they are designed in a carefully conceived and results-oriented way. While virtually all public digitalization projects have some form of “innovation” at their core, many of them fall back on internal collaboration formats that didn’t even work very well thirty years ago. Personally, I find it almost impossible to imagine an exciting result emerging from a sluggish, uninspired work process. That’s why innovation should always start with the way people collaborate.

There is another way

At CityLAB, we took a critical look at our own workshop practices some time ago. The result was, firstly, that we now do far fewer classic workshops and have instead expanded our portfolio of formats: qualitative interviews, shadowing, diary studies, online surveys, collaborative text work, or even just good structured mail or Slack communication can produce better results in many situations and is takes up far less time for those involved. We all know the phrase: “This meeting could have been an e-mail.” Secondly, if we do believe a workshop is a good idea, we start by taking a very close look at our responsibility: inviting ten people to a four-hour appointment ties up 40 work hours. Do the anticipated results justify this time investment? And what can we do to make this time as effective and entertaining as possible for everyone involved? By the way, we have many creative methods and templates for individual workshop modules in our freely available handbook Öffentliches Gestalten (“Public Design”). But in the vast expanse of the internet, too, you can find lots of inspiration (for example here, here and here). The time we have together is far too precious to be spent on treadmills.