At the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development, August is time for the UN Summer Academy, a large face-to-face, hands-on peer learning event. Over 70 participants from all over the world and from many different sectors and areas of expertise congregate for a week in a big white tent on the lawns of Haus Carstanjen and spend five days exploring aspects of sustainable development through expert inputs, field visits, panel discussions, and most importantly, through hands-on problem solving and co-creating opportunities.

Moving the UN Summer Academy online

But the ongoing Covid-19 crisis put an end to our regular Summer Academy plans, and we were challenged to see if we wanted to make it a virtual event instead. The only thing we knew for sure was that we would only move to a virtual format for the UN Summer Academy 2020 if we could retain the essential nature of the Summer Academy, and if we could use the virtual platform to deliver a similar basket of participant experiences. We wanted the UN Summer Academy to give participants not just a series of expert inputs, but also ways to ideate together, share experiences, and co-create solutions.

 We chose “The Future We Want” as the theme for the UN Summer Academy 2020 to parallel the theme of the UN75 Global Dialogue process. We aimed to get a diverse group of participants from different geographies, different sectors and different areas of expertise to explore this theme, the key challenges we face to achieving this future and the local actions that will be needed to deliver the promise of this future to all people, everywhere.

We designed a programme that was anchored in a series of engaging plenary events with expert inputs as well as a number of side events that allowed the sharing of participant expertise and the interactive exploration of different skills such as design thinking and effective communication, that could help us define and communicate the future we want. To add some variety, we alternated between Zoom webinar and meeting formats and incorporated elements such as live scribing and polls. However, the most challenging element of the programme from a design perspective was the virtual ideation and co-creation.  

The Herculean Tasks

Our task was complicated by the fact that the 117 participants that we selected for the virtual UN Summer Academy 2020 came from 51 different countries, in almost as many time zones and with different access to technology and different levels of comfort with digital platforms.

We divided the cohort into two time zones suitable for participants from the time zone extremes of the Americas and Asia. With each cohort, we further divided them into 10 multi-disciplinary groups of around six participants each. Each of these groups was randomly assigned one of the key megatrends facing the world today, as identified by the UN 75 dialogue process.

We challenged each group to examine the issues within the megatrend, identify a challenge they would like to address, ideate together on possible transformative solutions to their identified challenge, and then create a one-minute video statement explaining their transformative idea that could change the world.  The video statements would then be entered into a competition.

Each multi-disciplinary team worked with a facilitator using multiple structured rounds of fast solo ideation, clustering ideas through group consensus and then deepening understanding through discussion. They used a number of technological platforms to support this process – Zoom, Mural, Padlet, and Claned, to name a few. The teams had a total of six hours over three days to go from a broad megatrend to a single focused idea with transformative potential and to script and shoot a video statement describing it.

Proof of Virtual Ideation and Co-Creation

Did they succeed? I will let you judge for yourself – below, you can watch some of the video statements that were created by the groups through this virtual process. And even more importantly, participants found the working group process to be very useful, engaging, challenging, and fun.

As we are all finding out, there are many different ways that technology can enable virtual meetings, virtual learning and virtual expertise sharing. But can we really replicate the experience of working in small teams on creative ideation and problem-solving in a virtual format? And can it be as rewarding an experience as it is in a face to face format? To be honest, when we started out, we could not have given you a definitive answer to those questions, but we decided to try, and we are glad we did!

Take it from UNSSC

The process of design and execution of the virtual UN Summer Academy had a number of learnings for us as a Knowledge Centre and as a learning organization.

First, manage the learning experience by planning each session in detail, making sure to ground the plans in the learning objectives. Second, invest in a technical preparation for participants. To ensure that participants had the same foundation knowledge of the tools they would be using, we provided them with a self-paced technical training module, ran live technical orientation sessions, and created a “sandbox” where they could practice using the visual collaboration tool Mural. Third, always have a practice run. Prior to the Summer Academy, we ran full dress rehearsals with the group facilitators.

Most of all, it showed us that virtual co-creation and ideation, if managed well, can be as engaging and productive as face-to-face interaction.  Designing the UN Summer Academy as a learning event took into consideration providing dedicated spaces for facilitated networking, creating structured collaborative working groups, and incorporating activities that increase participant engagement. Purposeful and planned communication with clear objectives for each plenary, working group, and skills-sharing session allowed a considerable focus for the group and contributed to the success of the virtual UN Summer Academy.


With many thanks to the State of North Rhine Westphalia for their generous support to the UN Summer Academy. To learn more about the UN Summer Academy programme, please visit this link.

The 10th UN Summer Academy will run from 23 to 27 August 2021. To register, please check this link regularly or subscribe to the UNSSC Newsletter. For inquiries, please email