Strive, inspire, enrich

Björn Müller-Bohlen, Head of the Twin City Lab Academy, talks about twinning partnerships, BarCamp in Tbilisi and new discussion formats.

At the end of 2021, BarCamp was held in Tbilisi. Please tell me something about it. How many participants were there, and which countries were they from? What was the format of the event?

Following our first Twin City BarCamp in Minsk 2019, in Tbilisi we were delighted to gather together around 60 people with a strong interest in town twinning projects and international cooperation. They came from a variety of regions and cities in Belarus, Georgia, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. Being able to host the BarCamp as an in-person event was wonderful – especially in an exciting city such as Tbilisi. As they are at all BarCamps, the topics and formats of the sessions were very diverse. After an intensive introductory phase, everyone who wanted to contribute pitched their session ideas, briefly presenting the topic they would like to bring to the plenary. We had co-creational sessions, discussion rounds, listening circles as well as workshops and presentations.

What issues were discussed in Tbilisi? Perhaps you could pick out some discussion topics to tell us about?

All sessions were related to international cooperation within our target regions. Some sessions and discussions centered around effective, goal-oriented twinning cooperation and future twinning opportunities. Others were more skills-oriented or focused on exchanging specific project experiences or challenges. Our session plan is still online, if you are curious…

A personal highlight for me was the closing session. At the end of the regular sessions, we decided not to do just a traditional wrap-up. We went for a more gamification-inspired approach by letting the participants work as future “twinning consultants” who develop strategies and approaches on how to ‘level up’ twinning partnerships and cooperation. It was not only fun, it also produced recommendations and ideas for the future on the basis of the BarCamp sessions and all the discussions.

What can you say about the BarCamp format? Did the participants find it clear and effective?

Although BarCamps as an alternative conference format have been widely used over the last 5-8 years, they are still new to many people – especially in our field. This is why we always try to create a good atmosphere and do some preparation. It is important that our participants not only understand the open-space based conferencing model, but also feel comfortable to contribute session ideas and their expertise. Some sessions began with a key question rather than a proper session concept, but this created a great space for intensive discussions. Once the participants were really immersed in the format, they were able to enjoy and appreciate its advantages such as exchanging knowledge at eye level,  the goal-oriented and interest-driven sessions, as well as the opportunity to co-design the whole programme structure. This especially holds true for the second BarCamp day, when we saw many follow-up questions and ideas from the day before, which then turned into sessions. 

What ideas can be continued?

Some people are setting up new collaborations, and others are working on the  implementation of ideas they gained from the gathering in Tbilisi.

What are the plans for the next BarCamps?

Again, we saw how important it is to connect dedicated people from different fields and backgrounds. This is really what the twinning discourse needs. We definitely want to establish an annual BarCamp. We are currently working on plans for the next Twin City BarCamp in autumn 2022.

Tell me about Twin City Lab. How and when did the idea come about? Who was the originator? How did it get going?

It all started in 2018 when Gregor Büning and I realized that twinning partnerships could be the framework for bilateral or trilateral cooperation not only between city administrations but also urban communities. Whereas many twinning partnerships are facing challenges such as a lack of activity or shortages of innovative projects and committed people, or other limitations such as a narrow focus for cooperation and/or outdated formats, we found that there were highly productive collaborative projects between civil societies from pairs of cities without even realizing that there are twinning agreements between them. It has long been clear that cities will play an even more significant role in the future. The challenges faced by people and their living spaces in a globalized world are manifold. They must and can only be solved locally and collaboratively. More than ever, town twinning is an ideal framework: it continues to create opportunities for cultural exchange and understanding.

So, why not link the stability of formal, fostered cooperation and agreements with the areas of interest and the current members of local urban communities where they are eager to take things to an international level? At the same time, opportunities for true collaboration emerge by really developing and undertaking something together. The latter is often an issue. In many partnerships, partners are used to doing something for each other but not really together.   

This is how our idea to support and enable cities and urban communities came about.

In 2019, we laid the foundation for our Twin City Lab activities. We started with a Twin City BarCamp in Minsk to give interested participants the chance to exchange best practices, develop innovative formats and examine and map the twin city landscape. We are now working on our digital toolbox, which will provide materials, guides and tutorials.

In 2020, we started with our booster programme. But then the pandemic changed everything. This gave us time to set up an online toolbox with an extensive repository of inspirational projects.

In 2021, we continued our work, initially focusing on Belarus, Germany, Russia and Ukraine – and even Georgia.

What is Twin City Lab doing now? What are the main projects today?

We have different fields of action. With our “Twin City Booster”, we support designated twinning pairs or partnerships. With this  Booster programme we offer city pairs a customized consulting and workshop series, in which we identify new topics, explore the potentials of the cities and urban communities, and support with implementing new formats and integrating new actors into twin city work.

As twinning partnerships often encounter challenges that could be solved with the right set of skills, our TCL Academy offers tailor-made online training courses for voluntary and full-time players in Belarus, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. Many people took advantage of our opportunities for professional development and networking with other twinning activists.

How has the pandemic affected work?

Like many sectors, we faced several limitations. We had to rethink and re-conceptualize many processes. In-person workshops and meetings were impossible for a long time. After some struggles, we were able to come up with online, hybrid and offline options for most of our activities. And, as bi- and multilateral relations always need regular meetings and exchange, many formats will probably stay even after the pandemic. So, on the one hand, the pandemic was in many ways an obstacle. On the other hand, it was a catalyst.

Twinning relations have had to cope with distance from their very beginning and many cities are now in the process of adding virtual formats to their activities. Our TCL Academy is a good example. We would never have been able to offer so many short-term workshops for such mixed groups and so many different speakers and experts at in-person events. 

Tell please about ideas and activities of TCL Academy. Which lecturers will be speaking at upcoming events?

In December 2021, we finished our first set of courses. New ones are in preparation. We also plan to continue our Twin Café, our virtual meet-up for the twinning community. All I can say right now is: Stay tuned. 

What are the difficulties for TCL’s work? How does the current political instability affect its plans?

The challenges we face are mostly linked to the diversity of structures and  responsibilities. Integrating new dedicated people, for instance, is sometimes a complex job when one of two sister cities has never involved people outside the local administration before. It takes some time for the adjustments to settle down. In other city pairs, completely different bodies or organisations are responsible for partnership activities. Involving members of urban communities and civil society broadens the scope of potential projects, but it also means you have to deal with different perspectives on responsibilities, stakeholders and project ownership. It requires patience and mediation.   

Of course, travel restrictions, biases, or diverging interests of governments interfered with our work in multilateral workshops at various points. Therefore, it was admirable to see how most participants coped with such issues, putting personal encounters, exchange and dialogue at the core.

It is very difficult to make predictions in a pandemic, but I would like to ask about your plans. What plans does TCL have for the near future?

With our Twin BarCamp and Twin Café we strive to connect people and inspire, enrich and shape the twinning discourse. We will continue our efforts. With regard to Booster, we are currently evaluating the outcomes and results of this ambitious approach. We recognise that cities sometimes need something more straightforward than the Booster programme, and so we are working on more compact booster ‘packages’ and event formats for cities.

Photo: #tclbarcamp