La versión en español de este post llegará muy pronto.

Part of academic activity is devoted to sharing your work among colleagues, discussing perspectives and getting inspired by those conversations and others’ work. In the academic world, as anyone who has watched Friends knows, this is done in International Conferences. By the way, attending an international congress is also one of the requirements for PhD researchers like me to be able to defend the thesis. In this post, I will share my experience in the ongoing ICPP5 Congress in Barcelona, I hope you enjoy the chronicle as much as I’m enjoying the experience!

For those that don’t know what a Congress of this sort is, it is mainly an event in which an international organisation of scientists of a specific field first makes a call for “panels”, which are thematic round tables, and people willing to chair them; then makes a call for people willing to present and discuss their work in one (or several) of the panels defined, and lastly opens the call for anyone who wants to attend the congress with the opportunity to participate in the audience of any of the sessions. Congresses can take place in one day, or take up to a full week! In this case, the Congress would normally also organise coffee breaks, meals, and socialising moments so that everyone attending have more room to interact and network with fellow researchers (and practitioners). As you can also imagine, gathering more than a thousand people for exchange is not something that feels natural or that is easily organised in Corona Times, and so many of these events foreplaned last summer had to be cancelled or postponed, or at the least, transformed to the online format. This year, within its uncertainty, some events were even willing to experiment with a hybrid format.

IPPA - ICPP5 Barcelona 2021
The poster of the ICPP5 I’m attending this week in Barcelona.

From the begining of my PhD, I was resolute to take the opportunity to learn and improve my work by participating in one such congress. Choosing the field is in itself important, as I wanted it to be both enriching and challenging for my work. In the end, I decided to go for a congress in political sciences and enrolled for the IPSA World Congress of Political Science that was meant to take place last summer in Lisbon. Once the organisers of the congress were force to take the decision to postpone the congress to 2021 and to turn to the online version, I decided to look to “hybrid” alternatives and submitted not only one but TWO papers for the 5th International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP5) taking place this week in Barcelona! The main organiser of the ICPP conference is IPPA, the International Public Policy Association, in collaboration with local partners in Barcelona this year, these being the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI), the Universitat de Barcelona (UB), the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). Just so you know, Rosa (my co-promotor) had already presented a draft of our first paper in the previous edition of the congress in 2018 in Montreal, so the decision was not as risky as going “blind” without a reference of the congress.

I have to acknowledge that preparation to attend one such congresses starts several months in advance, sometimes more than a year before, since the acceptance procedure follows a strict and rigorous “peer-review” process to ensure good quality of the work presented and coherence with the topics raised. So, back in November 2020, once the final panels were presented, I invested several days in reading through the topics and approaches of each of the 167!!! panels proposed, classified in 20 thematic areas, to identify the ones that related to my ongoing work and methodology so that I could contribute to the debate and it would enrich my work. Choosing at this stage is so difficult because there are so many options, and the reserach is still in an early stage, so I could not really foresee the final results I would be able to present in summer! Nevertheless, in the end I identified two panels to which I’d send abstracts (a short explanation of what you aim to present) hoping to be accepted: one on co-creation and one on hybrid governance. Truly, the most difficult part here was holding the temptation to apply for a panel on food policies – there were several of those – to help me keep the focus on governance. Still, I already identified those in such field that would be interesting to listen to during the congress if I finally made it in.

I sent the abstracts in January, on the verge of the deadline, and got official acceptance for both in February. The next step was actually getting to write a paper (short article) answering to the “promise” in the abstract and sending it on time so that the panel chairs would have time to read them and prepare feedback for the day of the presentation. These deadlines were more complicated, as I was planning on presenting results of the Leuven Gymkhana work we were still doing and analysing, but still, it was a good push to get me and the team to get to produce academic reflections on it. And then, the day came to come to Barcelona!!!

I have to admit I could not expect how intense this week was going to be. Arriving on Monday, I had my presentations on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, and had still allowed me Thursday to enjoy one last day more relaxed once the adrenaline was lower – which still meant leaving a day early, as the conference continues until Friday. I had even planned to work on “my things” in parallel during the week, and had some (online) meetings scheduled in the afternoons that I had to attend. But the intensity and interest of the sessions planned and the networking extra events, with the European Football Championship match in between, proved me wrong in my naivety, and I ended up struggling to just find some spare moments in the first days to get ready for my presentations!

I started day one (Monday) arriving and settling in Barcelona, registering in the event and collecting my badge and “congress equipment bag” (which comprised the corporate programme, vouchers, notebook and water bottle in an handy back-pack). Right there, I already achieved my personal goal of the day, making a new friend, Alejandra, and her colleague Javi, who became by Congress buddies for the rest of the week. Then, to warm-up in congress sessions I attended an afternoon session on Food Policies (Panel T07P21). This session was already very interesting, showed me another point of view to research the same topic I am looking at in Leuven – which at the same time reinforced me in the relevance of my approach and preliminary results – and allowed me to start making (Italian) friends for the week.

That evening, the first networking event took place: the Welcome drinks, in a stunning setting, the Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya located at the top of the Montjuïc Park. I have to tell, one has to be very open and easy-going in these events. Food and drinks help, but socialising takes courage, specially when you are coming alone, feel a “stranger” in the field of discussion and did not yet get to meet many people in the sessions. Nevertheless, that’s not a problem for me and I got to already identify the key organisers and important people in the Conference (during the welcome speech) and also start getting to know some other PhDs and researchers joining the week.

Day 2 was the BIG day for me. This morning was my turn to present a draft of the paper we want to publish about the work we’ve been doing in Leuven this year, with high expectations to get good feedback and inspirations from the panel T05P08. Making co-creation work: The relevance of strategic management. The expectations were met indeed, and I even feel I built some (I hope) long lasting relations in the field of co-creation with the people chairing the session, both on site and through a follow-up intense mail conversation. It might lead to further collaborations! I was very happy to hear about different ways to conceptualise and research co-creation, and also to see that our Action Research work raised smiles and interest from the audience, both in methodological and thematic terms.

Despite not having a specific networking event this day, I admit this was the most intense day in these terms, evidencing that there are interactions that the online world cannot replace. I had the opportunity to further discuss my work and ideas with some of the attendees life in the panel after cameras went off, and to share my research with one of the board members of IPPA during lunch, who then introduced me to some colleagues from Political Sciences at KU Leuven that I had never met! Small world!

The afternoon went fast, back in the garden of the library, to prepare my presentation for the following day. Still, combining this task with the P&D Research group monthly meeting, and the First meeting of the Community Comission in Supercoop, both online. Crazy, right? Well, it gets better. As I was sharing my experience in the social media profiles of the research, a colleague from the Network of cities for Agroecology happened to be in Barcelona for a conference on Sustainable Food this week too! So networking in Barcelona reached a “meta-level” and we managed to meet for the football match to exchange what we were learning this week and already imagining avenues to collaborate next year!

Participating in the T05P08 Panel on day 2.

If I had to name day 3, it’d be as “surprising”. It started with some socialising in the morning coffee moment and straight to the T04P01. Policies for hybrid governance in which I was going to present a broader wrap-up of the current stage of my PhD research, including both the theoretical framework I have kept developing around the concept of hybrid governance, and the preliminary results I’m gathering from my Action research experience in Leuven, but also in Madrid and learnings from Gent. First surprise… I was the only person in the room despite being a hybrid panel!!! Yes, there were many people online (all the panel chairs, the discussant and the other speakers), but still… I felt lonely and off the group dynamic, since I was the only one not showing my face in zoom and without access to the chat… In exchange, I got to meet Ksenia, the enthusiastic volunteer that made sure all the technicalities worked in the room. I was also surprised to check how different the approach of my colleagues to hybrid governance was, built from business, economic and administration studies, quite far from my approach built from “civil society social innovation” theories.

Having reached this point, I decided to take a provocative role and act as a social innovation activist academic and challenge their approach, a strategy that brought in also interesting reactions that enriched my understanding of their views. Also, I was surprised to notice – it might seem obvious, but you have to experience it to realise how enriching it is – that the interesting debate that arose along the session was due to the fact that each of us was raising questions to others from the perspective of the “struggles” or the “positions” we have in our own research. This brings about a fresh and unexpected reading of each others’ work and makes the discussions worth it 🙂

Me and the whole audience in the T04P01 on day 3 😀

In the afternoon, despite my good will to advance some work, all I could manage to do was organise my ideas, notes and feedback from these intense days, while watching online the panel T08P01. Growing Resilience: Crafting Public Policy that Supports Sustainable, Just Food Systems . I was amazed by the variety of approaches and facilitation styles in the panels of the conference and happy to find, within the speakers in the session, a Spanish scholar that is very aligned with our research about governance in food systems and action(activist) research that I will definitely further study and maybe contact in the future!

And so time came to get ready for the Gala Dinner! Another excuse to do some “tourism” in Barcelona, walking by the Sagrada Familia on the way to the INCREDIBLE setting for the event: the Recinte Moderniste San Pau!! Already at the entrance, I got to meet Diego and Alba, some of the bravest participants of the Congress, daring to travel all the way from Colombia to join the ICPP5 live, and new incorporations to our buddy group from then on. The dinner was again a perfect opportunity to meet new people, and especially to get to know the IPPA executive board and organising team of the Congress (Grace Skogstad , Philippe Zittoun and Leslie Pal among others), with whom I had the honour to share the table.

So after such intense days, how would I miss the opportunity to keep joining sessions and strengthening my new international academic friendships in my last day of stay?! So I ended up completing a busy schedule of panels on day 4 joining the eclectic T01P11. Motivations and Perceptions of Individual and Collective Actors in Policy Processes panel in the morning, and the online session T05P05. Dealing with wicked problems: Policy capacity and Policy Formulation in an Era of diminished Certainties with a last visit to my new favourite green corner in Barcelona. I even managed to join most of T14P12. Questioning the turn of water-related risk policies towards nature to support Diego and Alba in their show time before rushing out to the train station!

As you can imagine, my pending papers have not advanced at all this week, but my head is now bursting with perspectives, critiques and ideas that I hope will make up for the time invested attending the Congress this week, and the effort to commit to a trip to attend it live. It felt as an academic summer camp!! As a final reflection, I must say I was surprised by the diversity of facilitation styles, theoretical-discussion approaches, and warmth or “coldness” of the debate sessions. I have learnt a lot in terms of event organisation, public presentation and debate facilitation skills, and also the importance to assess and know where your audience and potential for exchange is in such a diverse event to make the most of it.

I can’t but thank everyone who made this congress experience possible – organisation, enthusiastic and resolute volunteers and participants- , but especially everyone I met along the way and my “buddy team”, for engaging in every opportunity for conversations, sharing such interesting approaches, rich research experiences and international and interdisciplinary perspectives! I hope to see you again very soon! Hoping to hear your comments too!


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