The Knowledge Volunteers

When Carlo Lamprecht, former President of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, gave the keynote speech at The Knowledge Volunteers (TKV) conference on September 21, 2012, all present were reminded of the tremendous value of building intergenerational bridges to ensure digital inclusion and to share human values.

TKV was conceived a year ago by Fondazione Mondo Digitale (FMD) to encourage active ageing and intergenerational learning. At the conference, the seven partners, from the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Romania, Switzerland and the UK, each confirmed that those aims are being met every step along the way towards next year’s project completion.

In each country, young tutors are teaching those over 60 to use information communications technology. The older generation, referred to by participants in the TKV project as “Generation Plus”, are then encouraged to pass their knowledge on to their peers, so forming a large network of volunteers of all ages for the dissemination and sharing of knowledge.

As she welcomed all guests to the conference, Mirta Michilli, Director General of FMD, explained that the European Commission had funded TKV through its Lifelong Learning programme in an effort to build up a better society. “Especially in cities,” she said, “there are few opportunities for the generations to come together. As well as ensuring that older people are digitally included, this programme helps to prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century by giving them the chance to use life skills and to face a professional environment.”

The knowledge exchange which is central to this programme perfectly matches the life skills and experiences of one generation with the practical abilities which seem to be easily acquired by another. As Carlo Lemprecht pointed out: “Use of computers and the internet seems to come naturally to our grandchildren, but we must remember that it was only 20 years ago that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the http code – the foundation of the World Wide Web – when working for CERN right here in Geneva. This cross-generational exchange builds bridges of both knowledge and human values.”

Members of Generation Plus whose working lives did not involve the use of information communication technologies, or ICTs, are often intimidated by computers and think that the technology is beyond their learning capacities. The TKV project overcomes this reluctance, however, by starting new learners with “the ABC of ICT”. This foundation course familiarises learners first with the essential hardware of the computer, such as the monitor, keyboard and mouse, and then with the fundamentals of its use. Step by step, the learners gain confidence in their interactions with the computer, until finally they are able to exploit their PCs for such activities as e-banking, e-shopping, booking travel and social networking.

At the conference, video testimonials were shown from project participants representing Generation Plus. One woman from Prague bought her first computer at age 70. “And now,” she said, “I can’t imagine life without it.”

A man, also from the Czech Republic, was forced by illness to take early retirement, and found himself feeling lost and alone when his wife was out at work. Having now received communications technology training through TKV, however, he says, “If I’m sick or can’t leave the apartment, the computer can help me to contact other people. I know there’s always someone out there to talk to.”

Also significant was the testimonial of the most senior member of Switzerland’s ICVolunteers team. 90-year-old Magda Boon-Dènes said she finds the internet a wonderful tool for looking up anything she might want to see, from a forgotten recipe to a video of Fred Astaire dancing.

The benefits to the young volunteers who are training the Generation Plus learners are no less significant than those that their older peers are enjoying. Mirta Michilli pointed out that the young volunteers are not only learning how to communicate their knowledge, but are also developing a sense of social responsibility.

François Ledoux of Intel Corporation, which sponsors the TKV project, praised the role of these and other volunteers in making our communities better places in which to live and work. “By donating their energy, time and professional skills,” he said,” “volunteers can establish a foundation of lifelong learning and social awareness that may not be achieved through standard educational practices.”

This was also stressed by Alfonso Molina, Scientific Director of FMD, who said that through volunteering we practice “the best dimensions of our humanity. Many of today’s young people, he said, “are not in employment, education or training, and social innovation is required to tackle the challenges with which they are confronted. At the same time, people are living longer, which means that the concept of ‘older’ is changing, and it is important to ensure that people are not digitally excluded once they reach retirement age.”

The TKV partners have enjoyed the on-going experience, over the past year, of transforming the theory of TKV into an actual working partnership between volunteers and learners, and have themselves learned a great deal as they tried to find solutions to the real social and practical problems which in some instances have threatened to derail their participation in the programme. In Greece, for example, the economic crisis has presented significant challenges to project partner 50Plus Hellas, but the enthusiasm of the young volunteers, teachers and learners has helped the course to carry on regardless.

“Nothing worked in Greece from July to September,” said Myrto-Maria Ranga, Project Manager at 50Plus Hellas, “but TKV has still been a tremendous success. We’ve had so many expressions of interest from members of Generation Plus that we’ve had to create a waiting list. Social inclusion is a human right and one of the goals of this project, and by working for and with older people, we are able to give a voice to a section of our society that could otherwise be marginalised.”

50Plus Hellas and other project partners found that it was important to involve public organisations in the programme from the start. “At the beginning,” Myrta said, it was difficult to persuade politicians of the potential of a project such as this one. Now, though, they understand the value of intergenerational communication, and are more willing to support our efforts.”

Project partners also learned the importance of flexibility in their approaches to the courses to accommodate the needs of the local participants. According to Raluca Icleanu of the Societatea Romana Pentru Educatie Permanenta (SREP) of Romania, “The structure of the courses must be based on the needs expressed by the target group. We make sure that we define course times and dates with our teachers and learners, taking into consideration where they come from and what time they finished school and work and so on. This ensures that our courses accommodate everyone’s needs, and we therefore have a very low dropout rate.”

The central role of communications technology in the 21st century was highlighted in the closing moments of the TKV conference, when ICV Executive Director Viola Krebs pointed out that all of the communication between the TKV partners had, until last week, taken place in a virtual environment. Viola invited all partners to sign a physical Memorandum of Understanding to commemorate the rare occasion of their meeting. The handshakes exchanged between the partners were a marked commitment to the continued success of this ambitious project.

Working-class woman to world

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Confucius

We all know the gorgeous joys associated with taking a break from the daily grind. When you’re used to a hectic working life, there’s nothing more pleasurable than a holiday, when you can stay in bed for as long as you like (or have a more leisurely breakfast than usual with the kids), maybe visit an exotic location or two, and perhaps even have the luxury of switching your brain into a lower gear for the peaceful contemplation of your long-ignored navel. For those of us in the strange and unexpected position of un- or under-employment, however, a shift up a gear into even a short-term engagement can be equally refreshing.

There are very few witnesses to my daily routine, but my only interested observer, a friendly neighbourhood cat who seems to have decided he lives with us, was confused from May 17 to 23 to see me springing out of bed at five each morning, putting on makeup and a suit and heading out the door for at least the duration of the day. Pepé (à la Pepé Le Pew, so nicknamed because of his ineffable stink the first time he purred his pretty way into our home) was equally confused when I got home at seven or eight each evening and curled up on the sofa with a laptop to write up the day’s reports. What strange new behaviour was this?

Living room with cat

This, I failed to explain to my stinky little friend, was my week as a volunteer reporter at UNISDR’s 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction. What a great time I had, pretending to be a valuable and contributing member of society once again! Each day I had to attend sessions and side events dedicated to the discussion of developing resilience to disasters, and the hope that preparedness can prevent natural hazards from turning into natural disasters, and the major challenges to disaster risk reduction, such as urbanisation and overpopulation. Or something. Then I had to write summarised reports of no more than 300 words…

I think it’s obvious to all that I’m prone to a little more verbosity than that, so needless to say this was something of a challenge. I managed to submit most of my reports within the 24-hour deadline, however, and was rewarded with the pleasurable task, on the last day of the conference, of conducting video interviews with fellow reporters and photographers for inclusion on the International Communications Volunteers’ website. Oh, and I was also tasked by UNISDR to report to them whenever there were interventions by 28 named parliamentarians, and I took it upon myself to join the media team in tweeting about the event whenever I had a spare moment.

Parliamentarians

(I was secretly rather pleased with this one: “How many parliamentarians does it take to change a disaster risk reduction strategy?”)

When using the Global Platform hashtag (#gpdrr13) I was, of course, obliged to accentuate the positive, but now that I’m my own boss again I can talk about some of the funnier/more controversial things that happened during that very exciting week…

This 4th Global Platform was the biggest event to have ever taken place at the Geneva International Conference Centre, and the venue was bursting at the seams with 3,500+ participants from countries all over the world. You can imagine the chaos, then, when some bright spark in the “market place” in the foyer decided to store his empty polystyrene coffee cups under his desk by the electrical cables, and started a fire which resulted in a mass evacuation. The good folk of Save the Children were busily in conference with a huge bunch of kids on the mezzanine level when the fire started, and the conference organisers were, of course, concerned about the kids in their care. Shouting up from ground level, they pleaded, “Save the children!”, to which the staff from Save the Children, calmly bundling up the young ones for whom they were responsible, shouted back, “We are!”

In the meantime, the fire engines amassing outside were battling to gain access to the building, as all the diplomatic vehicles had been parked in the no-parking zone by the entrance, their drivers having dispatched sundry VIPs, then presumably nipped around the corner for a sneaky cigarette.

These self-same VIPs, I’d learned to my shock earlier in the conference, also had priority access to the building. Before the conference was actually underway and I was not yet assigned to reporting tasks, I was stationed at the entrance and instructed to direct people to the appropriate queues for registration. The system was simple: Very Important People went one way, and All The Others, those, I guess, who are Not Very Important, went the other. In my own small, rebellious, egalitarian way, I challenged the elitist system by welcoming people with a cheery Bonjour! and leading them all the same way. I think my radicalism was noted, however, as I was soon taken off the task, presumably to be replaced by someone with the classist wherewithal to ask all comers whether they were significant or simply the scrapings from some Big Shot’s shoe.

All joking aside, though, it was a privilege to be involved with this conference, and I made some great new friends and was inspired by some amazing people. (Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction is, for example, my new hero.)

At OAS, Presentation of United Nations Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction

(Thank you to http://www.unisdr.org/who-we-are/srsg-drr for this picture.)

And I must remember, when one day I find myself back in fulltime employment and hear myself complaining about having to go to work, that there was once a time when my fulltime holiday was punctuated by the happy pleasure of an honest week’s work, and few experiences brought me greater joy.