The future of innovation is virtually here: WFP is rethinking innovation bootcamps for a post-COVID-19 world

How the WFP Innovation Accelerator runs virtual innovation bootcamps through the pandemic

WFP Innovation Accelerator
7 min readOct 15, 2020

By Gulia Rakhimova

Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Food Programme (WFP) moved its innovation bootcamps online. As early as March 2020, we ran our first virtual bootcamp, sharing key lessons learned from the event. Switching to the virtual format came with enormous challenges requiring substantially more planning and effort to deliver a seamless experience, but it also opened huge untapped potential. More inclusivity, reduced logistics costs, and broader reach across countries and time zones are some of the crucial benefits; it’s easy to see their value, even beyond this pandemic.

In-person innovation bootcamp at the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich: A participant presents her idea at a pitch event
Conventionally, a bootcamp was a five-day event where innovators from across the world got together in the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich as well as Dar es Salaam and San Francisco to share ideas, design innovative solutions and pitch their projects to disrupt global hunger and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Photo: Sebastian Widmann

Six months into hosting fully virtual innovation bootcamps for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the Humanitarian Grand Challenge, it’s now time for taking stock of lessons learned and good practices that can inform our bootcamps in a post-COVID-19 world.

Setting the rules, but also expectations

Let’s face it: the digital space can’t fully replicate the vibe of in-person bootcamps. But we can make the virtual experience as seamless as possible and enable innovators to get more out of it. Before anything else, new rules of engagement need to be established for everyone.

Interacting with each other doesn’t come as naturally in the digital space without body language and other non-verbal cues. Laying down a set of norms such as raising hands to avoid talking over each other; muting audio to reduce background noise; and using video so everyone can see each other; helps reduce the obstacles and awkwardness of online collaboration.

In-person innovation bootcamp at the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich: sticky notes to organize ideas while brainstorming
Through its innovation bootcamps, WFP Innovation Accelerator provides WFP staff and public and private startups and entrepreneurs with the time, space, and skills to focus on their project, refine their idea and take it to the next level with the help of mentors and facilitators. Photo: Sebastian Widmann

Establishing the new norms of engagement is only half of the equation when aiming at a seamless virtual experience. The other half is making sure to communicate clearly before the innovation bootcamp, so everyone knows what to expect. We call this process “onboarding” ‒ essentially a series of communication messages that inform everyone about the ground rules and details on technology, agenda and other particularities of the virtual bootcamp. Innovators, facilitators, mentors and other stakeholders are all briefed on the new digital format.

Creating a detailed run of the show

In this new virtual world, there is little room for improvisation. A detailed plan helps the meeting flow, and ultimately makes the bootcamp experience valuable. New questions arise. What is the schedule? Who speaks, and when? How do we best transition between sessions and breaks? Is a virtual floor open for all 200 participants of the Q&A? Will we curate the questions live, or in the chat room? And many more.

Behind the scenes: the WFP Innovation Accelerator team delivers a virtual bootcamp in October 2020

Creating an effective run-of-show takes time, trial and error; but this behind-the-scenes work is critical. Running mock sessions with bootcamp facilitators and mentors, testing the digital tools, and writing talking points for speakers can help smooth out any issues.

A detailed plan helps the meeting flow, and ultimately makes the bootcamp experience valuable.

Even when everything is planned down to the minute, it’s still useful to consider backup options and inform the organising team and participants ahead of time. For example, having a phone line for joining an online meeting comes in handy when the internet connection fails. Similarly, pre-recorded video speeches can be swapped in quickly, if a speaker suddenly gets disconnected.

The value is in engagement

A valuable part of the innovation bootcamps comes from in-person interactions. Something as simple as coffee breaks allow for ample networking and knowledge sharing. In the digital space, providing maximum engagement opportunities for participants remains critical. As hosts, we bring people into our house and help them connect with other guests — like at a dinner party. Often, people won’t know each other, so we need to facilitate the discussion and prompt people to speak and comment.

A Zoom screenshot: the WFP Innovation Accelerator virtual bootcamp participants describe their experience in one word
Some of the most engaging activities would combine physical and virtual components — like drawing something on a piece of paper and sharing with the group over video. Photo: WFP Innovation Accelerator. Mockup by Aldo Castillo Medina.

In the present world of seemingly never-ending online meetings, participants get bored or distracted easily. Virtual bootcamps need to be mostly interactive to create an environment for exchanging knowledge and sharing of innovative ideas.

As hosts, we bring people into our house and help them connect with other guests — like at a dinner party.

Instead of passive listening, we try to engage attendees every three minutes. It can be as simple as asking people for their opinions, or to nod if they agree. Similarly, Q&A sessions, chats, polls and other interactive elements keep the participants stimulated and engaged. No matter what method we use, the goal is to help people contribute and keep the conversation going.

Leveraging visuals

To keep the participants engaged we also need to set the context and pay attention to the environment which we invite them into. Visual banners, digital backgrounds, online whiteboards like MURAL can all be branded and colour-coded to develop a sense of community among the participants.

Professionally branded virtual workspaces also provide visibility opportunities for partner organisations. Ultimately, a combination of a well-thought agenda, clear ground rules, and coherent virtual workspace creates a fully dynamic experience — something we aim for in both online and offline bootcamps.

What happens in Zoom doesn’t stay in Zoom

The bootcamp experience shouldn’t end when teams hang up. Post-event materials like a wrap-up report, action points for participants, shared media files, feedback surveys, links to online resources all provide lasting take-aways. Establishing a line of communication for further networking and collaboration after the bootcamp (group chats, shared contact lists, bios, project summaries, etc.) adds an additional layer of engagement beyond the virtual experience.

We can make the virtual experience as seamless as possible and enable innovators to get more out of it.

Moreover, the digital format allows repurposing and categorizing the recorded sessions into knowledge assets. For example, we transformed raw video files from our virtual keynote sessions into a Let’s Talk video speaker series, which have found new audiences on our YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn pages.

Watch this video from our “Let’s Talk” series: Amit Patel, Founder and Creative Director at Experience Haus, joined us to talk about prototyping and testing at the virtual innovation bootcamp co-organised by the WFP Innovation Accelerator and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) from 8–12 June 2020.

Harvesting the learnings

Every innovation bootcamp is a learning opportunity also for the organizing team. With the switch to the virtual format, participants’ feedback has never been more important. In addition to post-event surveys, we scheduled dedicated sessions where participants can provide immediate feedback on virtual sticky notes in a shared whiteboard. For example, we learned that many participants appreciate networking opportunities with their fellow innovators, so we put more emphasis on facilitating human connection and built in small group breakout rooms throughout the virtual experience.

An example of a MURAL board with feedback from the participants in the virtual bootcamp by the WFP and USAID
Just as with in-person bootcamps, three simple questions are most helpful in getting valuable feedback from the participants: what worked well; what didn’t go so well; and what may be improved.

Taking stock and thinking ahead

As countries imposed movement restrictions and airlines downsized their fleets, people are more accustomed to attending and engaging in virtual events. Technology is an enabler, though it’s not the primary driver of the digital shift. People’s need to connect with one another, and openness to adapting their work and life to a digital environment is what has changed the game. Perhaps, for good.

Virtual innovation bootcamps help us continue this valuable work while staying safe. As much as we can’t bring the physical presence into them, we can remain open to virtual experiences even after the pandemic. In-person bootcamps may benefit from online onboarding, remote keynote speakers, e-collaboration tools and other virtual components when we arrive in the post-COVID era. One thing is clear: we can continue tackling hunger and fast-track innovative solutions in space, time and the digital realm alike. For now, as a fully virtual innovation accelerator.

Learn more about WFP’s response to COVID-19

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.