Netherlands provides technical assistance for UN General Assembly
At the request of the United Nations’ Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is providing technical assistance for the 76th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The Netherlands, which has previously worked together with the UN and other organisations on large-scale events with broad participation, is once again putting its skills to good use. Below, Robert Dingjan, head of BZ’s Conference Section, talks about the challenge of holding such an event during a pandemic and how the Netherlands is providing a solution for the UN. The result is a hybrid, inclusive General Assembly.
It’s easy to lose your attention during online meetings. Robert and his team therefore organise programmes that resemble a television show: the sessions are brief and there’s a bit of variety mixed in.
A studio based on the Dutch concept has been set up at the UN headquarters in New York. It’s intended to replicate the look of the Dutch conferences organized earlier in the Netherlands by the conference team. Some guests will be physically present in the studio. Others will attend remotely and are visible on screens that are placed around the table in such a way that, to viewers watching, it will almost looks like they are right there in the studio. ‘Almost as good as holograms,’ says Robert.
This hybrid format relates to the UN’s desire to have fewer people traveling for conferences. The studio will stay at the UN Headquarter, also after the opening of the General Assembly and can be used for other events in the future. ‘We’ve built a studio made to last – the colours, logos and design can be modified as needed. We’ve re-used as much furniture and décor from previous events as possible. Often set materials are thrown out after use, but here that’s not the case.’
The UN was not just drawn by the concept but also charmed by the preparation and guidance the BZ conference team offered guests during events – that was something they’d never seen before. ‘We put together a detailed script ahead of time which included advice, such as which microphone to use for the best sound. We also adjusted the height of the guest’s seat for optimal lighting.’ For the UN, these details are what set the BZ conference team apart.
‘We were invited to go to New York to explain how we worked. They told us they were trying to recreate the concept we’d come up with and asked if we’d help them. I was completely surprised, what with the US being the place for TV and all.’ Robert and his team were received at the UN at the highest level, by the Secretary-General and the Deputy Secretary-General. They also participated in the meeting. ‘We built an entire studio to their specifications. And it looks amazing.’
Robert and his team have been working closely with the office of the Secretary-General, which can be considered to be in charge of the UN. The team experienced a major challenge when a cargo ship carrying material for the studio was delayed due to a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. ‘The ship was delayed for over a week. We had to bring in extra people to make up for lost time. It was cutting it closer than we would have liked, but fortunately everything worked out in the end.’
Robert still has to pinch himself that he’s at the UN. ‘I’m just so proud that we were even asked to do this. ‘I can’t really get over how, in such a big country like the US, the UN would ask the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for help with this. I am honored and proud that they liked our approach.’
‘Part of the reason for our trip is to teach the people at the UN our techniques. We made video instructions and handbooks. The idea is that in the future, they will be able to do this on their own. We won’t always be able to organise every conference for them.’
When it came to organising the conference, the UN had a few requests. The set had to be sustainable for instance, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Robert’s team complied with this request. ‘It was actually fairly easy to do, because at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs we already actively work towards the SDGs – it’s important to us.’
Robert also had a few ideas of his own that he wanted to see recreated at the UN. ‘If you look at the techniques we use on set, such as the lighting, you’ll see we think it’s important that it looks professional. It’s something you need to invest in. They took our advice on this to heart. In terms of content, we also think it’s important to approach the sessions the way you would a TV show. That’s an area that could still use some work.’
‘Everyone thinks that, in the future, all conferences should be hybrid. But when I ask people what shape this should take, no one has a clear answer. I think if you’re going to organise a large-scale conference, it’s important for people to be able to participate both in person and virtually. The Climate Adaptation Summit 2021 drew more than 50,000 viewers. You’ll never manage to get that many people into a conference centre.’
That’s why Robert likes the challenge of organising a hybrid conference with separate programmes for in-person participants and online viewers. ‘What we’re actually doing is organising two separate but parallel events. People who attend in person experience something different than those watching online. Not a lot of people are going to spend the entire day looking at speakers on their screen. After a little while you lose interest. You need to find another way to engage the public online – by offering interactive programmes, for example. Compare it to a parliamentary debate: it takes a lot of effort to pay close attention from beginning to end.’