Unlock is always one of the highlights of our year. A festival of civil tech, it showcases the hottest topics, trends and developments in activism and technology in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This year Unlock took place in the somewhat incongruous location of a former army barracks in Prague, transformed for two-days into a hub of innovation, connections and possibilities by the 250 participants that descended on the city to take part.
The topics on offer this year were as diverse as the attendees themselves. From the big issues of today: Control of the internet in Russia, the environment and the use (and misuse) of artificial intelligence – to practical lessons on how activists can embrace tech, social media, and business practices, Unlock had something for everyone.
Although Unlock didn’t shy away from the big issues and challenges facing our region, it was far from all doom and gloom. One of the great things about Unlock is that it allows us to hear from the activists, changemeakers and entrepreneurs succeeding to make a real difference in even the most repressive environments.
We heard how campaigners are harnessing the power of Telegram channels to reach new audiences, how podcasts are allowing taboo topics to be broached in traditional societies, and how games can be used to empower and educate.
This is one of the things that makes Unlock so special – it’s a celebration of the possible. Back in their home countries many of the participants are the underdogs with huge mountains to climb. At Unlock they meet others in their position, who face similar challenges and can together share their tips and tricks, get together to kick start a new initiative or just take a moment to relax surrounded by likeminded individuals.
We were really spoilt by the speakers this year. One highlight for many was the chance to listen to Alexander Gorbunov, the man behind the hugely popular StalinGulag Telegram channel renowned for its witty and caustic commentary on Russian current affairs. Many of the region’s most prominent bloggers, influencers and creatives came by, as well as representatives international organisations such as OCCRP, Greenpeace and Deutche Welle.
Of course, Unlock wasn’t just about listening to great stories, it also allowed participants to get stuck in and have a go for themselves. More than 100 Unlockers attended one of the video-making workshops, learning how to put together short social-media-friendly videos on social issues – skills they are already using back home. Others made their first ever podcasts and, if that was a bit too technical, the last day featured a superb drumming workshop led by an activist from Moldova.
Unlock 2019 yet again showed that civil society our region is not only alive and kicking but also bursting with potential. Despite very real pressures and challenge there remains spirit of creativity, determination and conviction bubbling away that is managing to defy the odds and change attitudes, communities and societies for the better.