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Every September, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly’s meeting at its Manhattan Headquarters, another event sees leaders from across the globe descend on the city: Climate Week NYC. Amid the many subcategories of conferencing, such as seminars, exhibitions, award-ceremonies and star-studded cocktail evenings, business leaders rub shoulders – often literally – with policymakers, researchers, environmentalists and members of NGOs.
“You see someone across the room that you weren’t even planning to see,” says Amy Davidsen, The Climate Group’s executive director for North America and one of Climate Week NYC’s organizers. “It would take you six months to get that meeting, but literally all you have to do is walk a couple of steps, and you accomplish what you need to.”
For decision-makers, it’s energizing, she says. “It just gives them more confidence that they’re doing the right thing.”
Those in-person encounters are now unlikely to happen, due to restrictions on gatherings and travel designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Countless climate-related events have been canceled, and the UNFCCC climate conferences, which this year were set to see countries increase their commitments to reducing emissions and combatting climate change, have been postponed.
But, says Davidson, action on climate change can’t wait. So Climate Week NYC 2020 will go ahead – online.
Worldwide, COVID-19 has prompted a mass experiment in digital conferencing, raising all sorts of questions. Could this be the beginning of a shift away from in-person mega-meetings? Is it possible to still foster the serendipitous encounters and human connections forged at such events?
And, more provocatively, why did it take a global pandemic for the climate community to rethink the multitudinous long-haul flights it took to convene multiple times in multiple locations every year?
Climate Week capitalizes on people already being in New York for the General Assembly. But most international academic conferences and events do rely on people flying in from around the world.
More than 24,000 scientists from 101 countries attended the 2019 meeting of the American Geosciences Union in San Francisco, for example, racking up a total of 244 million air-kilometers – 1.6 times the distance from the Earth to the sun – and emitting 69,300 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“It’s the biggest dirty little secret we’ve got in academia,” says Ken Hiltner, a professor of environmental humanities at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who for the past few years – long before the pandemic made it essential – has been trying encourage a shift toward “nearly-carbon-neutral conferences.”
Academics might compost and drive a hybrid vehicle, but their air travel – mainly to conferences – can be the single biggest component of an individual’s carbon footprint. That’s not because scientists necessarily want to be high-flyers, but because of professional pressure, Hiltner says.
“Everybody’s heard the phrase ‘publish or perish,’ but it’s equally true that you have to ‘present or perish’…If you aren’t presenting at least one paper per year, ideally more, that’s considered a problem. It’s very hard to overcome.”
(It’s possible this is a misconception – a recent Canadian study found that frequent air travel was not correlated with academic success.)
The fly-in conference has only been around for the past half-century, Hiltner points out. “When we’re born into a cultural practice, we just assume that’s the way things have to be.” And yet, despite his transparent views on this very issue, he says he was criticized in his last performance review for poor conference attendance.
COVID-19 could potentially be the catalyst that changes this norm of academic culture, says Shaun Hendy, director of the cross-disciplinary research institute Te Pūnaha Matatini at New Zealand’s University of Auckland.
Concerned about climate change, Hendy didn’t set foot on a plane for the whole of 2018, meaning he attended no international conferences.
“One thing that’s always been quite important to have on your CV is an invitation to speak at an international conference to give a talk,” he says. “I hope now that’s going to be, ‘Delivered a webinar to 1,000 scientists from X number of countries.’ We’ll have to have different metrics coming out of this, for the way we assess people’s credibility and impact in science.”
So how do you create a virtual conference that people will actually want to sit through? In March, Kiki Sanford from the non-profit Science Talk found herself with just three weeks to turn the organization’s annual science communication conference from an in-person event into a digital one.
She and the organizing committee used a combination of Zoom and Crowdcast in an attempt to create an interactive, varied experience. There was a plenary, a virtual poster session and chat-rooms allowing people to discuss presentations.
“One thing I wish we had done was provide icebreakers or starter questions to encourage interactions among people who were hanging out in the chatroom,” Sanford says.
The program was also much shorter than a typical conference day. “We understood that most people don’t want to be sitting at their desk on their computer for eight or nine hours a day.”
The Science Talk team also put substantial effort into training speakers to use the technology in advance, to ensure there were no glitches in the live presentations. They asked presenters to use ethernet cables rather than Wi-Fi, wear headphones to reduce background noise and use the best microphone possible.
“If you have the time to insist on better tech, insist on it because it will improve the experience for everyone. It’s been shown over and over again that people will put up with bad video, but they will not put up with bad audio,” Sanford says.
Hiltner believes the surge in interest in digital meetings will fuel innovation in the hardware and software that makes them possible. “It’s horrible it’s happening under these circumstances, but a lot of energy, a lot of thought, a lot of brainpower is going to be devoted to this.
“[Conferences] have long needed to be rethought. The technology is here; we just need to come up with the best way of doing it.”
One possibility is that once the threat of COVID-19 recedes, conferences will grow into digital hybrids that minimize carbon emissions and international travel while retaining the cross-border idea exchange and the fun and frisson of rooms full of people.
In some corners of the conferencing world, this has already been on the horizon. For example, the organizers of Distribute 2020 – an international anthropology conference held biennially in May – have been perfecting for some time a ‘distributed’ conference model.
First trialed in 2018, the idea was to combine digital presentations with in-person events – dinner parties, cocktails, seminars – at local nodes around the world, from South Africa to Bosnia, Ecuador to Nigeria. South Africans, say, would get together in Cape Town, watch a series of presentations and then discuss what they learned. (This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, these were mostly replaced with virtual local nodes.)
“There is an energy that happens when bodies are together,” says conference co-organizer Mayanthi Fernando, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
“There is something about physical proximity that produces a kind of chemistry – some friction that produces thinking and ideas. We academics, especially, tend to forget that we’re not just minds or brains. We have senses. We’re bodies. Thinking happens as much in interaction with other people as it does just sitting and focusing. Having people in a room together produces intellectual work.”
You just don’t have to fly halfway around the world to capture that magic, she says.
“Basically what we’re trying to do is keep the beauty of the in-person model – but to localize it, so that people are ideally carpooling or catching public transport to get there.”
Emissions aside, it can also make access to these kinds of academic conferences more equitable.
“The original intention behind these local nodes had been to redistribute the making of anthropological knowledge so that it wasn’t just coming from North America and Europe, but that the panels themselves were also coming from the Global South and parts of the world that are largely marginalized as producers of anthropological content,” Fernando says.
The model also makes it easier for people with disabilities to attend. For those with hearing difficulties, pre-recorded panels can be captioned in advance. And with Distribute 2020’s conference fees starting at just USD 10, it was accessible for undergraduates and the precariously employed.
New challenges have emerged. To create interactivity, the Distribute team had to ‘duct-tape’ different platforms together. Balancing accessibility and security has also been tricky. The team created a kind of ‘virtual hallway’ on Zoom after each presentation, where attendees could have conversations with each other and the panellists.
“But then COVID happened, and Zoom suddenly became this hotbed for trolling by organized racists and misogynists,” Fernando says. “One of the things we suddenly had to think about was, how do we secure the space for our participants and not subject them to these kinds of attacks.” (They found a solution and the conference was troll-free.)
There have been other, unexpected benefits. Panelists in each country had the time to produce their own, pre-recorded sessions, which turned out to be much more visually exciting than simply reading papers aloud. Instead, they were almost like short-films, incorporating interviews and multiple voices.
“People really poured their souls into them. There’s something about the form that has made it a more intimate experience somehow, and that comes across in a lot of these panels. The imperative to create an interesting multi-modal panel almost forces people to think experimentally about the thing they’ve been working on, as well. So you end up with experimentation in both form and content.”
“It just requires a lot more creativity, I think, a lot more heart.”
The organizers of Climate Week NYC– and anyone else planning a digital conference this year – now have an opportunity to learn from the experiments taking place around the world over the coming weeks and months.
The question is: Will 2020 be an anomaly or the start of something new?
Davidsen says she hopes it might prompt people to think twice about whether an in-person meeting is necessary. “Everybody really has to weigh it up – is there a better way to achieve the same outcome?
“As we perfect this digital way, then people are going to get used to it. I hope people will start to get out of their comfort zone and think, maybe we can do this.”
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