Sustainability is most simply defined as the capacity for the biosphere and human civilisation to coexist. Today, as the smoke from raging wildfires darkens skies across the US and the Antarctic’s so-called Doomsday Glacier continues to dump billions of tonnes of melting ice into the ocean, the impact of human activity on our environment is starker than ever.
Sustainability has long been the watchword of those striving to soften and slow these harmful consequences by reducing our energy consumption, production of non-recyclable waste, and the amount of CO2 we fill the atmosphere with.
But sustainability is a slippery concept. And for those working in events it can be hard to know what counts as a meaningful contribution and what is merely box ticking.
It’s just over 100 years since the first international passenger flight and for almost as long humans have trotted the globe for gatherings great and small. Only relatively recently have we become more concerned by the detrimental impact our participation in such events has on the environment.
This dilemma is more sharply felt by academics, no doubt painfully aware of their apparent hypocrisy. But all whose working lives are punctuated by long trips to conferences would happily sign up to a world where carbon footprints were cut significantly and permanently — especially if the rich exchange of ideas afforded by in-person events was nevertheless retained. In fact, we’re now beginning to see that the two needn’t be mutually exclusive.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an array of significant opportunities for lasting change. At the very least, it presents a chance to test what ‘maxed-out’ sustainability could look like. The more obvious benefits to sustainability offered by virtual conferences include massive reductions in energy use and carbon emissions (no international flights, no hotel rooms, no convention centres), as well as a huge reduction in waste (no plastic lanyards, no bulky programmes, no single-use exhibition builds).
But what might some of the more hidden benefits be? Here is a brief, but by no means exhaustive, list of some of the most significant…
An understandable concern about virtual conferences is that they are not conducive to schmoozing. Many future working relationships are born out of conversations struck up during a coffee break. But apps including Braindate and Brella match-make profiles based on shared interests and can be fully integrated with online event platforms.
This might also democratise networking, as the more introverted delegate needn’t require sharp elbows or a bellowing voice to put themselves out there.
Accessibility & Inclusivity
In-person events provide barriers that prohibit many potential delegates from ever attending — almost all of which are removed by going online. People with children and family commitments no longer have to worry about extended home absences.
Those unable to travel due to disability can ‘attend’ on their own terms. Lower registration costs afford individuals or organisations at an economic disadvantage more opportunity to participate. Translation and captioning technology removes the language barrier. All of which leads to…
With barriers removed and capacity limited only by server power, not convention centre’s square footage, a larger and more diverse selection of people become free and able to participate.
With a greater pool of speakers, panellists and delegates to pull from, the proliferation and exchange of new ideas will increase, thereby enriching our culture and inspiring our society.
Since presentations needn’t be delivered live, the opportunity to pre-record material means high quality speakers’ availability increases. Online panel discussions can be more tightly curated with relevant, quality questions selected from chatroom submissions. Questions can also be selected as a way to prevent panel-hogging.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
Increased demand for more sophisticated online services necessitates the need for more data centres, which require huge amounts of energy to both run and cool.
So it is reassuring to know that ‘sustainable date centres’ already exist and fall under many CSR remits (a fundamental route to which to sustainability is enacted by large companies). Many such centres are located in Scandinavia, cooled by the cold temperatures and powered by energy from renewable sources, such as geothermal and hydropower.
Needless to say, the carbon footprint of attending an event virtually via a sustainable data centre is vastly smaller than it would be attending in-person.
One of the UK’s first confirmed cases of COVID-19 was a business man who contracted the virus at a conference in Singapore — before travelling back to the UK via a ski holiday in France. There were twelve symptomless days between leaving the conference, transmitting the virus to others, and receiving a positive test.
Clearly, in-person events are not conducive to preventing the spread of a deadly virus. Easily transmitted through handshakes, microphones, teacups, brochures, badges, door handles, arm rests, railings — and that’s just in the convention centre.
Going forward, creating COVID-safe spaces will only be possible via virtual or hybrid events. By making a long-term commitment to this, even as the world begins to open up again, we will contribute greatly to controlling the spread of COVID-19.
10 years from now, it is unlikely conferences will exist entirely online, as they do right now, but nor will they return to any pre-COVID design. It’s more likely they’ll fall somewhere in between.
In the meantime, we can discover lasting benefits to sustainability which we must retain— lest our planet continue to suffer… and human civilisation with it.
And while there will be elements of the in-person event we crave a return to, we must find ways to adapt and re-integrate them appropriately. What the future of events actually looks like will be determined by the lessons we decide to learn right now.