The future of research events?

(partly developed thoughts follow that I’ll probably edit a lot..)

I’ve been scratching my head over organising modern events over the past few years.

There are some really good examples, such as:

  • ICMPC/ESCOM, developing an evidence-led, hub-based model since 2018 that increases participation, affordability, and diversity, while substantially reducing environmental cost
  • NIME, building up excellent resources for NIME research, while developing a serious ethical  and environmental policy
  • PDC, as with the previous two, considering environmental issues as part of their ethical approach, with a very interesting hub-like model ‘PDC Places

It’s great to see how these scientific conferences consider ways to cope with disaster, despite ostensibly not being environmental research conferences. (Unfortunately many more are not doing so, an upcoming art-science conference/festival even has environmental themes, with no ethical/environmental policy, and as a result implicitly encouraging ridiculous levels of short term, long haul travel, with the aim of ‘returning to normal’ as the health emergency abates, despite the environmental emergency as pressing as ever. Frankly, this is willful ignorance that amounts to a kind of soft climate change denial, or at least greenwashing.)

However the above are pretty large-scale conferences, and it’s a bit harder to know what to do with smaller events and symposiums. In February 2020 I co-organised a pilot distributed event with Iris Saladino, with small audiences in both Beunos Aires and Sheffield as well as online as individuals elsewhere. The pandemic wasn’t a consideration – the new coronavirus wasn’t a thing when we were planning and fundraising for the event – but the environment was. So this is one approach,  focus on a cultural/research exchange between two (or maybe more) in-person sites, while also having people to drop in online from elsewhere to add additional perspectives.

This model of linking up rooms seems more humane than having 100% online participation only. I’m involved with a collaboration with participants in both the UK and Berlin, and it feels so much more engaging when we have meetings as a linkup between two rooms, where more than one is in both rooms, rather than a monster zoomfest with an individual in each rectangle view. It reminds me of the placard headphone festival, which started in 1998, with internet audio streams linking up rooms full of headphone listeners in Paris and Tokyo (later spreading elsewhere). This feeling of listening together, and connecting to a room of others doing the same, is a different kind of experience to listening to an online stream alone.

Nonetheless there are of course big upsides for 100% online events (i.e., those with no in-person locations), in terms of being potentially excellent in terms of accessibility, low environmental impact and speed of organisation. There are ways of promoting shared physical experience in these events, such as sending excellent food to participants to enjoy together (a tactic explored well in thentrythis workshops), at times shifting focus to listening rather than watching (where hearing is a sense of touch), and incorporating physical activities into events (e.g. allowing participants to propose hands-on craft activities relating to a research theme).

With so many events ‘moving online’ over the last few years, we’ve probably all had some bad experiences. Some massive ‘meat market’ style conferences were already an ordeal, and trying to work through a marathon of intense and complex talks is not any more of a reasonable proposition when you’re sitting alone with no possibility to escape to the cafe with a newly discovered colleague. This move has also lead to overcrowding of online schedules. We should put these experiences aside, and continue the experimentation that has gone on since long before the pandemic arrived.

I think it’s also urgent though that we stop tolerating conferences without an ethical/environmental policy. Perhaps it’s good to ‘call organisers up’ first, asking them how they are responding to the environmental emergencies. If that goes nowhere, we have to start calling them out, by writing collective open letters, etc. It’s now rare to see all-male lineups in conferences, and I think that’s in large part because people have done this campaigning work. It’s about time that a conference organiser should be similarly embarrassed to not have an ethical/environmental policy that they follow.

2 thoughts on “The future of research events?”

  1. I think blended events are the way forward, but there is a skill in ensuring the eve t is not dominated by the in person cohort and the online participants have a meaningful experience. The tech available for smaller conferencing in voluntary sector is often not up to the task, or the home connections for many. So there needs some accommodation there too. You do have a different quality of experience with people, as we communicate in so many non verbal ways, but digital enables accessibility.

  2. Yes agreed Sharon, it sounds narcissistic, but the absolute worst is giving a presentation and not hearing applause or getting any feedback at the end. There’s an art to creating a good atmosphere in a room to start with, and making remote participants feel included in that is difficult but important.
    In terms of home bandwidth quality I’d prefer to have a blurry image of an audience, but really good stereo sound quality so I could hear where questions were coming from. Getting rid of noise reduction would help I think, so we could hear creaking chairs, people gasping at your amazing powerpoints etc. 😉

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