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With the recent pandemic putting a stop to large gatherings, virtual conferences have had to replace the age old format of academics presenting their work in person. Confident and engaging speakers have been reduced to small windows at the edge of their presentations, and posters to online PDFs that never quite seem to zoom where you want them to. But what is the effect of this, and is it here to stay?
I recently had the pleasure of presenting work, which stemmed from my master’s dissertation, at the Climate Exp0 which took place in May 2021. Climate Exp0 was a fully virtual, week long conference that showcased international research in five key environmental themes in relation to climate change and net zero in the run-up to COP26. The five key themes were:
- Adaptation and resilience
- Green recovery
- Mitigation solutions
- Nature-Based solutions
The experience was very different to presenting a poster in person, with a 2 minute video acting as a virtual version of myself to give potential readers an idea of the poster’s content. Viewers were able to send questions, however the inability for real time conversations inevitably restricted what could be discussed. Despite this, it was not all bad. The virtual format gave a number of advantages, not least of which for the environment.
A climate report from the Climate Exp0 event estimated that the emissions of their virtual conference were just 17% of a physical equivalent. This decrease is almost solely down to reductions in transport emissions. As well as the environmental benefits, the virtual conference was also much more accessible to those unable to travel. This means that the barriers of time and cost for viewing important research are removed, which can only be a positive thing in my opinion. This leads on to my final thoughts on the shift towards virtual conferences, and how I believe they should be used in the future.
Although the virtual conference had clear benefits, I believe the classical format of an in person conference cannot be completely replaced. Instead, I would propose a “digital twin” approach. A digital twin is an engineering principle where a virtual representation serves as a real-time digital counterpart to a physical object or process. For conferences, I could imagine the physical conference being downsized and accessed only by those in the surrounding area, who can travel to it with minimal transport emissions. Additionally, all material and interactions at the conference would be streamed in real time via the internet to students and academics across the world, allowing them to engage in organic and meaningful conversations, potentially aided with virtual reality technology. This approach could pull together the benefits of each format, whilst minimising the drawbacks they each are burdened with.