Saving the Planet One Virtual Event at a Time
Virtual events are beginning to look more like a permanent alternative rather than just a temporal solution we have to settle for pending the time that things get sorted out. The truth of the matter is, no one really knows when things will pick back up, that is if it ever does. We cannot afford to put life on hold and stall everything while waiting in the bedroom for things to go back to “normal”. That in fact begs the question, what’s “normal”?
So while some are sitting laid back, leaning their heads on the hand, others are developing and using alternatives that may very well be the future of events. However, one major thing that virtually no one is paying attention to is the manner in which virtual events are single handedly contributing a relatively large quota to the sustainable development goals.
We all say we want a sustainable future, to address global challenges, climate change and the degradation of the environment, yet we aren’t paying enough attention to the way virtual events are fulfilling that or how virtual alternatives in general are a pretty darn good place to start.
Just a couple of months ago, June to be precise, our digital events platform, DEXP and iChair.org collaboratively hosted and supported the 2020 GRONEN conference. This was going to be the first time ever that the conference would be hosted completely virtual. What else can we say? Unusual times call for unusual measures. But who says “unusual” cannot be futuristic and advantageous? In fact, our partner René Bohnsack from iChair had these words to say about the digital version of the event:
Thanks to the virtual implementation, we were not only able to foster academic interactions, but also save tons of CO2, a lot of time and valuable resources. It even gets better, we got the impression that the event promoted inclusion (…) and facilitated a deeper thoughtful conversation.
That is obviously not enough. Yes it is impressive that we save the planet in the process, but are we really willing to sacrifice the real life experiences that we would enjoy in a physical space for environmental mitigation? Well, that does not necessarily have to be.
So then what does this so-called permanent digital solution come down to? What does it even entail and how does this translate in our “real” non-virtual lives? Many organizers who have had to switch to digital resorts due to COVID-19 are primarily faced with one question: How can a “real” conference experience be made possible? The value of physical presence for social interaction can hardly be carried over into a virtual space.
For this reason, special attention and detail was paid to the social aspect at the GRONEN conference. We have summarized here what that looks like and which factors played a critical role in the success of the conference:
Enable Online Interaction: Mix and Match
Since many people find it difficult to network with each other in physical meetings, a format was developed that can help initiate contacts in virtual space. The platform offers a kind of roulette; people are assigned to one another at random and can then chat with one another. There is also the possibility of finding a match via keywords in the profiles in order to discuss current projects. Such accesses facilitate online interaction and can help to overcome the hurdles of awkwardness in establishing contact.
Increase the Fun Factor: Introducing Light-hearted Approaches
Have you ever wondered why you look so forward to the chit-chats and casual small talks at conferences? Humans are social creatures and most of us like to have casual conversations at social events or parties for building relationships, for expanding our networks, for sharing experiences and learning about people in the most fun and relaxed way.
For this reason, a virtual bar was set up for GRONEN where people can exchange anecdotes about academic life. And because our attention span is lower online, both the sessions and break times are made as casual and refreshing as possible. Furthermore, the participants were offered a virtual sightseeing tour through Lisbon, small pop-up quizzes and even an office yoga lounge.
The Future of Virtual Events: Sustainability and Other Benefits
This experience shows us that virtual events are not merely a temporary solution, but a permanent, complementary alternative with clear advantages. The virtual implementation not only offers more and better communication and collaboration tools, but rather with hybrid or completely digital events, we can also reduce our ecological footprint and save a lot of time and other valuable resources.
However, virtual events also promote inclusion and help overcome social barriers between participants. In the case of GRONEN, this even meant that the gap between junior and senior faculties was reduced and a deeper discussion was possible. Our partner René Bohnsack from iChair gets it and knows what he is talking about when he advocates for viewing online conferences as a completely new model of (academic) exchange instead of just seeing them as a substitute.
The possibilities of social interaction also show that digital events can be and are more than just virtual meetings.