Guest blog by Chelsea Miya, Oliver Rossier, and Geoffrey Rockwell, University of Alberta
One of the largest gatherings of scholars in the country will be moving online this year. Thousands of Congress 2021 attendees will not be flying or driving across Canada to the University of Alberta. Instead, they’ll be gathering virtually.
Our reliance on in-person gatherings has been dramatically challenged in the past year, as academics (along with much of the world) were forced to isolate.
While there have been major hurdles while transitioning to online, there have undoubtedly been benefits. One of those has been the environmental impact.
Flying is one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. A sustainability audit at University California Santa Barbara in 2014 found that about one third of the campus’s CO2 footprint (55,000,000 lbs.) came from flying to conferences, talks, and meetings (Hiltner); and a 2018 case study at the University of British Columbia found similar results (Wynes and Donner).
As we move into the post-pandemic future, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Once travel restrictions are lifted, will we return to the traditional conference format and double-down on travel requirements? Or continue to explore more sustainable, virtual alternatives?
Barriers to Participation
‘Northern relations’ is a fitting theme for this year’s Congress, as the North has been deeply and permanently affected by climate change. It is a myth that Canada’s North is a pristine, untouched wilderness. In fact, the arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world, a phenomenon scientists term “arctic amplification” (Overland et al).
Northern researchers also face unique challenges attending face-to-face events. One of the virtual presenters at the 2018 Around the World econference was based in Nunavut. She estimated that travel and lodgings would normally cost upwards of $4,000.
There is a bias toward established scholars from wealthy, centrally-located institutes, which is built into our reliance on the traditional, face-to-face conference format. Econferences can help bring more diverse voices to these events, which benefits us all.
Redefining the Academic Conference
But what is an econference?
There are several other terms currently in use including: web conference, online conference, virtual conference. However, econference is more nuanced, as the “e” invokes the dual electronic and environmental dynamics of the medium, and it seems likely that econference will enter common use in the future, similar to the terms like e-books, email, e-transfer and e-research.
Econferences can be synchronous, with participants gathering at the same time (e.g. a “live stream”), or asynchronous, spread out over different times (e.g. using pre-recorded video).
Econferences are also not limited to a single format.
The first online conferences were email-based. Edmonton scholar Terry Anderson, one of the pathbreakers of the virtual format, experimented with using email distribution lists in 1992 (Anderson and Mason).
Today, online gatherings are not just a fringe phenomenon. Over 4.6 billion people use the web. The internet is where we regularly convene: a seemingly borderless gathering unbound by time.
With many of us working from home, video calls have become the go-to mode of interaction, likely because they most closely resemble face-to-face conversations. However, attempts to replicate traditional conference events on the web are doomed to failure. Rather, the most successful online events embrace the contours (and quirks) of the medium.
With the invention of radio, theatre underwent a similarly awkward period of transition, as Wordpress founder Matt Mullenweg has pointed out . The first radio dramas were just transmissions of live stage shows. With time, however, broadcasters learned to utilize music and sound effects, telling stories that were made to be experienced aurally rather than visually (Mullenweg;  Rattigan 26-29).
Likewise, as we continue to experiment with online gatherings, the econference format will evolve into its own genre.
One of the more exciting recent developments of econferences, which is deserving of further study, has been the push to experiment with using unconventional platforms to create more open and informal conversation spaces. How can we create more vibrant hallway conversation spaces online?
Geoffrey Rockwell has proposed that, when possible, organizers should also make use of the technologies and tools that are already popular in their given field or discipline. For instance, the Replaying Japan 2020 game studies conference utilized the streaming and chat applications of Twitch and Discord, which are already massively popular conversation zones for gamers.
Game environments have themselves proved to be popular spaces for virtual events. There have been music festivals hosted on Minecraft, complete with ‘merch’ tables and meet and greet sessions (McMahon), and art installations on the Nintendo game Animal Crossing (Wu).
Likewise, hosting research gatherings online presents the opportunity to think outside the conventional hotel venue. Avatars can free up new possibilities for creative interaction, as does the potential to craft our own digital environments.
Finally, it is worth noting that econferences need not be fully virtual. Hybrid events combine both face-to-face and online components. Decades before the Internet, McLuhan introduced the concept of a global village with the electronic age, where ideas can be woven together at the speed of light. McLuhan also highlighted the importance and strength of hybrid innovations, the energy of merging two forms is what we need to snap out of “Narcissus-narcosis” (McLuhan, p55).
That said, online events are not without their own challenges. They require, for instance, access to technical supports and resources.
The pandemic has driven home how technology can exacerbate social and economic inequality. Not everyone has access to reliable connections or devices. Nor to uncensored, unmonitored communication. The Human Rights Watch 2020 World Report pointed out that the world wide web is becoming less open and less worldly. More and more countries restrict what their citizens can and cannot access online and crack down on ‘online dissidence’ (Stauffer).
Econferences, while often greener, are also not without environmental impacts.
Virtual gatherings have a relatively small carbon footprint in comparison to the impact of driving or flying to a face-to-face gathering. An hour of videoconferencing or streaming produces anywhere from 150 to 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide (Obringer et al). For perspective, the carbon emissions for major conferences like Congress, which attract participants from far away, can easily exceed 2 tons per attendee (Jäckle).
Still, the energy costs of computing are not insignificant.
Econference organizers can do more to draw attention to the environmental impact of our internet usage and encourage participants to adopt eco-conscious computing habits. For instance, a recent study at Purdue University found that switching off your video saves 96% of emissions, while streaming in standard definition instead of HD saves 86% (Obringer et al).
Call to Action
Academics can influence change at many levels of conference culture: as participants, attendees, keynote speakers, funders and conference organizers. Funding agencies and academic associations have both an opportunity and a responsibility to increase the availability of sustainable conferencing through their personal and organizational choices.
The Congress 2021 partners have established the infrastructure for hosting online academic events. As such, the Federation is well-placed to make policy changes, the impacts of which will reverberate beyond this event and help shift academic culture for the better.
We call upon the Federation to commit to bringing (at a minimum) 25 percent of speakers and attendees to Congress 2022 virtually. We invite participants, as well, to voice your support for virtual or hybrid conference initiatives by contacting your associations and local organizers.
Congress has a stated mandate to bring together an umbrella of academic research streams and create a platform to “share findings, refine ideas, and build partnerships that will help shape the Canada of tomorrow.” Adopting a hybrid virtual/in-person format in future years would not only save carbon emissions, it would be a monumental step towards building a more inclusive, diverse and eco-conscious research community.
For these reasons, we hope that Congress will build on the legacy of this year’s event by continuing to support future econference initiatives.
Bio: Chelsea Miya, Oliver Rossier, and Geoffrey Rockwell are co-editors of Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene, forthcoming Spring 2021.
Anderson, Terry, and Robin Mason. “The Bangkok Project: New tool for Professional Development.” American Journal of Distance Education, vol. 7, no. 2, 1993, pp. 5-18.
Hiltner, Ken. “A Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference Model.” University of California Santa Barbara. https://hiltner.english.ucsb.edu/index.php/ncnc-guid
McMahon, James. “The future of music festivals might be inside video games.” NME, 19 November 2020, https://www.nme.com/en_asia/features/gaming-features/the-future-of-music-festivals-might-be-inside-video-games-2820535
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (MIT press, 1994).
Mullenweg, Matt. “The New Future of Work,” Interview by Sam Harris. Making Sense, 24 March 2020. https://samharris.org/podcasts/194-new-future-work/
Jäckle, Sebastian. “WE have to change! The carbon footprint of ECPR general conferences and ways to reduce it.” Eur Polit Sci, vol. 18, 2019, pp. 630–650. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41304-019-00220-6
Obringer, Renee, Benjamin Rachunok, Debora Maia-Silva, Maryam Arbabzadeh, Roshanak Nateghi, and Kaveh Madani. “The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing Internet use.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling, vol. 167, 2021, 105389, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.105389.
Overland, J. E., E. Hanna, I. Hanssen-Bauer, S. J. Kim, J. E. Walsh, M. Wang, U. S. Bhatt, R. L. Thoman, and T. J. Ballinger. Surface Air Temperature. Arctic Report Card: Update for 2020. https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2019/ArtMID/7916/ArticleID/835/Surface-Air-Temperature
Rattigan, Dermot. Theatre of Sound: Radio and the Dramatic Imagination. Carysfort Press, 2002.
Stauffer, Brian. “Shutting Down the Internet to Shut Up Critics.” Human Rights Watch: World Report 2020. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/global-5#
Wu, Katherine J. “Meet the Artist Behind Animal Crossing’s Art Museum Island.” Smithsonianmag.com, 9 April 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/animal-crossing-now-has-bespoke-art-museum-island-courtesy-cheeky-real-life-artist-180974633/
Wynes, Seth, and Simon D. Donner. Addressing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Business-Related Air Travel at Public Institutions: A Case Study of the University of British Columbia. Pacific Institute of Climate Solutions, July 2018.