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Can conference travelling be sustainable?

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International conferences are hubs for knowledge exchange and networking. Creating a space where ideas, research, and expertise converge to progress and innovation. They play a crucial role in facilitating collaboration, learning, and the exchange of insights and best practices on a global scale. Conferences bring together individuals with diverse backgrounds and expertise who share their latest research findings, innovations, and insights. This diversity can lead to valuable collaborations, as attendees can identify common interests and opportunities for joint projects or research – the unique connection point unattainable via e-mails or Zoom calls.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the arrangement of conferences quickly pivoted, like in all areas of life. Virtual meetings and conferences provided a safe and practical solution to the challenges posed by the pandemic. They allowed continuing knowledge exchange and networking while adhering to social distancing and health guidelines. They also removed geographical barriers, making knowledge and networking opportunities accessible to a global audience. Attendees could participate from anywhere via an internet connection, promoting inclusivity and diversity.

A personal example was in February 2022, when connecting from the Briefing Centre in Tallinn, I reached virtually 20k viewers in Central and Latin America at Global Digital Week.

By eliminating the need for physical travel, virtual conferences significantly reduced carbon emissions associated with transportation, including flights and ground

transportation. This aligns with the global focus on sustainability and reducing environmental impact, the goal that has taken a central role in our life arrangements.

The surge in virtual conferences has driven technological advancements in video conferencing, virtual event platforms, and collaborative tools. These innovations are likely to benefit a wide range of online activities. However, many have stayed on a simple Zoom or Teams link level. Having participated in a fair share of them, I can assure you that sometimes they look less glamorous than you might think.

Efforts to reduce the environmental impact of conferences can include minimising printed materials, adopting sustainable food practices, encouraging public transportation or carpooling, selecting eco-friendly venues, and implementing waste reduction and recycling programs. Additionally, the move towards virtual and hybrid conferences can significantly reduce the environmental footprint associated with physical events. Still evaluating between minimising environmental impact and maximising unparalleled networking opportunities that conferences offer is a delicate act of balance.

Is my physical participation necessary?

This fall has been busy for me, and several physical conference attendances have fit into my schedule, making it, in some cases, a whole week away from Estonia and changing countries three times. Undoubtedly, in-person conferences offer a more engaging experience. Attendees can fully immerse themselves in the event, interact with tangible exhibits, and experience the ambience of the host city or venue. Seeing my keynote and panel discussion in presence offers more dynamic interaction between speakers and the audience.

The energy and atmosphere of a live presentation can leave a lasting impression and transmit non-verbal cues, body language, and interpersonal communication. One possibility is to watch me explain fundamental e-governance technologies, and the other is witnessing my posture and gestures and seeing me believe in what I say. And I include the jokes just because it “fits with the room”. It’s a feeling; even if a keynote is a solo speech, it’s still a dialogue.

So, what is my exact impact?

Of the recent fall conferences, I would like to point out one – the Annual conference of Estonia’s Tourism sector, taking place on the biggest of our 2,222 beautiful islands, Saaremaa. Why, might you wonder? First, it was one of the best-hosted conferences I have had the pleasure to attend. But also because it’s a prime example of sustainable tourism, and we have data to back it up.

“Loo lugu” (tell the tale, or invent a tale, the wordplay Estonian magical language provides you with) was the annual flagship event of Visit Estonia, and in addition to delivering a mystical story-telling narrative to be used in tourism, it also committed to hosting the sustainable event. Here is what we know about it.

What did “Loo lugu” conference change to promote a more ecological hosting:

  • Only re-used decorations
  • 100% plant-based food as catering
  • Sorting waste and directing them to circulation
  • The remaining food was donated to Food Bank Avaleht – Eesti Toidupank
  • Personnel lunch was produced from leftovers from catering
  • The lunch menu consisted close to 100% local produce (except truffle and celery), including using produce from local farmers and small producers
  • The dinner menu consisted of local fish and mushrooms picked from Estonia’s forest
  • One-time fair carpets were replaced with reusable sheet flooring
  • Faire trade coffee was served to stand for farmers’ rights
  • Mocktails consisted of home-made local syrups and hand-picked berries
  • All decorations and catering were provided by the local workforce and service providers
  • Plywood yarn board was created by using the manufacturing leftovers

But how much did it all add up?

“Loo lugu” carbon footprint was measured to be 18 613,59 kg CO₂-equiv, comparable to driving 3x around the globe by car.

To offset this amount of CO₂, we need 886 mature trees.


Does it mean we should stop flying altogether?

Conferences can accelerate the innovation process. They provide a platform for startups, entrepreneurs, and inventors to showcase their groundbreaking ideas and secure funding or partnerships. COVID once again proved that although video conferencing is a viable alternative, it’s not permanent, as Zoom fatigue soon kicked in.

While virtual and hybrid conferences offer valuable advantages in terms of accessibility, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness, physical conferences continue to be essential for creating unique, immersive, and impactful experiences that foster networking, relationship-building, and knowledge exchange. Ultimately, the choice between physical and virtual conferences depends on the specific goals and objectives of the event and the preferences of the attendees and organisers.

There is no such thing as neutral living. We all have our share of impact on the environment just by being alive. However, some impacts are more significant than others. The virtual and hybrid options provide accessibility but sustainability, and the value of face-to-face interactions, community building, and the overall impact of physical conferences make them worth the travel investment. So, make all your travels count!

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You will find us on a ground floor of Valukoja 8, central entrance behind the statue of Mr Ernst Julius Öpik. Photo of the central entrance.

Valukoja 8
11415 Tallinn, Estonia