The Future of Conferences: Crista Lopes Considers Sustainability and Inclusivity

November 9, 2021

When Crista Lopes was asked to give a keynote talk at Strange Loop 2021, the Informatics Professor from UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) wasn’t sure what she wanted to discuss. She considered the fact that Strange Loop brings together developers and scholars building tomorrow’s technology — that is, people typically interested in highly technical topics — but she eventually decided she “couldn’t do the happy techie talk.” Instead, she gave a keynote on The Future of Conferences, examining the origins, value and costs of conferences; reviewing the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic; and considering what post-pandemic conferences might look like.

Conference Origins, Value and Costs
Lopes started the talk by providing a brief history of modern conferences, going back to the Renaissance. “There’s a long history of people sharing knowledge in person,” she said, noting that it has been an important aspect of her own career. “Conferences are a major component of my professional identity,” she told the audience, listing the 15 different conferences she has attended as a participant, speaker or organizer throughout her career.

Lopes then shared three values of in-person conferences:

  1. Knowledge sharing and acquisition, although this value has decreased with more content appearing on the web.
  2. Networking, which has also decreased with new ways to collaborate online.
  3. Paid breaks in nice places, which she admitted “never gets old!”

She also considered the costs of attending in-person conferences:

  1. Time away from family, which can change over time.
  2. Micro-harassment, which can also change over time (“I stopped caring,” she joked).
  3. Carbon footprint, which is “increasing” as awareness of the problem grows.
Changes in the value and cost of in-person conference attendance for Crista Lopes over time.

So while first two costs (time away from family and micro-harassment) have decreased for Lopes over time, the cost of carbon emissions has not. In fact, when she calculated the cost of her conference air travel over the past 20 years, it equaled 330 tons. “I’ve burned a forest,” she lamented.

To address this issue, in 2016, she and other members of the ACM Special Interest Group on Programming Languages (SIGPLAN) convened an ad hoc Climate Change Committee. A preliminary report was published in 2018, and two main proposals were presented in a February 2020 Comm. ACM article, “Conferences in an Era of Expensive Carbon.” The proposals were that conferences report their carbon footprint and implement a carbon tax.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The Global Pandemic
As the global pandemic quickly shut down all in-person conferences, Lopes helped establish an ACM Presidential Task Force on virtual conferences. In April 2020, the task force released a set of guidelines: “Virtual Conferences: A Guide to Best Practices.” Also around that time, as Lopes helped organize the ICSE 2020 conference, she coded a new platform called Clowdr (now Midspace) with Jon Bell, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, to support online conferences.

During this part of her keynote, Lopes shared lessons learned from these experiences. She also drew comparisons between traditional in-person conferences and the OpenSimulator Community Conference (OSCC), which has occurred virtually since 2013.

Lopes estimates that the total CO2 emissions of a virtual OSCC conference (with 500 attendees) is around 750 Kg, several orders of magnitude lower than an in-person conference.

Overall, she found that with regard to knowledge sharing and sustainability, virtual environments work well. For example, online presentations are more inclusive, easier to share and offer greater accessibility. Furthermore, the carbon emissions of online conferences are several orders of magnitude lower. However, the benefits weren’t as clear with regard to conference expectations. For example, networking is better in person, and as for the “paid breaks in nice places,” Lopes admitted it was a “total fail” online!

The Future
“In-person events will not go away,” concluded Lopes, “but virtual participation is here to stay.” She thus predicted a hybrid model, noting that technology is not the problem — the quick pivot to online events during the pandemic proved virtual conferencing is possible. “The challenges are social and psychological,” she said, focusing on the issue of “presence.”

As she continues her efforts to “steer our professional conference culture in a more sustainable and equitable direction,” she said we must find ways to resolve disconnects based on mental space, time zones and a reluctance to interact online.

“I hope that we will [find] a middle point between this very unsustainable way of life,” she said, “and something that continues to be worthwhile and professionally fulfilling.”

Shani Murray