Roundtable Postgrowthplanning

Hybrid conferencing and hybrid academics – experiences and future thoughts

The future of academic work might look different than it used to be. We will not see the re-emergence of larger venues and (international) conferences before at least early 2021. While small-scale meetings become possible again, gathering with hundreds of people from different countries in one place seems to be of a distant past. Travel restrictions provide unequal opportunities to participate in academic events depending on locations. However, there is something in between going and not going. The sustainability of (large) conferences was in question long before Corona made the reduction of travels an immediate health necessity (see e.g. Wenner et al. 2019). Hybrid conferencing (digital & physical combined) and hybrid academics may be on the rise. In February 2020, without knowing about upcoming Corona restrictions, we engaged in a hybrid format in Dortmund on “Post-growth from international planning perspectives: Digital roundtable on the future of planning in a post-growth world”.

On 17 February 2020, we held a digital roundtable that was in fact a hybrid one. It was part of the Dortmund Conference on Spatial Research and Planning. It was conducted on site as a regular part of the programme, and as the only hybrid part. Only two of three moderators and none of the invited international speakers have been in Dortmund. I moderated this session together with Kim Carlotta von Schönfeld and Viola Schulze Dieckhoff. Our guest speakers have been Yvonne Rydin (London, UK), Christian Schulz (Luxembourg), Jin Xue (Ås, Norway) and Anitra Nelson (Melbourne, Australia). Our guests were all online, the same as Kim von Schönfeld for moderating the online discussions and bringing them to our room. It turned out that I was the only one travelling a few hours from Groningen to Dortmund by train.

Idea: We held a physical roundtable on the last round of the Dortmund Conference in 2018 on post-growth planning. It was in German and with an audience of ca. 80 participants of the conference (see Lamker et al. 2019). We wanted to get more international and to involve speakers that are not (or not yet) regular part of planning conferences in Germany. It was clear that it is not sensible and affordable to fly in a group of speakers only for a short talk. Luckily, the conference team was open to our proposal and accepted it, though none of us had experience with conducting a hybrid format.

Preparation: We put much effort in preparing the contents of the talk. Luckily, we had great guest speaker who immediately bought themselves into our format when asked and followed along all steps toward the roundtable with us. As a part of that, all our guest speakers prepared statements in advance. We collected written statements a week before the conference, assembled them, commented on them and got back to our speakers. It was to ensure a smooth start and to get to know each other, like we might have done at a physical conference before the discussion starts. We offered them one minute to introduce themselves and three minutes to outline their individual proposition on ‘Post-growth planning…’. We held a test session on Friday before the conference in the same room, and met with all speakers 30 minutes before the official start.

In the course of preparing this event, I also developed a short definition of post-growth planning: A planning in which growth is neither a necessary starting point nor a goal that must be achieved. One that does work on change, but not on growth. One that works on quality of life, but not with more of the same growth solutions. One in which planners engage and motivate. (Side note: it was a spontaneous comment on Twitter)

Technology: We had great support from the TU Dortmund University and its ITMC as well as the local conference organising team. It was the first time for us to set up such equipment with a stable room microphone and a portable one, as well as a camera and further connections to the local network. The discussion was streamed online and recorded through the DFNconf Meeting system, with an additional way of asking questions through frag.jetzt. The live stream was available through the DFNconf system website and we shared the link widely through our social media and real networks before the actual event. Two screens in the room showed the live recording on one and incoming questions on the other. Time zones were a struggle between the United Kingdom to Australia. The conference team allocated a slot late in the afternoon, though Anitra Nelson had to get up in the middle of the night (a special thanks!).

Conduct: The situation was new and unknown to the audience and to us. The hybrid format has attracted a comparably young group of conference participants. We were most happy about the stable technical connections and the way how the interaction between the digital guest speakers worked. All of them kept to the prescribed schedule, and many connections developed automatically without intense moderation engagement. We finished on time after the allocated 1.5 hours and it was good not to extend further as the attention span of most people is probably shorter than in a fully physical setting. The recording that we made available is not cut and shows the full discussion.

We got a hand full of comments through the comment options attached to the live stream and frag.jetzt. In general, it is not easy to moderate and follow online discussions at the same time. Having a great person to keep an eye on both and to connect helps a lot. Kim took this effort for us and got in touch with important ideas via WhatsApp (my laptop stood at the side of the room next to me). As people get more advanced in digital and hybrid conferencing now, dedicating a moderator to the online part is crucial. This means, moderating a hybrid session should always involve at least two moderators.

Results: The weeks after the conference have been first busy and then turned upside down. When we put the recording on YouTube in March 2020, Corona had already reached most countries and has forced most of us to stay at home or to reduce activities to our offices. We believe that thinking about planning in a post-growth world is more important than ever, though more immediate concerns have taken over in spring. Together with Viola Schulze Dieckhoff, I have then also developed a discussion paper on post-growth planning in post-corona times, looking beyond the immediate crisis situation (see Lamker/Schulze Dieckhoff 2020; Lamker 2020).

Reflection: This hybrid format worked well and according to its purpose. It proved to be a great way to bring international knowledge to an audience without stressing our climate budgets. It also allows to bring together the best selection of people around a topic, no matter of proximity to a conference location or other travel plans. Having such committed guest speaker was a delight for us and made preparation and conduct feeling smooth. Such preparation and clear scheduling is crucial. We experienced in a test setting three days prior to the conference how challenging it can be to test everything (no noise feedback, cables with sufficient length, system and streaming login, …).

The one thing that is really missing here is the informal small-talk that may happen around a physical meeting. As moderators, we had time and opportunities to interact with our guests before and after the roundtable. For other conference participants, the barrier is larger than at a coffee table after a talk. Further digital options to interact were only moderately used – participants need to get used to live streams and this mode of interaction. And, in general, preparing hybrid events (or fully digital ones) involves even more preparation time with multiple talks, messages and so forth before actually starting. There is hardly any way to fix larger problems on the spot, to quickly agree on last-minute changes or to spontaneously improvise. This part of work is invisible to most participants and viewers.

I would also have loved to invite our speakers to the conference dinner that followed directly after the discussion. Without such surrounding events and talks, it probably does not feel like being at a real conference. I will definitely invite our guests immediately at the next time we meet somewhere physically. Therefore, finishing a joint discussion feels weird, as you just click a button and end it.

Outlook: What if such hybrid formats are a way to restart academic (planning) conferences? With loosening travel restrictions within many countries and within the European Union, limited gatherings of people become possible again. At the same time, global academic exchange is crucial. The last Corona months brought much knowledge, acceptance and technology to work and discuss remotely. We need conference and workshop rooms with pre-installed cameras, software, large or multiple screens and internet connections to allow live streaming and discussing. This way, the value of physical contacts and social exchange can be upheld within Corona restrictions now, and within ecological limits and climate budgets on the long run.

The academic community itself then needs to change its perception: maybe it is not a success if a researcher has spoken at dozens of conferences in different continents throughout the year? On the other side, understanding, trust and inspiration does not emerge only from sitting in front of a screen. Maybe we need more slowly travelling researchers instead of hyper mobile ones? Where it fits visiting in person, otherwise being available virtually? What if we develop models of hybrid academics further, in a similar way as university education continues towards hybrid modes?

The recording of our roundtable is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRNW1qtCh58 and collected with further material at www.postgrowthplanning.com. As much research has gone online now, we have unintentionally provided a good working model. We hope this gives some momentum to continue our discussion that is today more important than ever. Thanks for great support from the TU Dortmund University and its ITMC as well as the local conference organising team. I am most grateful to Viola Schulze Dieckhoff and Kim Carlotta von Schönfeld for being a great team in this endeavour!

Resources:

Lamker, C. W., Schulze Dieckhoff, V., & Schönfeld, K. C. von. (2020, February 17). Post-growth from international planning perspectives Digital roundtable on the future of planning in a post-growth world. Guests: Anitra Nelson, Yvonne Rydin, Jin Xue, Christian Schulz. TU Dortmund. TU Dortmund. Dortmunder Konferenz für Raum- und Planungsforschung, Dortmund. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRNW1qtCh58

Lamker, C. W., & Schulze Dieckhoff, V. (2020, April 9). Post-growth planning for post-corona times: Reinventing a growth-independent planning in times of crisis. Discussion paper. Groningen, Dortmund. Collective Post-Growth Planning. http://www.postgrowthplanning.com https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.28096.07680

Lamker, C. W., Schulze Dieckhoff, V., Grotefels, S., Mössner, S., Schulz, C., & Wiese-von Ofen, I. (2019). Mit oder gegen den Strom? Postwachstumsplanung in der Fishbowl. RaumPlanung(201), 48–54. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332259750_Mit_oder_gegen_den_Strom_Postwachstumsplanung_in_der_Fishbowl_RaumPlanung

Lamker, C. W. (2020, April 17). Post-growth planning for post-corona times: Reinventing a growth-independent planning in times of crisis. Blog Transforming Places. https://transformingplaces.net/post-growth-planning-for-post-corona-times-reinventing-a-growth-independent-planning-in-times-of-crisis/

Nelson, A., Rydin, Y., Schulz, C., & Xue, J. (2020). Post-growth from international planning perspectives Digital roundtable on the future of planning in a post-growth world: Statements. Groningen. Collective Post-Growth Planning. http://postwachstumsplanung.de/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/DoKoRP2020_Postgrowth_Handout_web.pdf

Wenner, F., Caset, F., & Wit, B. de (2019). Conference Locations and Sustainability Aspirations. DisP – the Planning Review, 55(1), 34–51. https://doi.org/10.1080/02513625.2019.1598106

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