Global conferences are the lifeblood of academia. For a few intense
days, experts from
all over the world
and ideas, and plan future projects. They
have a great time seeing old friends and doing a
bit of tourism. To a large
extent, that's how
academia progresses in
the modern world.
Until recently, it has been normal for hundreds of colleagues in a
given academic discipline to fly to a single location, from anywhere in
the world. That is increasingly seen as problematic, for two reasons:
In any academic discipline
there is a wealth gap. Financially disadvantaged
colleagues cannot afford the total cost of travel, hotel, and
registration. When they miss a
conference, they miss opportunities that conferences
bring for academic careers (getting fellowships, postdocs, and teaching
positions), research (publishing in good journals), and politics
(participating in democratic processes). A
is better than nothing, but doesn't solve the basic problem.
Sustainability. Flying to
another continent typically causes a few tonnes of CO2 to be emitted
per passenger, which is comparable to the yearly carbon footprint of an
average person from anywhere in the world. The organizer of a
single-location global conference
formally encourages hundreds of colleagues to emit that CO2. Global
warming is reducing human life expectancy and driving a million
species toward extinction. It will render vast areas uninhabitable,
especially in the Global South. We may be reluctant to admit it,
but our emissions are
actually killing future people (more).
of the climate crisis, and the leading role that
academics in all disciplines could play in addressing the
their academic abilities and connections), it's important to reduce
Various new conference formats have emerged that
address these problems in different ways:
conference. In this case, all participants stay at home in
front of their laptops, or participate from wherever they happen to be.
result is both inclusive and sustainable: almost anyone can participate
regardless of financial means, and emissions are virtually zero
relative to other conference formats. Virtual
conferences became popular during the covid pandemic, and they are
still common. But they are not very satisfactory.
Face-to-face communication is a
valuable thing, and it is understandable that people don't want to do
conference. This label often refers to a conventional
single-location conference whose
program includes virtual presentations from anywhere in the world,
alongside the regular in-person presentations. That
is better than a conventional conference, if more people can
participate regardless of financial means, and the carbon footprint of
the conference is somewhat reduced. But a hybrid conference also
encourages people to fly. It also
discriminates between those who can afford the combined cost of travel,
hotel, and registration, and consequently have a great time, and those
afford all that, and have a rather short and lonely conference
experience. It is more inclusive and sustainable than a
conventional conference, but not much.
conference. This conference format starts from the
single-location model and adds extra satellites (smaller hubs at
different global locations). Rather than presenting virtually from
their home or office, remote participants travel to a satellite and
present from there. The program happens during normal working hours at
the central hub, and distant satellites communicate in real time
during the part of their day when that is reasonably possible. That is
an improvement on both the single-location conference and the hybrid
conference. But again it only partly solves the inclusivity and
problems. Participants are still motivated to fly to the central hub,
regardless of where they are based, and participants at the central hub
better conference experience than those at the satellites.
conference. Sometime in the future, people from all over the
world will put on their
high-resolution VR glasses
and behave as if they were physically together at a big
conference. With better technology and bandwidth, the illusion of
presence will improve, until there is little
difference between virtual reality and the real thing. It's an exciting
prospect, but so far (in 2023) it's out of reach for most academic
disciplines, either technically or financially.
conference. A global conference can be split across several
hubs, all of which have the same
status and are treated equally. One of the
hubs may be the "organizing" hub, but it is not "central" in the
Consequently, there are no "satellites". Each
hub is a self-contained mini-conference with its own
and rooms. The hubs are spread around the
globe and across continents and time zones. Each talk has at least two
audiences: one live, and one or more virtual. At
any time during the conference, participants at a given location choose
between live and
virtual talks, happening in parallel in adjacent rooms. After each
talk, there is a discussion that mixes live and virtual contributions.
In the breaks, there is voluntary semi-virtual socializing and informal
discussion sessions. Within hubs, there
is constant face-to-face communication -- mostly mixed with
intercontinental virtual interaction, both formal and informal. The
"conference experience" at each hub depends on the number of hours per
day spent in real-time communication with other hubs (within a
reasonable working day), the integration of virtual communication into
all activities (talks, discussions, breaks), and the number of local
The global timetable
Global conferences with a virtual, VR, or multi-hub format can bring
the world together and include everyone, while at the same time
minimizing emissions. They also suffer from an
timetabling problem. Everyone
has to sleep,
and people prefer to do that at
night. Night happens at different times around the globe. A practical
solution has two parts:
First, video-record all content so everyone can view everything
later. Tip: YouTube live streams are automatically and immediately
available to be viewed as videos.
Second, design the program to maximize real-time interaction; like
Divide the 24-hour day into three 4-hour slots
separated by 4-hour breaks (e.g. UTC 0-4, 8-12, 16-20). This greatly
simplifies the task of creating the global program, reducing the
workload for the organizing hub. It also simplifies things for the
other hub organizers.
Find three global locations that are 8 hours
apart (e.g., London, Tokyo,
Los Angeles) and add some more locations that are 1 or 2 hours away
from the first three.
each hub, divide the working day into two 4-hour slots, separated by a
4-hour siesta. The third slot is missed during the night. Participants
can watch videos of the missed presentations the next day. Such videos
also be included in the daily program.
configuration allows every hub to communicate in real time with every
hub, every day for either 4 or 8 hours. To my knowledge, no other
humanly reasonable solution achieves that level of global connectivity. Further
detail is here.
For a general introduction to multi-hub conferences, see these papers (Zechlau
et al, 2023, Parncutt
et al., 2021) or
Some tips for organising multi-hub
Hub locations. Before
approaching an international colleague with a request to organize a
hub, plan in advance the daily timetable at that hub.
If participants at that hub will have to get up very early or go to bed
very late, it is better to try a different location, in a different
time zone. For a detailed solution to this problem, again see this
Technology. It is nice to have
wireless microphones for discussions after talks. But that is
difficult to organise and creates a list of things that can go wrong.
also means you need a technician in each conference room. The following
simplified solution requires neither technical support nor special
speaker in each live presentation speaks directly to a laptop, using
internal microphone or
a headset in the usual way, like in a regular Zoom call. The laptop
screen is projected so the audience
see it, both at the live presentation and at virtual presentations at
other locations. The laptop sound goes to an amplifier and
loudspeaker at the back of the room, turned down relatively low to
avoid acoustic feedback. During the discussion, people with
to the front of
room and talk to the laptop -- both in the room where the
talk is physically held and in other rooms where the talk is watched
remotely, via another laptop. In the remote room, the laptop
can point toward the audience during the talk with the microphone
turned off so the speaker can see the remote audience. At the end of
the talk, the laptop in the remote room can be turned 180° and the
microphone turned on as audience members come forward to ask questions.
In Zoom, each laptop is a user, and the username is the name of the
room, so anyone watching the talk can see where it is happening. For
this to work, all rooms need
moveable seating so audience members can easily move around
during talks. There are
many other solutions to this problem, and each hub can
solve it differently, depending on available equipment
Global plenaries. At
a traditional conference, a
plenary session is one in which all participants meet in the same large
room. In a multi-hub conference, a plenary that includes all hubs is
only possible if some colleagues work
during the night. For that reason, opening/closing sessions and global
meetings happen twice, in two different
(consecutive) 4-hour slots.
Participants at the
second meeting are informed at the start about happened at the
meeting, and/or have the opportunity to watch a video of
first meeting before the second one starts. The result is more
inclusive than a plenary at a
single-location conference, which
excludes colleagues who cannot afford the total
cost of travel, accommodation, and
registration. Both formats have advantages and disadvantages.
hub is a
mini-conference with its own budget and registration fee. Registration
is lower in countries with lower GDP per capita, to encourage
inclusion. Expenses for hub organizers
include room rent, equipment, refreshments, support, and entertainment.
Income may include a government or university grant, so the first thing
to do after deciding to create a hub is to look for financial support.
After that, hub organizers will estimate what registration fee will be
cover costs. If the organizing hub runs a peer-review procedure on
behalf of all hubs, the additional expenses can be met by asking all
active and passive remote participants (those who do not travel to a
hub) to pay their (reduced) registration fee to the organizing hub by
credit card. Additional possibilities include grants and transfers
from other hubs.
Regional societies. Each
hub creates a new sense of regional academic community among
participants. That can help leading local
colleagues establish or strengthen regional academic societies --
an aspect that is especially interesting in the Global South, if the
research area is less clearly established and
institutionalized there than in the Global North.
How many hubs?
There are many different possibilities for the number and location of
hubs. The following is written on the assumption that the conference
should have global character, including colleagues from anywhere in the
world, and treating them equally while at the same time minimizing
If we want each hub to be in real-time contact
with other hubs for the entire working day (8 hours), and with any
hub for at least 4 hours per day, and if we want to give participants
at each hub at least
12 continous hours of rest each night (e.g., 9 pm to 9am), then the
minimum number of hubs is
3. In that case, the hubs should be exactly 8 hours apart (e.g., Tokyo,
Los Angeles, London).
A 3-hub conference is more inclusive and sustainable than a
single-location event, but it is still not ideal. Regarding inclusion,
if the hubs are placed on the richer continents
(e.g., North America, Europe, Australia), then participants on poorer
continents (South America, Africa, Asia) can't afford the trip.
Regarding sustainability, if the hubs are on poorer continents,
the richer participants
will fly intercontinental and the
carbon footprint of the conference wll be too high.
A promising solution is to place hubs on all 6 inhabited
continents. In that case, it's ok if spacing around the globe is
provided the distance between adjacent hubs does not exceed 8 hours. If
an extra hub or two are added (e.g., East- and West-coast USA, or India
and Korea), there might be 7 or 8 altogether.
A much larger number of hubs is also possible. The biggest academic
have over 10,000 participants (e.g. in the USA: Society for
Neuroscience, Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union). If these
went multi-hub, they
could theoretically be split
across 100 hubs with
100 participants each, with a hub in
most countries and several in large countries like the US or China
(with timetable limitations as explained here).
Both the reduction in emissions and the increase in cultural diversity
would be enormous. Are bigger conferences waiting for smaller
ones to show them the way?
In all these cases, it is possible to give each hub the same rights and
regardless of size. Each can have two 4-hour working timeslots, one in
morning and one
in the evening. Smaller hubs can have fewer rooms and show fewer of
the available presentations. Larger hubs can have more rooms and
both the live and the virtual program can be bigger. Participants can
always be free to watch other presentations privately,
either live or as videos.
The optimal number of hubs thus depends on
two opposing criteria:
A larger number of hubs improves both
sustainability and inclusion, by reducing both the emissions per
participant and the average total cost of travel, accommodation,
A smaller number of hubs increases the size of
each hub, which increases the proportion of live face-to-face
interaction. It also reduces the administrative load for the organizing
optimal compromise depends on the expected total number of
active participants. If that's about 1000, the optimal number of
might be 6, with one hub on each continent and >100
participants at each. In the 4-hub conference that I organized in 2018,
there were 300 participants at the organizing hub in Austria, 150 in
Canada, 100 in Argentina, and 50 in Australia, making 600 altogether.
The main problem with that conference was the big time difference
between Montreal and Sydney (10 hours). A future conference could solve
that problem by having either equally spaced hubs or a larger number of
hubs, for example 7 hubs, so as to include all inhabited continents,
with separate hubs for South Asia and East Asia. We might then expect
300 participants at the European hub, 100 in South Africa, 100 in
India, 100 in Korea, 50 in Australia, 250 in the USA, and 100 in
Brazil, plus 100 active remote participants, total: 1100. Of
course, these are only very rough estimates.
The administrative load for the organizing a hub can be reduced by
the hubs more independent. That can be done by allowing them to write
own program, or at least the virtual part (following guidelines from
the organizing hub), or by asking hubs to solve technical problems
together without the organizing hub (for example, two hubs in
almost the same time zone can meet virtually).
As at any conference, hub organizers will need contingency
plans in case things go
wrong. Technical failure is one example. A list of possible
problems and trouble-shooting strategies can be helpful. If a hub fails
to transmit a talk at an arranged time (because
the speaker is ill, or there is a transmission problem), another
virtual talk can be added to the programs of other hubs at the
last minute. First preference might be given to a real-time
transmission from another hub. Otherwise, a video from
a previous talk at another hub could be shown. To prepare,
every hub could make a list of talks they aren’t showing (usually
because they are happening at night), perhaps in order of reviewers'
grades. Each talk would have its own Zoom link (or similar, if
real-time) or YouTube link (or similar, if not real-time). It would
also be possible to leave a gap in the program -- participants might be
grateful for extra time.
Seen from that perspective, not much can go wrong that could not
go wrong at a traditional conference. The internet is not going to go
down, but it is important to check in advance that all rooms in all
hubs have a fast internet connection, and to check the speed at
different times of day and different times in the year, to be sure. At
the conference I organized in 2018, no talk was canceled or even
delayed for technical reasons.
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