The global multi-hub academic conference

Sustainable and inclusive


Richard Parncutt, 2023

This page is about multi-hub conferences. The main ideas are presented in two videos (English -- German).

Before we get started, allow me to address some common misconceptions.

Misconception: A multi-hub conference has a main hub where everyone has a great time and subsidiary hubs or satellites where people feel left out and wish they had flown to the main hub.

Correction: Every hub is equal from the point of view of programming. The opportunities offered to individuals to communicate in different ways, both within and across hubs, are the same at every hub. One task of the global organizer is to ensure that the conference experience is as equal as possible at all hubs, given that some hubs are inevitably smaller, and the timing is more convenient as some than others. For details see "equality of hubs" below.

Misconception: Multihub conferences are mainly about reducing carbon emissions. That can only be done by missing out on face-to-face communication.

Correction: Multi-hub conferences are equally about inclusion: allowing colleagues from all over the world to participate actively and on the same level regardless of their financial resources or geographic location. Of course carbon emissions must be reduced, and of course that limits face-to-face communication. There is no magic carpet. But the constant mixture of face-to-face and virtual communication that happens at a multi-hub conference can be more rewarding than the regular conference experience, because a multi-hub conference includes many colleagues who could not otherwise have participated. Those other colleagues are not sitting alone in front of a laptop -- they are also involved in face-to-face communication with many colleagues at their local hub. When properly managed, this situation is more interesting and more dynamic than anything any regular conference attender has ever experienced.

Misconception: "Multi-hub" means that most of the program is local only. Perhaps once per day there is an event that’s shared across hubs -- usually a keynote.
Sometimes everyone at a given hub goes to a local event, and at other sometimes everyone goes to a remote event.

Correction: There can and should be inter-hub communication throughout the entire program -- up to 8 hours per day. This page describes how that can be done, at all hubs. It is possible to allow participants to choose between parallel virtual and local events throughout the program. Like at a regular conference, it's a matter of deciding which physical room to enter. The usual exceptions are the global opening and closing sessions and the keynotes, which all participants at all locations are invited to attend. To accommodate for time differences, every such global event happens twice globally (but only once locally). That way, everyone can attend during regular working hours and the proportion of real-time communication is maximized.

Misconception: The next multi-hub conference will be similar to the last.

Correction: Yes and no. This article includes ideas about multi-hub conferences that have never been implemented. Consequently, they have never been evaluated.


Global conferences are the lifeblood of academia. For a few intense days,
experts from all over the world fly to a single location to exchange information 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. But the single-location conference model is increasingly problematic, for two reasons:

Inclusion. In any academic discipline, there is a wealth gap. Financially disadvantaged colleagues cannot afford the total cost of attending a conference, which includes travel, hotel, and registration. When they miss a conference, they miss opportunities for academic positions (fellowships, postdocs, teaching), research (publishing in good journals), and politics (participating in administrative processes). That reinforces the differences. If caring commitments (for children or elderly relatives) prevent colleagues from attending, the conference misses out on their creative ideas and insights. If their country has a low gross domestic product per capita (GDPpc) or Human Development Index (HDI), colonialism is perpetuated. A virtual presentation is better than nothing, but doesn't solve the basic problem. Given the global correlation between skin color and wealth/income, both within and between countries (Hunter, 2007), improving inclusion (along with equity and diversity) at academic conferences is a promising way to promote human rights and reduce colonialism and racism (cf. Walters, 2018).  Sustainability. Current academic conference culture is not sustainable. Flying to another continent typically causes 5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent to be emitted per passenger, which is the yearly carbon footprint of a global average person. The organizer of a single-location global conference formally encourages hundreds of colleagues to emit that CO2. The conference budget does not include the social cost of carbon, which is about $200 per tonne CO2e, or $1000 for a typical intercontinental participant (Rennert et al., 2022). That is effectively paid by future generations, as global warming reduces human life expectancy, drives a million species toward extinction, and renders vast tropical areas uninhabitable. Global warming is getting gradually worse, and the current downward trend will continue for decades -- even with radical global climate action. Human quality of life will be seriously affected for millennia, if humanity lasts that long. Personal emissions correlate strongly with income: the richest 10% of people worldwide produce more than half of global emissions (Oxfam), and most flying participants at international conferences belong to that group. Beyond that, there is a correlation between skin color and climate vulnerability (seen as a combination of geographical location and financial means). Reducing carbon emissions is a promising way to promote human rights and reduce colonialism and racism (cf. Abimbola et al., 2021). 

Given the crucial importance of both
inclusion and sustainability, we should explore solutions that simultaneously improve both, while taking care not to play off one against the other  If we improve inclusion by shifting a conventional single-location conference to a country where it has never been, that's no excuse to increase emissions by encouraging regular participants to fly intercontinental. If we improve sustainability by discouraging colleagues from flying to a conference that would otherwise have been global, we exclude most of the world. The multi-hub conference, described below, is a possible way to simultaneously improve both inclusion and sustainability while maintaining a high level of personal and face-to-face contact.

Improving inclusion and improving sustainability are examples of anti-racist strategies that can be embraced by any academic discipline (e.g., the music perception and cognition community). Inclusion is anti-racist because it implies including all colleagues regardless of personal factors including skin color and geographic origin, but also language, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and religion. Sustainability is anti-racist because global warming is mainly caused by the global North and the effects will be felt more strongly in the South.

Sustainability may be considered more crucial than inclusion, because sustainability is a matter of life and death for very large numbers of people.
The combination of global poverty, global biodiversity loss, and global warming arguably represents the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. Roughly a billion people will die prematurely as an indirect consequence over the next 1-2 centuries, mainly in the global South -- even if warming is limited to 2°C (Parncutt, 2019; Pearce & Parncutt, 2023). Causes or co-causes of death will include humid heat, hunger, disease, poverty, migration, conflict, and disasters such as fires, floods, landslides, earthquakes -- all exacerbated by global warming.

Global mean surface temperature will reach 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels when humanity has burned roughly one trillion tonnes of fossil carbon altogether (since the start of industrialization). Therefore, burning 1000 tonnes of fossil carbon (emitting roughly 4000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent) causes one future death (1000-tonne rule). If the average participant at a global academic conference burns one tonne of fossil carbon to get there and back, thereby emitting about 4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, then a global conference with 1000 participants typically causes one future death (1000-delegate rule). 

Academics in different countries have repeatedly tried to express the urgency of the climate crisis and there are parallel efforts to decolonize international conferences. Given the overriding importance and urgency of these issues, we can hardly sit back and wait for others to act, nor can we afford to get trapped in a prisoner's dilemma. The only reasonable course of action is to unilaterally promote both inclusion and sustainability, and then encourage others to follow suit.

Luckily, promising alternatives are available. Video conferencing technology allows us to mix face-to-face communication with virtual communication in both formal and informal settings. That's a great opportunity, and it could kick-start a new age of academic communication and collaboration. For the first time, international conferences could become truly global, including colleagues from all parts of the world in proportion to their academic contributions. The fastest-changing academic disciplines, and those that are most willing to take calculated risks, will reap the most benefits.

For additional background on these questions, see these papers (Zechlau et al, 2023Parncutt et al., 2021), this video, or this webpage. Cutting Gardens is a similar concept, for researchers in M/EEG data analysis. Multi-hub meetings are also taking off in business circles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

New and emerging conference format options

Various new conference formats emerged in response to the covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. 

The virtual conference.
In this format, all participants stay at home in front of their laptops, or participate from wherever they happen to be.
The result is both very inclusive and very sustainable: almost anyone can participate regardless of financial means, and emissions are almost zero relative to other conference formats. The downside is the total lack of face-to-face communication. In future, as the global climate situation deteriorates, virtual conferences may become our only option. Now in 2023, we still have other interesting choices. The hybrid 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 reduced. But a hybrid conference also encourages people to fly. Moreover, it discriminates between those who can afford the combined cost of travel, hotel, and registration, and consequently have a great time, and those who cannot afford all that, and have a rather short and lonely conference experience. In that way, it is not much more inclusive and sustainable than a conventional conference. The satellite conference. This 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 can 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 both more inclusive and more sustainable than a single-location or hybrid conference. But participants are still motivated to fly to the central hub, regardless of where they are based, and participants at the central hub still have a better conference experience than those at the satellites.  The virtual-reality 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 virtual 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, both technically and financially. The multi-hub conference

Of the currently available options, the multi-hub conference may be the most promising. The aim of this article is to explain how a multi-hub conference works so that colleagues can implement the idea within their specific disciplines.

It is possible to split a conference across several equal hubs, distributed around the globe, with no "central hub" (although one hub may be primarily responsible for organization) and no "satellites."
Each hub is a self-contained mini-conference with its own organizers and rooms. Many academic societies already have  regional conferences; a multi-hub conference can be created simply by holding regional conferences simultaneously. The hubs are spread across continents and time zones. The conference program is equally interesting at every hub, and each hub is equally well connected to other hubs in terms of program timeslots when hubs are interacting in real time.

articipants are motivated to travel to the nearest hub and not to a single central hub, which drastically reduces the conference's carbon footprint. With a hub on every continent, intercontinental flying is unnecessary. Within continents, many participants can completely avoid flying, which is currently easier in some regions (e.g. China and Europe) than others. Conference organizers can encourage colleagues to avoid flying and even reward them for doing so.

Throughout a multi-hub conference, face-to-face interactions are blended with virtual interactions. 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, which happen 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;
these work best if planned in advance.

The "conference experience" at each hub depends on: 
The idea is not restricted to academia. Conferences in business and politics can be organized similarly. The idea could also be used to organize global music festivals that are both inclusive and sustainable, with a corresponding political message (e.g., Earth Live Aid).

The following sections address practical problems.
First, there is the resistance that members of an academic discipline encounter when trying to change conference formats. How does that conflict work, and how can it be resolved? After that, there's the question of where to locate the hubs and how to organize the conference program. That's an interesting challenge, given the time-zone differences. I will present a promising new approach.


Fossil fuel industries have been investing in climate misinformation for decades (Supran & Oreskes, 2017). As a result, many academic colleagues have been exposed to climate denialism of different kinds, both within and outside academic contexts (Lewandowsky et al., 2015). Academics also have vested interests as conference participants and often as frequent flyers, and a general awareness of privilege may be lacking. This background can impede a fair and reasonable discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of different conference formats. It can also generate misleading objections, such as the following.

Objection 1: The
multi-hub format prevents face-to-face contact with colleagues at other hubs. That inhibits a feeling of global community.

Reply: There is only one way to offer all conference participants face-to-face contact with all others, and that is for most participants to fly, which is what we aim to stop. Gentle reminder: An existential problem like global warming is more important than the exclusive luxury of personally meeting colleagues from anywhere in the world. Besides, a multi-hub conference allows many colleagues to participate who could not otherwise have done so, which promotes global community better than a conventional conference does.

Objection 2: A multi-hub conference prevents colleagues in new regions from flying to the more established  regions.

Reply: Any participant at a multi-hub conference is (or should be) free to fly to any hub. Within a multi-hub conference, any hub might invite any colleague from any other hub to fly to their hub. Whether that is a good idea is a question for discussion. Besides, this objection only applies to those few colleagues in low-GDPpc countries who can afford to fly to a high-GDPpc country or get financial support to do so. We should be thinking of and supporting the silent majority. A multi-hub conference can include most colleagues from new regions -- for the first time, and on the same level as older colleagues.

Lurking behind this discussion is lingering colonialism, the “control by one power over a dependent area or people ... when one nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people" (source). Colonialism of this kind still exists, indirectly and unintentionally, in academic conference traditions that exclude colleagues from the global South for financial reasons while at the same time contributing to global warming, which will be felt more strongly in the South than in the North. The multi-hub conference constructively addresses both aspects. Regarding language, it is now possible for conference presentations to be automatically translated in real time, and the quality of automatic translations is improving.

Objection 3: New colleagues can be included more effectively by holding a single-location conference in a new region. That's also a great way for younger researchers in the new region to make personal contact with more senior researchers from old regions.

Objection 4: A hub at a multi-hub conference is similar to an existing regional conference, but with extra virtual presentations.

Reply: That is an advantage!
Objection 5: Multi-hub conferences are hard to organize, for two reasons: Reply:
Objection 6: A typical single-location global conference with 1000 participants burns roughly 1000 tonnes of fossil carbon, which is only one ten-millionth of annual global emissions. It hardly makes any difference!



Do conventional academic conferences really promote academic colonialism and global warming? The issue could be discussed by university ethics committees. Possible arguments include:
A hybrid or satellite conference is better in some ways but worse in others:
The multi-hub format constructively addresses all these issues. It radically improves both inclusion and sustainability, treats everyone equally, and offers face-to-face communication throughout the conference. We may nonetheless ask why academics should care about these issues. Why should we play a leading role in addressing them? There are several reasons:
Democracy versus human rights

Confronted with the above issues, an academic society will normally ask a committee to decide. WIthin that committee, the majority will prevail. That is not necessarily appropriate, because questions of human rights have absolute character. They cannot be decided democratically:
This is a question of research ethics, not democracy. In general, research should not harm people, animals or the natural environment. This principle is independent of people's changing political opinions, although those opinions may change its interpretation or application. 

The no-harm principle can be applied either individually or collectively.
The no-harm principle is widely accepted in international environmental law. States may not cause environmental harm to other states. According to the International Law Association, states must "take all appropriate measures to anticipate, prevent or minimise the causes of climate change, especially through effective measures" (more). Climate change violates the right to life, health, food, water, and shelter. It exacerbates existing inequalities and disproportionately affects vulnerable populations.

A similar principle applies to university ethics committees. Before I carry out an experiment, I should ask the ethics committee for approval.
They then decide based on the no-harm principle. They don’t ask my academic colleagues in different countries for their opinion.

The issue is not clearcut, because the amount of harm done by an academic conference is uncertain. The 1000-tonne rule implies that a regular international conference with 1000 participants causes the premature death of one future person. But many colleagues think this estimate is exaggerated. In a best-case warming scenario (according to the same source), a conference with 1000 participants kills 1/3 of a future person. That is a reasonable middle-of-the-road prediction relative to diverse current literature. (Personally, I disagree, but that is not the point.) If we assume a life expectancy of 60 years, the conference therefore steals 20 years from someone’s life. That is unacceptable unless the conference is likely to save lives in other ways. One might reasonably argue that if emissions from a conference were going to steal one month from a future person's life, a democratic process about the conference format would be appropriate. But to achieve that, emissions would have to be reduced by a factor of 12x20=240, which is currently impossible.

Historical context

Academic conferences have always changed in response to changing social norms (e.g., changing roles of hierarchical social structures, sexism, ageism, qualification etc.) and technological possibilities. In the late 19th century, there were world fairs with academic content, and participants traveled by train and ship. After the First World War, international conferences, including those organized by the League of Nations, were seen as contributing to peaceful and productive international relations, but the catastrophe of the Second World War suggested otherwise. After the war, flying gradually became cheaper relative to middle-class wages, and an increasing number of people in richer countries (including academics) started to fly regularly to other countries. What was originally a tiny minority (the "jet set") gradually increased in size. But it was still a minority (perhaps only 10% of all people alive today have ever flown).

The advent of affordable aviation made it possible for many academics to fly to a single global location, which greatly increased the size and quality of academic conferences. The quality of individual contributions was promoted by the cultural diversity of the participants and their larger number. Conference participants increasingly identified with international communities of scholars whom they would meet only occasionally.
Conference programs were constructed in increasingly standard ways from keynote lectures, shorter talks (often in parallel sessions), symposia, and coffee breaks. The event was rounded off by an excursion and a banquet.

In this way, international academic conferences systematically promoted academic quality, understood to include creativity and innovation. That applied not only to the content of the presentations but also to the format and structure of the conferences. Academic colleagues enjoyed attending well-organized conferences and felt inspired and invigorated by what they learned and the colleagues they met. All of that contributed in a positive way to the quality and quantity of research outputs.

The content and format of international conferences changed as relevant technologies were developed. The advent of email and the internet meant that abstract submissions could be subjected to relatively fast peer review processes, with expert, specialist reviewers located anywhere in the world. That enabled the worst submissions to be rejected. Reviewers could also write comments that were passed anonymously to authors, increasing the quality of the accepted contributions. The development of data projectors and Powerpoint software revolutionized audiovisual presentation. With YouTube Live and Skype (later Zoom), presentations could be viewed remotely in real time.

The content and format of international conferences also depended on political context, even if many colleagues considered their work to be politically neutral. During the Cold War, the nuclear threat highlighted the importance of international collaboration to prevent conflict. At the same time, the communist/Eastern world was effectively barred from participating in capitalist/Western conferences, giving Western academics a feeling of superiority. The introduction of free enterprise and capitalism to China and Russia suggested that free enterprise was inherently superior to communism, although still problematic. Against that model, academic review processes were a form of open competition in a democratically regulated but otherwise free academic marketplace.

The political and technological contexts of international conferences have always changed. Today, we face multiple political crises including climate, wealth distribution, conflict, migration, and hunger. Since neoliberalism went mainstream in the 1980s with 
Thatcher and Reagan, the gap between rich and poor has  widened, thwarting expectations that global economic improvements would allow colleagues from the Global South to attend the North's international conferences. Global warming is no longer a prediction for the future but something that is now regularly exacerbating storms, droughts, famines, floods, fires, and heat waves around the world. Aviation is making a significant contribution to global warming and the carbon footprints of individual academics.

In 1964, Bob Dylan sang The times they are a-changin.’ In the 2020s, they are changing faster than ever. We academics have always been under pressure to change with the times. But one thing has not changed, and that is the academic goal to promote and reward quality, understood to include creativity and innovation. Previous generations promoted quality in both the format and the content of their conferences in ways that were appropriate in their historical context. Today, we are challenged to do the same.

Imagine a global academic conference in the 1980s. By encouraging hundreds of colleagues to fly to a single global location, the organizers satisfied quality criteria in the best way that was reasonably possible at that time.
The same cannot be said for a similar conference in the 2020s, if it produces hundreds of tonnes of avoidable CO2 and excludes half of all relevant global colleagues because they can't afford to participate.

Despite these arguments, multi-hub conferences are still a rarity. Given their obvious advantages, the reason is probably conservatism: resistance to change of any kind. Promising new ideas that depart radically from the status quo inevitably face initial opposition. Underground railways are an example. In 1846, Charles Pearson proposed the Metropolitan Railway, an underground connecting London’s main railway stations, as a way to reduce congestion on the streets. It took years to convince politicians and the public. When the railway finally opened in 1863, it immediately became indispensable and the idea spread quickly to other cities.

This text is about promoting quality, creativity, and innovation in 21st-century conference formats. We can do that by trying out new ideas. Just because something worked in the past does not mean it will work now or in the future. Moreover, if we want to realistically evaluate a new approach, we first have to implement it.

Multi-hub conference organization

A multi-hub conference needs a new kind of program that can be simultaneously enjoyed by colleagues around the world, in many different time zones. This section proposes a promising solution.

Global timetable. Everyone has to sleep, and night happens at different times in different places. R
eal-time interaction can be maximized as follows:
This approach simplifies the task of creating the global program, reducing the workload for the organizing hub (or whichever hub is responsible for global programming). It also respects participants' needs for daily rest and recreation.

Hub locations, Where should the hubs be located? One approach is to look for
three global locations that are 8 hours apart. Given the width of the Pacific Ocean, and assuming that locations within the Pacific (e.g., Hawaii) are inappropriate, two of the three hubs must be located on the Pacific rim, with one in Eastern Asia or Australia, and the other in Western USA or Canada. The other hub must then be in Europe or Africa.

In the Northern summer, and assuming all Northern hemisphere locations put clocks forward an hour in the summer (daylight saving),
there are two promising equally-spaced solutions:
Each location can be replaced by another location in the same time zone. Calgary, for example, stands for any location in Mountain Time Zone that uses daylight saving (unlike Phoenix). Calgary could also be replaced a location in Pacific Time Zone that is not using daylight saving. Things can change from one year to the next, so to avoid surprises, check the time zones of the planned locations in the specific year and month of the planned conference.

Once the first three conference hubs are established, any number of additional locations can be added that are 1 or 2 hours away from the first three. That way, their local programs will happen at reasonable times.

This approach allows every hub to communicate in real time with every other hub, every day for either 4 or 8 hours. To my knowledge, no other humanly reasonable solution achieves the same level of global connectivity.

Another approach is to make a list of hubs that are conveniently located for other reasons and then to check what the conference program would look like in 8 different cases, each with three equally-spaced 4-hour working periods:
An example of this procedure is here.

It's a good idea to do this homework before approaching an international colleague with a request to organize a hub.
If participants at that hub will have to get up very early or go to bed very late during the conference, it is better to try a different location, in a different time zone.

Program outline. Here is an example of the framework within which the program might be created. In this example, the three 4-hour timeslots to which
the conference is confined are UTC 6-10, UTC 14-18, and UTC 22-2 (UTC=GMT). The numbers in the body of the table (last three columns) indicate local time on a 24-hour clock (0=midnight, 12=noon). The plan corresponds to Option 6 at the previous link.

Region Hub location Time difference UTC 6-10 UTC 14-18 UTC 22-2
Berlin 2 8-12 16-20 (0-4)
Cape Town 2 8-12 16-20 (0-4)
Delhi 5.5 11-15 19-23 (3-7)
Seoul 9 15-19 (23-3) 7-11
Sydney 10 16-20 (0-4) 8-12
Americas Los Angeles 17 (23-3) 7-11 15-19
New York  20 (2-6) 10-14 18-22
Sao Paolo 21 (3-7) 11-15 19-23

In this framework, which is for the Northern summer (e.g., July 2024),
In this way, every hub is in real-time contact with most hubs for 8 hours per day, and with all hubs for at least 4 hours per day. At the same time, the activities at each hub are confined to reasonable working hours. 

Equality of hubs. To minimize flying and optimize the conference experience at all hubs, the hubs should be as equal as possible. One task of the central organizer is to minimize the following differences.
From a logistic viewpoint, hubs differ in another way that needs to be kept in mind. The hubs near the Pacific rim are essential because the Pacific is so wide: without those hubs, the time difference between adjacent hubs becomes more than 8 hours. In the above table, the Los Angeles hub (or another hub in the same time zone) is the most crucial for the success of the conference. The hubs in Seoul and Sydney are also important (one of the two is crucial). The New York hub is optional and can be left out without affecting the overall structure. Global plenaries. At a traditional conference, a plenary session is one in which all participants meet in the same large room. At a multi-hub global conference, a plenary that includes all hubs is only possible if some colleagues work during the night. Opening/closing sessions and global society meetings therefore happen twice, in two different (consecutive) 4-hour slots. Participants at the second meeting are informed at the start about happened at the first meeting, and/or have the opportunity to watch a video of the first meeting before the second one starts. The result is more inclusive than a plenary at a traditional single-location conference, which excludes colleagues who cannot afford the total cost of travel, accommodation, and registration. Seen in that way, both formats have advantages and disadvantages.

Finance. Each hub is a mini-conference with its own budget and registration fee. Registration is lower in countries with lower GDPpc, to encourage inclusion. Expenses that hub organizers will need to consider 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 needed to cover costs. Idea: If one of the hubs runs a peer-review procedure on behalf of all hubs (see "sub-organizers" below), 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 hub in question (e.g., by credit card). Additional possibilities include grants and transfers from other hubs. Many universities are interested in projects to promote international collaboration and/or reduce emissions and may for that reason support multi-hub conferences financially, once the concept is explained to them. Room rents may be reduced or eliminated in this way, or simply by using regular teaching rooms with their their internet, computing, and projection equipment.

Regional societies. 
Each hub creates a new sense of regional academic community among physically present participants. That can help local colleagues establish or strengthen regional academic societies -- an aspect that is especially interesting in new regions where the conference's research area is not yet clearly established and institutionalized. The conference enables new personal contacts to be made that are relevant for the subsequent development and institutionalization of the discipline in the new region.

How many hubs? 

For a global conference in a typical academic discipline with several hundred participants, the optimal number of hubs might be roughly seven. That's one for each inhabited continent (North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia) and one for India (an important country for many academic disciplines that is relatively distant from Europe and Eastern Asia).

Why seven hubs? 
Let us assume that we want
Within those constraints, the minimum number of hubs is three. As we have seen, one possibility is London, Tokyo, and Los Angeles, which are exactly equally spaced in the Northern summer. Unequally spaced hubs (e.g. Brazil, Europe, Japan) are unsuitable for reasons of timing and programing. With 4-hour working periods and a 4-hour siesta, the morning session at one hub can only coincide with the evening at another if the distance between two hubs is 8 hours. If the difference is 10 hours, (e.g., Montreal to Sydney in the Northern summer) there are two fewer hours of real-time interaction per day, which poses a serious programming problem. A possible solution is to add an extra hub (e.g., Los Angeles). A difference of 12 hours (e.g., Tokyo to Sao Paolo in the Northern summer) is out of the question.

A conference in London, Tokyo, and Los Angeles would be more inclusive and sustainable than a single-location event, if it was intended only for people in richer countries. But it would not be inclusive from the perspective of poorer countries. Most colleagues in poorer countries could not attend for financial reasons: travel, registration, and accommodation would all be too expensive. To fairly include colleagues in new regions -- treating them equally and overcoming colonialism -- we would need extra hubs in South America, Africa, and India. Since Australasia plays an important role in most academic disciplines, it should also be included, bringing the total to seven hubs.

One might argue that the conference could be situated entirely in new regions, with hubs in South America, Africa, and India. Given the time difference between India and South America, a fourth hub would be needed in the Pacific region. But that arrangement would force colleagues in richer countries to fly intercontinental, and the carbon footprint of the conference would be too high.

For these various reasons, a 7-hub conference seems optimal. Interhub spacing can be uneven, provided the time difference between any two adjacent hubs does not exceed 8 hours. From the perspective of the conference chair, a 7-hub conference is easy to organize if each hub is responsible for presenting and transmitting its own program according to common guidelines. A 3-hub conference is more difficult to organize than a traditional single-location conference, but beyond that each additional hub does not create  more work if the hubs are self-organizing.

The biggest academic conferences 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 be split across as many as 100 hubs with 100 participants each. There could be 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?

The optimal number of hubs depends on
two opposing criteria:
To imagine how a multi-hub conference would work, it helps to consider possible numbers of participants at each hub. In the 4-hub conference that I organized in 2018, there were roughly
The main problem with that conference was the time difference between Montreal and Sydney (10 hours). We could have solved the problem by adding a 5th hub on the West coast of North America.

A future academic conference with several hundred participants could have 7 hubs, with participant numbers distributed roughly as follows:
In this way, the total number of participants would depend on the number of hubs. A traditional conference that attracted 500 participants to a single location could perhaps attract 1000 participants when converted to multi-hub. The larger the number of participants, the better is both inclusion (more cultural diversity) and sustainability (lower emissions per person).

Smaller hubs could have fewer lecture rooms and show fewer of the available presentations, and the duration of the live program could be shorter (say, 1-2 days instead of 4-5). Larger hubs could have more rooms and a bigger program (both live and virtual). Participants at all hubs, as well as remote participants, would be free to watch any presentation privately, either in real time or later as a video.

The above estimates show that hubs do not have to be similar in size to be treated equally. Smaller hubs can have the same nominal status as larger hubs. Larger hubs maybe nevertheless be perceived as more interesting, with more choice on the live program and more opportunities for face-to-face interaction.


Not much can go wrong at a multi-hub conference that could not go wrong at a traditional conference. The internet is not going to suddenly collapse. At the conference I organized in 2018, no talk was canceled or delayed for technical reasons. The most important thing to maintain is speech intelligibility.

Internet speed. Check in advance that all rooms in all hubs have a fast connection. Check the speed at different times of day and different times in the year, to be sure. A proposed hub location may be accepted or rejected on this basis.

Web conferencing. At the time of writing, Zoom seems to be the most promising platform. But things are changing all the time, and there are alternatives out there (e.g., crowdcast), so check out the latest developments. For Zoom, you will need the cheapest upgrade, to enable long transmission times. Start running Zoom during the break that precedes a given session, and keep it running until the next break. After that, create a YouTube video -- a permanent record of the session. (Back in 2018, we used YouTube live streams to transmit talks from one hub to another, because at that time Skype was not fast enough.)

MIcrophones. It is nice to have wireless microphones for discussions after talks. But that can be tricky to set up, and it usually means you will need a technician in each conference room. The following simplified solution requires neither technical support nor special equipment:
This is just one of several possible local sound/image setups. Each hub can address the issues differently, depending on available equipment and expertise.
Cancelations and transmission failures. During the conference, if a hub fails to transmit a talk at an arranged time (because the speaker is ill, or there is a transmission problem), a new virtual talk can be added to the programs of other hubs, giving first preference to real-time transmissions. Otherwise, videos from previous talks can be shown at different hubs. Each hub organizer can do his independently. Hub organizers versus sub-organizers 

A multi-hub conference needs a main organizer or chair who is ultimately responsible for the whole event. The chair can be assisted by hub organizers and sub-organizers in different global locations:
Candidates for sub-organizer roles are often ambitious postdocs, keen to make new international academic contacts and demonstrate their administrative ability. With that in mind, hub organizers can help the conference chair find potential sub-organizers. Here are some possible sub-organizer roles:

Review. Have all submitted abstracts reviewed. That should be done fairly, helpfully, and by the same standard procedure, regardless of the author's geographic origin. First, check out available software systems to keep track of submissions and reviews. 

Technology. Check that each hub has a head technician with appropriate qualification and expertise (e.g., a master's student in audio technology). Communicate with all head technicians about technological problems and solutions. Carry out tests. Prepare to respond quickly to problems that might arise during the conference.

Program. Agree tentatively with each hub about blocks of time during which the conference will take place at that hub. Assign all accepted abstracts to sessions and timeslots. Check that all presentations appear at least twice on the global program, once live and once virtual. Negotiate possible program changes with local organizers. 

Communication. Maintain the global homepage. Give feedback to each hub about its developing local homepage. Publicize the conference in social media. Respond to general enquiries.

Finance. Help each hub apply for financial support and make local financial arrangements. If a hub encounters serious financial problems, negotiate with other hubs to find a solution, richer hubs helping poorer hubs. If necessary, help each hub to set up electronic registration.


An academic society that organizes a multi-hub conference corresponding to this guideline can realistically advertise it as its best conference yet and a quantum leap in the conference experience.

Size. The conference will be the biggest ever, involving the largest number of active participants.

Cultural diversity will be greater than ever before.

Inclusion. The conference will celebrate the discipline's global outreach by including leading colleagues from anywhere in the world, at the same level and on the same terms.

Academic content.
The new format will help participants see their research and the research of their international colleagues from new perspectives. The re-organization of traditional power structures will revitalize the content. The conference's increased size and cultural diversity will make its academic content more relevant and current.

Decolonization. The format will allow participants from new regions to take on more globally influential roles. It will help global-North participants to become aware of their priviliege and break out of the colonialist cage within they were socialized and within which most research has so far been performed and communicated. Traditional and implicit racist tendencies will be actively undermined.

Sustainability. The format will promote
the protection of global climate for future generations, consistent with current research in climate science, while also contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN and the long-term survival of research and universities.

For this vision to become reality,
we need an open discussion of the issues and a willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things and evaluate the results. To make progress toward better 21st-century conference formats, we need to consciously decide to stand back and look at the big picture, asking why we have conferences, what we want from them, and what we could get from them. 

Note. This text has been prepared for organizers and participants of the International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC). Many other academic conference series in both humanities and sciences face similar challenges and could benefit similarly from the introduction of multi-hub global conferences. Opinions expressed in this text are the authors' personal opinions. Suggestions for improving or extending the content are welcome. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage