Sustainability conference made more sustainable by Covid

© 2021 EPFL

© 2021 EPFL

The International Sustainability Campus Network’s (ISCN) 14th conference took place in June 2021 and was attended from some 30 countries on all continents. Hosted virtually by EPFL on the theme "Accelerating Climate Action and Sustainability in Education", it offered several lessons for the future.

An international conference without air travel, with recordings that can be viewed long after the meeting is over, in a word more sustainable, is a dream the organizers of an academic environmental event could have had. It became a reality on 2-4 June 2021 due to the global health crisis. What started out as a big threat was turned into an opportunity.

Indeed, Covid-19 did not spare the International Sustainability Campus Network (ISCN), which now comprises 87 universities worldwide. Its annual conference, a tradition since 2007, could not be held in 2020, and the question of whether it could be held face-to-face in 2021 was tossed back and forth until the decision was taken, late last year, to pivot quickly to a fully online format. The conference organizer, Alfredo Kägi, project officer at EPFL's Sustainability Unit, had to move fast to identify the platform that would be used and to set up a program under these unprecedented conditions.

The ISCN 2021 experience proved that a conference of this magnitude can be successfully conducted in a virtual format while allowing participants to interact. It has also projected EPFL as an institution that takes sustainability seriously and that is working hard towards integrating sustainability in education, research, innovation and campus operations.

Alfredo Kägi, EPFL sustainability project officer and organizer of ISCN 2021

Of the 58 keynote, session and poster presentations, many are now available on the conference's YouTube channel. This would never have happened with a face-to-face event, as the sessions would not have been filmed. For this edition of the conference, all presentations were pre-recorded, except for two keynotes that were live, but are now also available on the conference channel. However, a time-slot was reserved at the end of each session for live discussions via Zoom.

A key moment during the conference was the panel discussion on “Accelerating sustainability: Voices on transformation from the ISCN”, which was followed 366 times on the platform during the conference. This panel was led by Julie Newman, Director of Sustainability at MIT, and included her counterparts Alexandra Aguilar Bellamy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Dave Gorman from the University of Edinburgh, and Davis Bookhart from the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology.

The duty of universities

For the chairwoman of this session, no country or even continent will be able to solve global warming on its own, and "universities have a duty to empower the next generation, as they will inherit the problem and the ongoing challenges of solving it".

The panelists agreed wholeheartedly. "We need to learn from other universities. It's not just about sharing, it's about thinking together", stressed Alexandra Aguilar Bellamy. She also called on universities to raise resources together, to fund initiatives that can impact entire regions, and invited the ISCN to meet more often, with more diversity to represent each part of the world.

Davis Bookhart lamented that higher education is not moving as fast as the world: "The way we teach is the way of the 20th century. Today's students learn differently, they go back and forth on Google. Tests are a terrible thing too, because they push students to revise until the last minute.” But employers need students who are quick and able to learn, he added, and who will have to be good at jobs that have not yet been invented, he said. For this to happen, grades should be less important than a passion for learning, and publications should be judged on their real impact on the world.

Accepting the cost of transformation

According to Dave Gorman, "we have a responsibility to repair the system. Everything cannot always be win-win. We have to accept that transformation will cost us something.”

This sentence has a particular resonance at EPFL, a school of engineering where some highly technological or resource-consuming courses or research projects can be in contradiction with respect for the environment. What to do with these disciplines? Or how can we bring more sustainability into these disciplines?

Putting sustainability at the heart of education was the focus of this conference, with a series of sessions entirely dedicated to different aspects of this issue. Several EPFL staff members took part in the conference, such as Nicola Banwell, scientific collaborator in the Sustainability Unit, who spoke in two dedicated sessions. For her, the move to an online format created an interesting dynamic among the session presenters:

We were interacting a lot more than we would have done if we only met once in person. Because we were preparing the session, recording the session and following up afterwards. So what I really liked about the model was that we could create this stronger link, we had a lot more exchanges and discussions on our respective projects, and learned a lot more from the other presenters. I felt this strong call for some ongoing interaction within ISCN to create stronger links between the institutions and the members of ISCN.

Dr. Nicola Banwell, scientific collaborator at the Sustainability Unit of EPFL

Her colleagues at the Sustainability Unit also highlighted the School's initiatives to bring more sustainability to the campus, for example in food or mobility.

Less air travel

On the issue of transport, there is also a cost to pay, that of freedom. The session on reducing the environmental impact of air travel, coordinated by the EPFL Sustainability team, was one of the ten most attended sessions of the conference. It allowed Luca Fontana, mobility officer, to present the School's past, current and future projects, which have made it a priority to reduce the considerable share of business travel in the institution's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A pilot project in the Faculty of Life Sciences showed that 82% of researchers recognize the importance of reducing international flights, but that recommendations alone are not enough for frequent flyers. The Covid crisis has also taught us some lessons: with a mixture of incentives and restrictions, the goal of reducing the carbon footprint of air travel by 50% by 2030 will gradually be achieved.

Assessment time

For some participants, attending the conference remotely came quite at a cost in terms of sleep and attention. With the time difference, attendees from Canada and Latin America had to get up early while attendees from Asia and Australia went to bed late. But this was compensated by being able to (re)watch the sessions later at their own convenience. " I see a tendency not to prioritize to virtual participation when you are sitting by your own screen and other work tasks are very present," also noted one participant in the satisfaction survey. It indicated though that 93% of respondents would recommend the conference, with several people praising the excellent organization and technical management, but sometimes regretting the lack of personal interaction.

For the next conference, which will take place next year at UNAM in Mexico City, Alfredo Kägi wonders whether it would be logical to go back to full in-person event or whether some form of digitalization will become the norm. If you look at the financial cost and carbon footprint, he says the business case is simple: "The virtual conference costed four times less than the in-person version. And can you imagine the GHG emissions that would have been generated if everyone had come to Lausanne?”