Technology aids sustainable conference

17 January 2011

Did you miss out on attending the ground-breaking Signs of Change National e-Conference in November? Don't worry, you can now view it on YouTube.

Did you miss out on attending the ground-breaking Signs of Change National e-Conference in November? Don't worry, you can now view it on YouTube.

Modern technology allowed the two-day conference on emerging sustainability to be held in Christchurch with live connections between seven venues around New Zealand. And now modern technology is allowing those unable to attend to view proceedings through online videos.

The conference - the brain-child of convenor, Associate Professor Susan Krumdieck of the University of Canterbury's Department of Mechanical Engineering - broke new ground in three ways.

"It broke ground in its use of technology to greatly reduce travel and cost, its focus on emerging sustainability to showcase solutions rather than problems, and participation by a wide range of people from many fields and from across the country to gain a 'whole of society' perspective on the transition toward sustainability."

For the first time, the recent investments in networking technology at New Zealand's universities were used for a nationwide conference, open to the general public. The conference relied on KAREN, the Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network set up four years ago to allow researchers to hold e-meetings. A new interactive video capability, the HD323 bridge, was used to link together lecture theatres at Canterbury, Massey and Otago Universities, AUT, and the Royal Society of New Zealand in Wellington. Venues in Invercargill and Kerikeri were connected via live web feed.

Nathan Gardiner, of the Advanced Video Collaboration Centre (AVCC), was instrumental in coordinating the technology and working with the IT specialists at each venue to make sure the two-day interactive conference went off without a hitch.

"This was a big project to pull off," he said, "but it worked great and demonstrates the potential benefits of the technology."

Local participants gathered at each venue, with the usual benefits of a conference including time away from normal work to focus on a particular subject of interest, catered food and discussion with other like-minded people. Presentations were made from the different venues, and question and answer time had the whole country talking.

"I found myself watching a presentation from Auckland and thinking - why do we waste all that time travelling around to do this? This works great," said Professor Krumdieck.

More than 40 speakers gave short reports on their activities ranging from Steve Earnshaw, an orthopaedic surgeon from Timaru who explained how the first year of the town's weekend farmer's market had been successful at growing local enterprise and social capital, through to Karen Upton, CEO of Envirocomp Ltd, who presented an entrepreneurial approach to dealing with disposable nappies and sanitary waste.

"It was a refreshing approach to sustainability," said Professor Krumdieck. "There was very little time spent dwelling on problems, or what the government should do. Instead we saw how creative and positive people, dubbed 'happy heretics' were pioneering success with a long-term, holistic view."

The underlying theme of the conference was the emergence of a new kind of economy based on innovation and prosperity, but addressing the risks of unsustainable resource use and environmental impact. There was also a common focus on regeneration of both ecosystem viability and social vitality.

"I set out to develop and trial a low-impact conference platform, and we definitely succeeded," said Professor Krumdieck.

"The Engineers for Social Responsibility and the Sustainable Energy Forum promoted the conference as their official gathering for this year. We received a generous grant from the Positive Futures Trust, and I provided the funds for organisations and for students to attend. But the main resource for this project was good will from the local organisers and the universities who allowed us to use the venues at no charge for this trial.

"We definitely reduced the negative aspects of attending conferences. If all of the people had attended at the Christchurch venue for two days, they would have spent more than $120,000, cumulatively wasted 497 hours sitting on airplanes, and had a carbon footprint in excess of 85 tonnes of CO2."

Another benefit of the novel conference design was the higher participation achievable.

"Of course, if the conference had been only in Christchurch, fewer than a third of the 250 participants would have been able to attend. The people in the more remote areas would have been the least likely to be able to participate in a national conference."

The full conference is available for viewing on YouTube and can be accessed through the conference website,

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