torsdag 28 augusti 2014

ICT4S 2014 - We won the Best Paper Award!

This week I attended the Second International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S). I attended the first ICT4S conference last spring and part of the closing remarks was the announcement that the next ICT4S conference will be held a year from now in Copenhagen. The KTH Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC) had a massive presence at last year's conference so it was only logical this year's conference was organised in Stockholm by CESC. That means some of the organisers were colleagues of mine. I guess I could have been an organiser myself had I not been away on a sabbatical (at UC Irvine) during the first six months of this year. My contribution to the conference was thus restricted to submitting papers, reviewing papers, organising workshops (see the next blog post) and, of course, by attending the conference. I think the organisers have every reason to feel happy and proud about the conference and I have seen that opinion echoed by others I've talked to. I short, I think it was a very successful conference. Personally, the conference represented a really nice opportunity to meet friends and acquaintances from near and far (including colleagues from KTH that I hadn't met since last year) as well as some new people that I will hopefully meet again in the future.

But first things first. I submitted three papers to the conference. One paper was unfortunately rejected. I now have to figure out if I should roll up my sleeves and do more work on that paper or if the paper is a "dud" that should gently be put aside. The second paper was accepted, but I have to claim limited ownership since I was only one out of 29 (!) authors - I contributed to the paper with four super-short scenarios of the future and in a limited role early in the process as a discussion partner to the main author, Birgit Penzenstadler. The third paper was written together with my colleague Elina Eriksson and it is the second paper we write together about our efforts of teaching about ICT and sustainability (here's the first paper (pdf) we wrote about that topic). The thing is that not only were both of these papers accepted to the conference (the acceptance rate was around 50%), but both were in fact among the eight (out of 49) papers that were nominated for the Best Paper Award, and, Elina and I won the award with our paper "ICT4S Reaching Out: Making sustainability relevant in higher education" (available online). While I like our paper and think it's good, the award still came as a total surprise to me.

Picture: Patricia Lago (program co-chair), me and Elina Eriksson.

The paper uses our master's level course on ICT and sustainability to make a more general argument about teaching about sustainability - and the third iteration of this course starts next week on Monday. Me and Elina have already planned to write a third paper together (based on our use of the board game GaSuCo in the course) after the course winds down in October. Yet another really nice thing was the fact that two of the students who took the course a year ago worked as student volunteers at the conference and had the opportunity to learn more about the cutting-edge research in the area. It's good for them and it also reflects positively on our course. We can mention it to this year's students and encourage them to become volunteers at next year's conference in Copenhagen which is not too far away...

It is fascinating to compare and ponder the difference between this conference and the conference about computer games I attended only two weeks ago. The biggest difference is in my own attitude towards these events. Computer games represents an interest of mine that is squarely anchored in the past, while the intersection between ICT and Sustainability instead represents my present and future interests. This mean that all the people who came to the ICT4S conference represent people I have a high chance to cross paths with later. Who knows, I might even work together with some of them at some point in the future? The future is unknown and unknowable, but this simple fact will shape my outlook towards the respective conferences in powerful ways; I will be curious and will want to learn more both about the persons attending ICT4S, their research interests and their papers in ways that are essentially different compared to the computer games conference. Why be curious and why bother socialising with people if you think you won't meet the persons again and your interest in the research area in question has withered?

As for the ICT4S conference, the organisation was excellent and the papers chair (Josefin) said she really appreciated the fact that the conference venue was a hotel in central Stockholm. As problems or even emergencies (or "emergencies") arose, she could just pick up the phone and know for sure that someone would answer it and oftentimes be able fix the problem in question within a few minutes. You get what you pay for and it's really great to work with professional people that you can depend on and who will back you up in a tight spot. Perhaps there were some emergencies behind the scenes but I for one didn't notice and couldn't spot them if there were. The conference reception in the Stockholm city hall (Stadshuset) was glorious but I do think they should have had (at least some) gluten-free courses at such a reception. A friend of mine could hardly eat anything at all from the buffet and paradoxically had to go home hungry from tables that succumbed under food.

I did notice it can easily feel more hectic to attend a conference in your home town. While it's great to be able to go home and sleep in your own bed, it also means everyday work routines are never far away from your thoughts, and that other responsibilities (making breakfast and dropping off the kids at school) impinge on the possibilities of staying up late to string along on a pub crawl etc.

The ICT4S conference organisers had once again hired a professional moderator/facilitator for the conference - Peter Woodward of Quest Associates. He made sure times were kept, that people knew what was was to come next, that we regularly flexed our social muscles and made new contacts (through small exercises and regular exhortations) as well as entertaining and challenging both the speakers and the audience with a never-ending string of puns and jokes. Everyone I talked to was very happy with him shepherding us through the program and I would go as far as to say that he personally increased the value I got from attending this conference significantly. It is of course absurd to attempt to put a number on that value but I still suspect the conference was at least 25% better for me than it would have been without him.

The biggest "invention" in terms of conference format, "ConverStations", was a deviation - or perhaps even a clean break - from the traditional paper presentation format of scientific conferences. Despite having accepted 49 papers, the conference was a single-track conference. With the exception of lunches and coffee breaks, all activities (keynotes, panels etc.) took place in one single large ballroom with 25 or so tables. With the exception of the eight best paper nominees, all the other papers were presented in a format that was called "ConverStations". There were two ConverStation sessions and 20 papers were presented in parallel at each session. You signed up for listening to a paper but there were a limited number "slots" and you had to grab a "passport" (a coloured note with the name of the academic paper in question) to be able to attend a specific presentation. After the paper had been presented, there was plenty of time for questions-and-answers and for small-group discussions about the paper directly with the author. For each of the two ConverStation sessions, I had the opportunity to listen to three separate presentations - but it also meant I missed the other 17 presentations so it was a tough call to make those choices of what to attend (also, some presentations could become full ("sold out"?)). Each presenter had to go through three cycles (e.g. present his or her paper three times to different audiences) and I thought that was pretty tough. It also meant the presenter would miss attending the other 19 papers in the same ConverStation session. Here are the ConverStation instructions in writing (pdf) and in the form of a YouTube video.

I think the idea behind the ConverStation format is interesting but I also think it has some limitations. It's hard on the presenters having to present the same thing three times and for them to miss out on all the interesting papers being presented in parallel. Despite this, it seems most people I talked to for the most part liked the ConverStations format. The intimate setting allowed people to get close up and personal with the presenter (or with your audience if you were one of the presenters). I can see that for a ph.d. student, it can be very gratifying to not just give a presentation and get three questions from the audience, but to be able to have three separate 15-minute long conversations with (hopefully) knowledgeable persons who have chosen to listen to your paper in particular and who might be able to give you qualified feedback, advice and suggestions.

Despite this, my suggestion would have been to have presenters present only twice to a slightly larger audience (say, a maximum of 10 persons). This would also mean that presenters would miss out on smaller number and proportion of the total number of papers that were presented. A nice thing about this small-group presentation format though is that not only will the presenter and audience get to know each other, but the people in the audience can also get to know each other (instead of being only a small cog in a much larger and for the most part anonymous audience). Possible problems are if you "get stuck" at a table that did not fulfill your expectations, if the level of knowledge among the small-group audiences differs significantly, or, if one person dominates the discussion and this has a detrimental effect on the session. Some of these problems are present in "ordinary" scientific presentations too though - who hasn't met the persons who is supposed to pose a question at a conference but who instead rambles on about something that is intensely meaningful for him (it's usually a him) but that is of limited or of no interest to everyone else in the room and who never gets to the point but just goes on and on repeating the same thing over and over again without getting to the point but rather just starting to repeat himself by posing the same question in a slightly different way, thereby smothering the possibility of discussing other topics and wasting the time of everyone involved by repeating himself yet another time (am I repeating myself? - you get the point!).

All in all, I thought the ConverStations was an interesting format and I am cautiously positive towards this innovative way of presenting and discussing research results. If the single-track and the single ballroom-sized room was one of the non-negotiable limitations the organisers had to contend with, then I especially think the ConverStations format made a lot of sense.

Even though the industry panel wasn't my favourite activity (it was late in the day and I have to admit I zoned out a little), I still think it was a really nice touch to invite representatives from each company that sponsored the conference to participate in such panel. It's a nice way to acknowledge and give some space to the sponsors and to learn more about their motivation for working in this area without giving the floor over for half an hour of corporate propaganda (as when a BP spokesperson talked about all the great sustainability work BP does at last year's EESD conference - of course without mentioning the Deepwater Horizon accident even once).

Since this is a busy time of the year, I haven't read a single paper from the conference yet (they were available online some time in advance of the conference) and I won't really have time to read anything until October at the earliest. I do however plan to read a fair number of papers and I will eventually (half a year from now?) get around to writing a blog post about the articles I have read. I for example consciously chose not to listen to any of my KTH colleagues' ConverStation presentations but rather prioritised listening to people I don't have the opportunity to meet on a day-to-day basis. I will however read a number of my colleagues' papers (including each and everyone of the six papers that members of our MID4S team presented at the conference!). One of the papers I will read soon though is Christian Remy's paper "Adressing the obsolences of end-user devices" because we recruited him to give a slightly longer talk about this topic to our students (remotely, by Skype) two weeks from now! That's a very concrete example of what a conference does (contacts) and what ICT can do for sustainability (remote lecture instead of physical trips).
There were some flyers for the just-announced ICT4S 2015 conference in Copenhagen, but I didn't get hold of one and there is no info about next year's conference on the web yet. It was however announced that next year's conference would be held September 7-9 and that it would be co-located with the 2015 EnviroInfo conference (I've never attended that conference). I did find it curious and slightly worrying that none of the ICT4S 2015 organisers seems to have attended the just-finished ICT4S 2014 conference. The dates are also a slight headache for me. It might very well be the very same week my master's level course(s) start. I guess that it might be possible to go to Copenhagen with advance planning and brusque alterations of the course schedule - but it for sure won't be easy. Still, both the ICT4S conferences (2013 in Zürich and 2014 in Stockholm) have been excellent and I plan and hope to attend also next year's conference. Writing and submitting papers to the conference will for sure have a high priority in my agenda at the end of this year and in the beginning of next.

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