Trying to organize a sustainable conference under pandemic conditions
Concerns are regularly raised in the research community about the cost and environmental impact of conferences. As all organizers we struggle with these issues. Organizing a conference under pandemic conditions does not make this easier at all.
We started by hosting ICSE at a venue that takes environmental concerns seriously (https://www.pittsburghcc.com/). The building itself is LEED Platinum certified.
We take a number of steps in our organization:
- We avoid bottled water and soft drinks. Instead water dispensers with cups and water fountains are made available in the hallways throughout the venue. We encourage participants to bring a reusable water bottle.
- We prioritize plant-based options in all food functions. We use reusable table lining. We minimize single-serving food wrapping and use compostable service ware.
- We avoid bags, souvenirs, swag and other trinkets. We provide only a badge, a KN95 mask, and a minimal printed program while avoiding unnecessary decoration. * We mostly use paperless signage for daily schedules.
- We organize all events within walking distance. We encourage public transit from the airport.
- We facilitated room sharing.
We understand that travel to conferences is expensive. Much of the in-person registration cost (which is similar this year to past in-person ICSEs) comes from direct costs for rent, food, and labor (e.g, A/V techs). Organizing a conference for hundreds of people is fundamentally different from organizing a small workshop at a university. Reliably serving food to 500+ people at a given time and quality while navigating various restrictions requires substantial skills and staffing. Not all costs scale linearly with the number of participants.
Organizing a conference for about 500 people in a space negotiated for 2000 adds challenges. Due to the uncertainty of the Omicron wave, we decided to delay registrations, which made planning extra complicated because we didn’t know for a long time how many people would actually attend. A lot of planning was hence delayed until the last minute and we could not do everything we hoped when we set out planning in 2019.
This year, participants had a choice whether to participate in person or virtually. In order to keep participant costs low for the virtual conference we did not require an additional “author” fee. Virtual participation provides a low-cost mechanism to publish at ICSE with low environmental impact.