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Conference locations and sustainability aspirations: towards an integrative framework?

Editor's note: The blog of the AESOP Young Academics network is a great place to share and showcase your research about a wide range of topics related to spatial planning. Here is a timely case in point, published on the final day of the YA conference 2019 in Darmstadt.

Authors: Fabian Wenner (Munich University of Technology), Freke Caset (Ghent University), Bart de Wit (Ghent University).

Academic conferences convey many benefits. They facilitate knowledge exchange, foster personal networks and expose participants to different and inspiring spatial and socio-institutional environments. They may furthermore offer escape from daily routines and provide the chance of experiencing new, perhaps exotic, places. Unsurprisingly, over the last decade academic conferences have grown strongly in number and size. This is a trend that has been supported by the expansion of universities and the differentiation of disciplines, but also by the relative reduction of the costs and effort to participate. Some conference series have developed into global events attracting scholars from all over the planet.

These general trends also affect the academic disciplines concerned with spatial planning and research. Take the case of the Association of European Schools of Planning which was founded in 1987 and has meanwhile diversified into a number of sub-associations, each with their own conferences, such as AESOP Young Academics, the AESOP Transport Laboratory of Thought or the International Academic Association of Planning, Law, and Property Rights, alongside the almost 1000 attendees strong annual meeting.

The proliferation of international academic conferences nonetheless poses some considerable questions concerning its sustainability. From an economic sustainability point of view, conferences should aim to bring together a large and diverse group of attendants at low financial and non-financial costs. From an environmental point of view however, the climate impact of international conference mobility is increasingly recognized as problematic and has recently received much scholarly attention. From a social sustainability perspective, international conference organisers should ideally pay attention to the spatial distribution of conferences, since they allow local participants to tap into global knowledge networks. At the same time, they may generate other positive externalities such as local added value in the hospitality industry.

Organising a conference thus comes with a range of (more or less explicit) decisions, which result in differentiated ecological, economic and social sustainability outcomes. Our recently published paper in disP - The Planning Review “Conference Locations and Sustainability Aspirations: Towards an Integrative Framework?” focuses on two of these decisions in particular: the deliberation regarding conference location(s) on the one hand and conference format on the other hand.

As for conference locations, there may be a deliberate focus on geographical proximity between the conference venue and the pool of participants. Alternatively, a more secluded location or additional touristic benefits in less accessible or more ‘peripherally’ located areas may be explicitly desired. Another, arguably prevailing, logic is ad-hoc, based on candidacy and thus involving a fair dose of coincidence. As for the conference format, a variety of possibilities also exist. For example, while the majority of academic conferences are single-venue meetings, there have been recent experiments with multi-venue conferences, where a conference is hosted simultaneously across several venues which are interconnected by video-telecommunication. Conferences may also change locations from year to year, typically rotating among member institutes, or they can be organised at the same location each time.

Each particular combination of conference location and conference format alternatives will lead to different sustainability outcomes in terms of ecology, the economy and society. We contend that these considerations and their implications seem particularly relevant to the disciplines of spatial planning and research, as balanced sustainability is a widely acknowledged disciplinary goal. Nonetheless, there seems to be only little debate on this topic among scholars working in the field.

Against this backdrop, the paper develops a conceptual framework for conference location and format decisions. Afterwards, the framework is applied to the 2017 edition of one of the largest annual academic conferences within the domains of spatial planning and research: the AESOP conference.

Following these theoretical and empirical explorations, we conclude that one of the combinations of format and location decisions distinguished in our conceptual framework may be of particular interest in order to meet meaningful sustainability aspirations. A rotating multi-venue format with centralised secondary venues seems most promising in delivering the most sustainable outcomes. Depending on the geographical reach of the conference, a replacement of one global with multiple continental venues or one continental with multiple national/regional venues, supported by teleconferencing, could drastically reduce the environmental impacts of conference-related travel. In terms of social sustainability benefits, such actively-pursued, programmed spatial rotation of venues among members could furthermore ensure a fairer distribution in outcome rather than a “neutral” location application process, disseminating more widely the local planning issues and challenges of the host locations. From an economic perspective, we nonetheless hypothesise reduced advantages in terms of the agglomeration economies, exchange of knowledge and the potential for serendipitous contact. The exact outplay of these economic effects will nonetheless depend on the number of secondary venues and other parameters involved. Positive economic benefits may however arise due to increased efficiency gains (reduced travel times and, most likely, travel cost).

Hence, a crucial avenue for further research is to increase our understanding of the extent to which the social practice of interaction with fellow academics at conferences, and the scientific progress that may arise from it, could be jeopardised by this new type of academic conference. Future research and practical experiments should therefore aim to elicit preferences, values and expectations of academics in order to identify the conditions that are necessary to render multi-venue conferences an attractive and broadly-supported option.

On our (sustainable?) way to Venice... the AESOP 2019 Congress will be the next big conference for the AESOP community. Photo credit: Roberto Trombetta on Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

We conclude with the contention that in particular spatial planning and research organisations dealing with sustainability issues should translate these concerns more explicitly through their decisions on conference format and location. More than in other disciplines, location is crucial, as the “laboratories” of planning are the very cities and regions. While currently these considerations may be of a pragmatic nature, we assert that conference committees should aim for emission-minimising and spatially-balanced conference locations in the longer term by pursuing a more active strategy.

Fabian Wenner is Research and Teaching Associate at the Chair of Urban Development at Munich University of Technology; Freke Caset is PhD researcher in Geography at Ghent University; and Bart De Wit is a geomatics expert at the Deparment of Geography at Ghent University.

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[…] is an updated version of a blog post first published on April 5, 2019 on the blog of the Young Academics of the Association of European […]

[…] is an updated version of a blog post first published on April 5, 2019 on the blog of the Young Academics of the Association of European […]
Guest - Highlights from 2019 | AESOP Young Academics (website) on Wednesday, 08 January 2020 16:20

[…] Wenner and colleagues discuss the significant sustainability issues associated with international conferences, particularly: conference cost, travel mobility and travel-related environmental impact). They […]

[…] Wenner and colleagues discuss the significant sustainability issues associated with international conferences, particularly: conference cost, travel mobility and travel-related environmental impact). They […]
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