Can week-long, zero-carbon, digital conferences work? Photo by: Burst in Business

CANBERRA — The Virtual Island Summit, a fully digital, week-long, zero-carbon conference sought to bring together experts and practitioners to discuss issues faced by island communities.

Following the week’s conclusion on Oct. 11, Virtual Island Summit founder James Ellsmoor told Devex that the format worked well — with occasional teething problems.

"The conversations happening during each webinar were fantastic but ... how do we get continuity.”

— James Ellsmoor, founder, Virtual Island Summit

“We are still collecting formal feedback from participants but, informally, it has been overwhelmingly positive with just a little bit of confusion over the technology — understandable when using a format new to many people,” he said. “From me and participants, it seems that the best feature was the geographic and sectoral diversity that we were able to achieve — people across the world from academia, NGOs, the private sector, and government.

Following the summit, Ellsmoor shared his insights with Devex on what worked well for this digital event, and where there is room for improvement.

Geographic participation

A partnership with the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States meant that the Caribbean was well represented among conference attendees and participants. But Ellsmoor said it was still “a global event.”

“We have had participants joining from across the Pacific Islands, Patagonia, Africa, Europe, the Arctic, and beyond,” he said. “I think the diversity of participants with no one region dominating has been the real value.”

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But the time zones for sessions — largely chosen to support a U.S. and U.K. audience — meant that many of the sessions were not as accessible to many. The decision on time zones had been a practical one to support the organizing team based in the U.K. and Latin America, as well as their mailing list, which was heavily oriented toward the Americas.

But this meant that many southern hemisphere regions, including Asia, Australia, and the Pacific, were more likely to miss out.

“This is an area we would like to involve even more in the future,” Ellsmoor said. “Language barriers really limit the participation of some areas, particularly East Asian countries with islands, but I really hope we can find ways to bring in these countries in the future.”

Encouraging interactivity

Despite the conference encouraging participants to ask questions of speakers, further engagement through the conference app was limited, with Ellsmoor saying it didn't get as much interaction as he had hoped.

"The conversations happening during each webinar were fantastic but ... how do we get continuity and allow them to continue? I’m not sure I have the answer to that yet,” he said.

But Ellmoor believes solving this is important in making digital conferences a successful alternative to in-person events.

“In the long term, we may need to build our own platform.”

Achieving objectives

The objectives in establishing the virtual summit included providing free access to world-class experts and enabling a diversity of viewpoints, as well as holding a zero-carbon conference. Ellsmoor believes these objectives were achieved.

“There is always room to improve but I am very happy with how this year's event went,” he said. “We will be learning how to build the model and hope this will be the start of something much bigger. It has been great to see my idea confirmed that bringing together participants from places like Kiribati, Orkney, Jamaica, Svalbard, and Mayotte does create value through sharing experiences.”

The summit’s opening session was the best attended, with around 200 people engaging live through Zoom, and additional audiences accessing it through Facebook Live and on-demand. The remainder of the week, Ellsmoor said, saw “fairly steady” participation.

“With so many sessions, we expect the biggest value to be for people tuning in to the recording,” he said. “Given the vast array of fantastic content that came up, it is very important that we make this accessible and [we] will be looking at turning it into a podcast to improve engagement further.”

Looking to the future

The teething problems with the first Virtual Island Summit do not prevent Ellsmoor from looking at a second iteration ⁠— he told Devex that a full review will be conducted over the next few weeks to analyze feedback and make decisions about the future.

“Next year, we would like the agenda to be confirmed much earlier, as this time things came together quite last minute,” he said. “With more time to organize, we can improve this and allow people to plan further ahead. Fortunately, everything has been recorded and now we have a vast amount of amazing content that we want to make more accessible.”

Visit the Turning the Tide series here for more coverage on climate change, resilience building, and innovative solutions in small island developing states. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #TurningtheTide.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.