I’ve always thought conferences were funny things. I’m not referring to the act of gathering people together and exchanging information. That has to be a good thing. But conferences are big business and have spawned an industry of paraphernalia – exhibition halls show-casing companies on stands big and small, branded give-aways, sponsorship deals, lanyards holding name cards in different colours denoting different types of delegates, not to mention the evening parties and dinners. There is an uncomfortable reconciliation required between the balance of the benefits of the information exchange versus the cost and inevitable waste the gatherings create.
This reconciliation is brought into sharp focus this week with the world’s attention on the COP26. The sight of President Biden’s 20 vehicle motorcade travelling towards Glasgow or the thousands of delegates arriving on planes from all over the world, seems strangely at odds with the key message of reducing our carbon emissions. Maybe more should have followed the Queen’s example and recorded a video message and saved the travel. Digging into the costs of exhibiting there, apparently to host a ‘pavilion’ within the conference area could set organisations back as much as £1,000 per square metre.[i]
I appreciate I am missing the bigger picture here. If the conference can bring about success of its key objectives, then the short-term costs are worthwhile. In the case of COP26 there is an even more significant impact by the message conveyed to the wider audience – in this case the global communities looking on through the press and news coverage. The conference sets the tone about the need for action and the coalescence of world leaders (ex China and Russia) in one place certainly gives the impression of unified thinking and movement towards a common goal – even if the work behind the scenes may conclude in a different reality! Moreover, such events can be catalysts to create action or milestones at which innovative ideas can be announced. That certainly is proving the case with COP26 – lots of initiatives being announced, each with the common goal of tackling climate change in some way.
So, as is often the case when I start trying to put some thoughts together, I find myself arguing against my initial theme. The devil’s advocate turns out to have a stronger case. But this does touch upon a thought I have raised before in a number of posts. Notwithstanding our experience over the past couple of years in navigating to a digital meeting environment, there is clearly a strong desire to meet in person. Video calls have their place, but they fall short when it comes to that up-close and personal experience of an actual meeting. When we really want to celebrate an idea or a common goal, there is a strong urge to gather to do so. Let’s hope that the benefits of ‘togetherness’ lead to a COP26 outcome that is truly transformative.