Making Online Meetings Just and Sustainable

Report by Yannick Overzee

With or without Corona, online meetings are here to stay, especially in the world of transnational collaboration. Remote online meetings have the potential to contribute to more sustainability and justice, in terms of decreasing environmental damage from international travel and allowing for more inclusive participation. But how do we make online meetings sustainable and just? 

This webinar was the 4th event of the series on #JustSustainabilityTransitions at Erasmus University Rotterdam, which aims to deepen, translate and connect knowledge and practice on just sustainability transitions. Sustainable and just transitions necessitate that all stakeholders have the opportunity to have their voices heard. Virtual meetings provide an important opportunity therein, yet this does not come without its own challenges. In this virtual meeting about virtual meetings, we invited researchers, activists and policy-makers to share their insights and experiences with online meetings. The three speakers explored the following questions: What are some of the best and worst experiences encountered? What are key tips in organising just virtual meetings? What are some important dilemmas to take into account regarding virtual hosting for justice? And what are the main challenges for online meetings to contribute to #justsustainabilitytransitions?

#1 Virtual meetings as social innovation - Flor Avelino

#1 - Flor Avelino (DRIFT, VCC, ESSB)

The technology of online meetings is an old one, and so is the history of its application. Flor Avelino explains her experience with Zoom as an emerging innovation in the context of her research on and collaboration with grassroots social movement networks like  the Global Ecovillage Network and ECOLISE well before the pandemic hit. Flor approaches virtual meetings as a social innovation over a technical one, and addresses the question of captivating people’s attention through this digital medium and holding space for informal engagement during online webinars. Seemingly counter-intuitively, this means engaging participants away from their screens.

#2 How to engage participants in online events - Vaishali Joshi

#2 - Vaishali Joshi (VCC, ESSB) 

During the past year, Vaishali Joshi made herself indispensable within the VCC team as expert virtual host. She relates her experience in engaging participants in events ranging from webinars to online movie nights, and stresses the importance of doing so before, during, and after the event. This includes the importance of producing visuals that help process the learnings from an event, and ensuring that a detailed script is observed to prepare for all eventualities. Moreover, Vaishali brought to attention the importance of acknowledging the global digital divide and the problem of exclusion on the basis of access to the technology required for virtual meetings.

#3 Towards openness in virtual mediums - Lucia di Paola

#3 - Lucia di Paola (ICLEI and UrbanA) 

In the UrbanA project on Sustainable Just Cities, many online community conversations and arena events were held, which brought multiple insights. One of them is the idea of adding a listening room for participants unable to, or uncomfortable with, joining breakout room discussions.  The lack of informal discussions and conversations has been one of the main casualties of the transition to virtual meetings. Lucia di Paola explained the importance of finding ways of holding uncomfortable conversations in the online format. Indeed, they are the main way through which we are able to bridge differences and move to impart meaningful change. It is, therefore, important to work towards an openness in virtual mediums to accept uncomfortable feedback without defensiveness.

Main insights from the Q&A session 

After the presentations, participants were split up into breakout groups of three to four for a 40 minute discussion of their own experiences with justice and sustainability in virtual environments. This was followed by a plenary session organised and facilitated by Karlijn Schipper to further discuss the topics that arose in the group discussions. Most of the groups addressed the problem of the digital divide as one of the main concerns in rendering virtual meetings more just. Online events often require more time than in person ones, especially to foster engagement with the participants, yet this works paradoxically in relation to this divide, where participants joining in from more digitally precarious regions may find themselves incurring higher costs as a result of such longer meetings.  Some solutions were brought up to combat this, such as providing more streamlined online events that offer distinct offline times where everyone can disconnect from the virtual space from time to time. Moreover the geographic disparity of participants to virtual events leads to the need to consider time zones. Here, an initial sense of inclusion can be achieved by formatting host time zones in the UTC format over local ones, to more easily make time conversions. However, it is also important to accommodate these differences more directly. This can, for instance, be done by catering to different time zones in successive events, or on the basis of geographical representation amongst the participants. Additionally, the question of intelligibility was raised and cultural specificity in participation, both of which can be increasingly strained in the online format. Yet it also presents an opportunity to overcome this challenge through the use of transcription and translation tools now embedded in some hosting platforms.

Visual artist Menah captured the insights of the webinar in a live graphic harvest for participants to get a visual summary of the topics discussed during the webinar.

Virtual Guide

The insights provided by everyone throughout the webinar have been collected and have been integrated into an upcoming Virtual Hosting Guide. Click here to join the #justsustainabilitytransitions mailing list and to stay informed about its release.

Resources from the webinar

About the organizers

This interactive online meeting gathered 35 participants from across the world to share their insights and experiences with online meetings. This event was organized as a collaboration between  DRIFT, Vital Cities & Citizens (VCC) and the Urban Arena on Sustainable and Just Cities (UrbanA) on the 22nd of September 2021 in the context of ECOLISE’s European Day of Sustainable Communities. Vaishali Joshi (VCC), Lucia di Paola (DRIFT, UrbanA), Flor Avelino (DRIFT, VCC) and Karlijn Schipper (DRIFT) shared experiences of their best and worst practices with online meetings, serving to initiate a discussion on how best to foster global justice and inclusivity in the course of these meetings. These learnings were harvested and will contribute to the making of our upcoming Virtual Hosting Guide.

About the Author of the report

Yannick Overzee is working as a research intern for the Vital Cities & Citizens initiative on the theme of Just Sustainable Cities. He recently graduated from his MA. in Cultural Anthropology: Sustainable Citizenship at Utrecht University and is currently pursuing his MSc. in Industrial Ecology at the Technical University Delft and Leiden University. His research interests include urban agroecology, citizen initiatives, justice and sustainability.

Associate professor
Speaker

Vaishali Joshi

Speaker

Lucia di Paola

More information

Vital Cities and Citizens 

 With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes: 

  • Inclusive Cities and Diversity 

  • Resilient Cities and People 

  • Smart Cities and Communities  

  • Sustainable and Just Cities 

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). 

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