Traditionally the ISSS President proposes a venue for the annual conference. In her presidential campaign video, Roelien Goede shared her intention to organise the 2023 conference in South Africa. The Council and the Board of Directors approved the venue for several reasons. This includes extension of the society's inclusiveness. Specific circumstances resulted in two successive US conferences in 2018 and 2019. Cape Town, South Africa was approved as venue for 2020, but cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2024 conference will again be in the USA.
Historically, the ISSS conference venue primarily alternated between Europe and the USA with occasional meetings in the Asia-Pacific region, often championed by the President to be inclusive of other cultures and budgets. At the same time, the events held outside of the American-European extended the Society's footprint. They enabled the attendance of scholars, students and professionals who would not otherwise be able to attend due to budget constraints. Not only was the ISSS able to expose ideas to the local community, but the community was also able to share and enlighten current systems thinking and practice.
We have given the idea of a hybrid conference a great deal of thought and would like to share our ideas on the matter. Part of our planning has involved attending conferences face-to-face with online participants present (INCOSE-South Africa) as well as attending a face-to-face conference as online participants (IEEE in Gold Coast, Australia). Both experiences and the resulting insights were used to guide our decision.
An African Conference
Roelien Goede is a ninth generation African and the first Society President from Africa. Bringing the conference to South Africa affords many Africans the opportunity to participate. Few conferences and activities of international societies are hosted on the continent. This shift makes the conference accessible to the Global South, and from Europe and Australia. Since 1994, South Africa has a democratic government with a most progressive constitution. Although the country faces many economic problems, tourism is a key revenue generator and travelling to South Africa supports the local community in terms of employment in the tourism industry.
We selected the Kruger National Park for two reasons. Pragmatically, it is safe and easy to reach without self-driving: fewer motorways, lower quality surfaces, and left-side driving means this can be very daunting to visitors. Participants are advised to fly into Johannesburg, stay the night there, and fly into the Kruger National Park in the morning. The details of a travel agent are provided in the special edition of the ISSS Newsletter covering all logistics of the conference. The second reason for selecting the park is the systemic nature of the setting. The park is effectively a country for animals - humans are considered visitors. Yet it affords employment and economic security for local communities. It also affords a rare opportunity to gain an understanding of the harmony present in nature that is part of the South African way of life and informs our perspectives. We hope that conference participants will become immersed in these. Similarly, our keynotes and workshops will celebrate Africa. The programme includes many activities to ensure that participants will experience the Kruger Park in its fullest and, by extension, enjoy an authentic and meaningful experience of this country that can sometimes be missed in conventional conference settings.
Hybrid Conference Technology Requirements
The concept of a hybrid conference means different things to different people. In fact there are two types. In the first type, referred to as hybrid, people can remotely join all face-to-face sessions and participate in the actual session. In the second type, online activity is separate from the face-to-face conference. It should be noted that the 2021 and 2022 ISSS conferences were of the latter type. There was no face-to-face conference at all.
In online-only conferences, the quality of the electronic transmission depends on the internet capacity of the speaker and the receiver in isolation. If the speaker has a good connection (by controlling their other device usage) all the participants have the potential to receive a good quality image of the lecture. Assuming that the speaker has a good connection, the participants are in control of the quality of reception also by controlling their total bandwidth use.
Focusing on the first option noted, a ‘join live’ which we will refer to as hybrid, this requires technology in each room to project incoming images and sound from online participants who joined that room and a roaming microphone and camera to project the activity in the room to the online participants. There are 5 conference rooms all filled with participants browsing the internet and this is outside of the control of the organisers. The quality of the transmission depends, therefore, on the ability of the venue's bandwidth to handle five video streams out with all 100+ people browsing the internet, whilst receiving video streams via zoom from all the online participants.
The data-loads for the two options are, therefore, vastly different. Even at specialised conference venues and universities the bandwidth for online participation in face-to-face rooms are problematic. To increase the bandwidth at a venue is very expensive and not in the budget of any conference. Both the conferences attended (INCOSE-SA and IEEE Gold Coast) were hosted at high class ultra-modern venues and both still experienced online communication problems and online participants were to a degree isolated from the attending participants.
The setup in each room requires a skilled facilitator to ensure that the voice of online participants is equal to that of attending participants when questions are selected. At least one additional skilled technician is required to handle the video / audio equipment to ensure realistic interaction. Due to the additional technology costs, participants registering to attend online would experience much higher registration costs than in 2021 and 2022. From a budgetting perspective, this is also problematic for the Society because the cost is fixed in nature. The same level of investment in technology and technicians must be there even for 1 online participant.
Hybrid Conferences Time Zones
Apart from the technological issues, as an international society, the “join the face-to-face sessions” are also challenging from a time zone perspective. Our programme will celebrate the situatedness of the Kruger Park. We will have many activities outside the conference rooms filling time from early morning to mid-evening. Our conference room activities are currently planned to be from 10 am to 3 pm and again from 7pm – 8pm, local time. When it is 10 am in the Kruger National Park it is midnight in San Francisco and 7 pm in Sydney. This means that most activity in the morning excludes the American online participants and all afternoon and evening activity excludes the Australian online participants. We use these groups to illustrate the problem, but everyone outside Africa and Europe will have similar problems. The higher cost might therefore not yield the expected outcome for the online participants to be ‘in the room live’.
Conference Purpose: Emergence
Emergence is what we seek as systems thinkers. That is what we do and expect from interaction. A conference is designed to create opportunities for interaction - to engage in conversation. Sitting on a bench next to the river watching impala drink water, or having lunch together discussing the specific aspects of a talk, or catching up after the early morning round table is what we do and dearly miss! This cannot be duplicated online with even the most advanced technological facilities.
If we have online participants many of our natural engagement activities will be spoiled by trying to give online participants a fair and equal opportunity. The round table for example will be so much more fun if we do it outside next to the river or under a tree filled with birds than in a conference room where every move is captured on camera and microphones are passed along.
We are planning a festival for a conference with live music, sessions on birdwatching and meditation, conversations around the fireplace at night whilst being aware of the starry skies of the southern hemisphere, not to mention the sound of the hyena in the bush. These experiences are impossible to have online.
The disruption of traditional conference formats has largely focused on the technical: how to transfer existing models into 1s and 0s. This year’s conference committee takes the challenge of the disruption of the traditional conference format as an opportunity to dedicate effort on focus on exactly why, when, where, how, who, and what it is we do at conferences.
With these aspects in mind we will deliver an African conference that is uniquely in and of South Africa and its way of life. We will be focusing our attention on the quality of face-to-face rather than attempting to navigate what even the most technologically advanced conference halls and institutions grapple with: the as-yet insufficient technological advances that compromise how we can deliver an equally engaging experience online. Some traditional highlights of the conference - such as the keynote address – will be shared as high-quality recordings and posted for members-only section of ISSS.org.
There is no way we can guarantee sufficient bandwidth for the variable demand required in a setting with only mobile-network internet. It will be highly unethical to allow people to pay and register online and then every session turns into a slowly turning icon on a video stream from overwhelmed internet usage. We are realistic about how much online participants will be able to experience due to time zones and the nature of having a conference in a national park. To recognize that travel to South Africa may prove financially prohibitive to some, we published a call for financial assistance and a request for donations in the conference special edition newsletter.
Come share a once in a lifetime opportunity in the Kruger National Park!
Even the animals are looking forward to your visit!