An interview with Professor Birte Nienaber and Nicole Holzapfel-Mantin
On September 22, 2020, I met with Professor Birte Nienaber and Nicole Holzapfel-Mantin from the University of Luxembourg (UL) online. The UL was supposed to host the IMISCOE 2020 Conference, which needed to be postponed to July 2021 due to the pandemic. We talked about the last six months, which have been very eventful and busy and looked ahead into the future.
- Birte and Nicole, welcome and thank you for being here with us today! We are here to talk about three IMISCOE-conferences: the postponed IMISCOE 2020 face-to-face conference, the IMISCOE 2020 online conference and the IMISCOE 2021 conference.
As we know, annual conferences are the biggest moment of the year for IMISCOE: is the time when we get together with our 56 and counting institutes and we meet people from all over the world, connect, share knowledge and also quite simply get to talk with those who we have been exchanging emails for the past few months.
This year however, things went differently. The bad impact of the pandemic is felt everywhere and it did not spare academia. The IMISCOE 2020 conference planned to take place in Luxembourg had to be moved online. My first question to both of you is this: when did you find out that the conference could not take place (face-to-face) and what was your initial reaction?
Birte: The first official communication we received from the Luxembourg government indicated that this situation (the lockdown) would only last four weeks. Yet, we immediately concerned whether this situation will last longer. At the time, we thought that it might even last until the summer. During this time, we were always in close contact with the IMISCOE Network Office and around mid-March the decision not to have the conference this summer in Luxembourg was jointly taken.
Nicole: Those were and are crazy times and lots of uncertainties continue to persist. These are unprecedented circumstances for us and it was a hard decision to make. We are six months into the pandemic in Europe and we still do not know how long this exceptional situation will persist and when we will get back to “normal”.
- Indeed the time to be sorry was very short and you had to find a solution. When did you know online was going to be the way forward?
Nicole: I think this idea already started to emerge when we realized that the physical conference will not happen this summer. With IMISCOE we discussed several options and this was the most promising one. However, from this point it took us some time until we knew that we would actually be able to shift the conference online as many questions had to be answered, for example about which platform to use, whether we can afford it and so on.
Birte: We were happy that the EUR, the Open University, and the UL, as well as the BD and EB, worked together on this huge task. This allowed us to not make this decision on our own, but in fact it became the result of the community effort. And of course, the Luxembourgish law would have not allowed the event to take place at that time, hence the new format.
Nicole: It is also important to highlight the generosity of the University of Oslo which was supposed to host the conference in 2021. They were so kind to postpone their own conference for one year, so a great thank you goes out to them!
- This sounds like a collaborative process, which will have impacts on the future of IMISCOE conferences. Generally speaking, Nicole and Birte, how did you experience this online conference and what elements are you thinking of keeping and using again for the 2021 conference?
Birte: In general, I think this conference went really well. Of course, several elements are missing during an online event. Most of all the interpersonal and spontaneous, informal ways of meeting and interacting. To compensate, we had a coffee bar and we were also able to invite people to cook and dance together during brakes. We saw that an online conference requires a different approach and a different way of planning, but also opens up new opportunities on how to get together. With respect to the IMISCOE 2021 conference, we need to think of those people who might still encounter issues getting here next summer. For instance, there might still be travel restrictions in place or some people might not feel safe to board a plane. We might not be able to go back to a fully physical conference but we aim for a strong face-to-face component.
Nicole: That’s right. The conference went very well, which is also reflected in the results of the conference feedback survey. The results showed that most participants were very happy and satisfied about how the IMISCOE 2020 conference went. The majority of participants were understanding that the conference was built from scratch in no time. The IMISCOE-community is a very supportive one. We have already started planning the IMISCOE 2021-conference together with the Network Office as we wanted to take advantage of the extra time. We have gained so much experience and with the additional time available, we hope to be able to change the conference elements that need improvement.
- We talked about the past, we now want to look forward. The current situation suggests that the 2021-conference could be the first ever hybrid conference for IMISCOE. How do you account for uncertainties in your conference planning?
Birte: At this time, it is very difficult to be specific as we are still at the beginning of the planning process. What we have learned so far is that our conference planning needs to be as flexible as possible in order to be able to adapt to any changing situation very quickly. We have to see how this pandemic and the uncertainties will develop. It will take some time to evaluate how much online content we will need to have.
- I have heard that you plan to run the Luxembourg conference sustainably. Can you talk to us a little bit on how sustainable this conference aims to be?
Birte: Since we started planning the 2020 conference, we decided to plan a sustainable and family friendly conference. For instance, we have purchased a conference app, which will allow participants for example to create their own personalised schedule. We will use this app for the first time at the 2021 conference and we hope that ultimately this or another app will replace the paper-version of the conference booklet thus saving resources. We have selected caterers who are using as much local, organic and fairly traded products as possible. One of the catering companies is a social enterprise which employs and trains handicapped people, young people without qualifications and sells products from local workshops and reintegration initiatives, thus actively promoting social inclusion and solidarity. Values that IMISCOE and the UL live and practice.
It is important that the conference will be sustainable and accessible across the board. For example, we are planning to have childcare services to support participants with children. We will keep you updated on the progression of these plans.
Nicole: Yes, the food will be organic, local and mostly CO2 reduced and there will be no single-use plastic - for example, we will not have single use plastic water bottles at the conference but will provide environmentally friendly alternatives. If we really need to use plastic, we will make sure it is bio-degradable or recycled. This conference is a large event and we really hope that its scale will help to make at least some positive social and environment impact, for instance by highlighting the small producers of this region. We hope to show that running conferences sustainably is indeed possible and to get more organisers to do the same.
This sounds beautiful. Is there any last message you have for the community?
Birte: Welcome to Luxembourg!!! This is what we really want to say! We want to make Luxembourg a welcoming place for you. This will be the first big event after Covid-19 to bring people back together. We hope that we will be able to catch up on personal interactions at the Luxembourg conference as this was partly missed this year.
Adham: I speak for myself but I am very excited for 2021. I hope that we can all join in person. I believe the University of Luxembourg’s hybrid and sustainable conference planning could inspire other organisations’ events.
Birte and Nicole, thank you for this nice conversation.
Professor Birte Nienaber Nicole Holzapfel-Mantin