2022 Conference Roundup
by Parag Rastogi, Research Scientist and VP of Business Development | Nov 30, 2022 | Blogs
Conferences are a strange mixture of the most private, honest, and meaningful conversations and public declarations of corporate twaddle. At best, they can be an antidote to the pantomime1 of LinkedIn and Twitter2 , where you find yourself learning about the intricacies of government procurement or the applicability of hempcrete in net zero construction. At worst, you find yourself in a windowless basement talking to someone who cannot tell the difference between kilowatts and kilowatt-hours3 . Still, there is something refreshing about hearing an articulate expert lay down hard truths in a well-moderated panel, though that isn’t exclusive to in-person conferences. I’ve had the good fortune to listen in on some of these panels over the last few months and this writeup is based on my experiences of conferences and networking events in arbnco’s biggest markets – the United States and the United Kingdom.
To travel or not to travel, that is the question…
For many of us, this year has been the first year of “regular” travel since the COVID-19 pandemic started (no, the pandemic is not over4 ). The gatherings were an interesting mix of those who have decided to manage risk by limiting exposure through mask-wearing and avoiding crowds, and those who have accepted that they will get COVID-19 like the flu, isolate for a bit, and then carry on. Despite a strong commitment to remote working and online events and client outreach, arbnco decided that a limited reopening of travel for face-to-face networking, business development, and interaction with clients, partners, peers, and regulators was worth the carbon, COVID risk, and expense. Still, something seems to have shifted in how we perceive travel, and arbnco is not the only company where the first question is: can this be done without travelling?
Across most attendees and fellow travellers with whom I interacted, there was a growing awareness that the environmental impact of travel cannot be wished away. While this is based on a narrow sample of somewhat specialised events and conferences, apparently radical concepts can become the norm surprisingly quickly (As an undergraduate only 10-ish years ago, I distinctly remember being told by several well-meaning experts that “green buildings” are a profitless fad and renewables are unlikely to make up more than 5% of generation capacity.). Whether organisations are genuinely keen to improve their impact on the world or they are being prodded to do so by regulators and market pressure, travel, particularly air travel, is a prominent target. Though there are currently few regulations that place hard limits on the carbon content of services or goods, the idea is much more conceivable now than even before the pandemic and is being actively piloted in many contexts. As the reach of this carbon accounting increases, most companies will realise that their scope 3 Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions5 (in this case, from goods or services purchased, like travel) are not insignificant and that they are also their projects’ or clients’ scope 3 emissions. So, if you want to be part of the ecosystem of low-carbon goods and services, it’s going to get harder to brush emissions off the ledger and under the carpet.
They used to (not) care, but things have changed
The first thing that struck me about the past few conferences has been how quickly total decarbonisation has become the new hot topic (long may it reign!). Mere efficiency, marginal renewables, or clever widgets are not good enough – either your vision is total decarbonisation or you’re not getting a speaking slot. One might say this is because Jevons has been vindicated in yet another field6: increased energy efficiency has not, in fact, led to lower consumption. For example, the 2018 CBECS report highlights that even though energy use intensity (EUI) in US buildings has decreased since the first CBECS report in 1979, the same is not true of total site energy use. The ferocity with which the D word took over conferences and airtime does make it feel a little bit like the demand for hygiene solutions during the height of the pandemic – though one hopes this trend leads to lasting change in how buildings are designed and not more theatre and hand sanitiser.
There were earnest proclamations about zero carbon targets from leading property owners, consultants, manufacturers, and even the Pentagon (though for different reasons) and awkward attempts to make the Scope 1, 2, 3 system fit buildings and real estate. Some of the talk was sincere, no doubt, but a career sceptic might be forgiven for marvelling at the rapidity with which so many people’s minds and motivations have been changed by being confined to their homes for a few months while large parts of the world burned, flooded, or faced any one of Pandora’s choicest curses. Given how beholden the evolution of infrastructure and the built environment is to political whims, the sudden urgency of language and action could also be because previously shunned, but ultimately sound, ideas have been brought into the mainstream.
It was great to hear concepts like resiliency or robustness and even their less profitable cousins – indoor environmental quality and health – given serious airtime alongside decarbonisation and energy efficiency. Several speakers across multiple events made the case that these concepts are not necessarily antagonistic. Considering the robustness of designs to the changes in weather normals and extremes does not always require more material use, and consequently more embodied carbon. A building that uses less material now but is likely to be washed away at the next flood is more wasteful than one that is built to withstand and, more importantly, keep its occupants safe, during extreme weather events with a high probability of occurrence in the near future.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, along unknown streets
Conferences, especially ones like Greenbuild that are dedicated to smaller, specialised communities, can sometimes feel like a family reunion at Christmas/Diwali Thanksgiving/Passover/etc., complete with over-competitive cousins/colleagues (who seem to attend more sessions in a day than there are hours), judgemental uncles/industry veterans (we already did this in the 80s), and harassed parents/session organisers (you can either change your slides or you can have a functioning mic, but not both). A well-crafted hybrid (online-offline) programme can make conferences more inclusive (not everyone can get a visa or afford to travel to European and American venues), as can the ability to revisit lectures, seminars, and panel discussions at a convenient hour. I am glad this is more acceptable now than in 2019 and I suppose, as online participation gains wider acceptance, we will learn to replicate offline networking more effectively.
Achieving the perfect balance of open-mindedness to new concepts and ruthlessness in networking takes practice and patience and, ultimately, businesses do not send their employees to conferences for the free tea and coffee, but to increase business. This is particularly useful for smaller businesses that would otherwise not have the reach and amplification that a well-curated programme can provide. At the same time, organisers hope that attendees make lasting and productive connections, so they keep coming back to pay in-person fees. Come for the CPD hours, stay for the friendships…
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantomime, accessed 27 Nov 2022. The marketing department at arbnco would like to point out the irony that you might have found this article on LinkedIn or Twitter.
- Twitter was still functioning when this article was written, week commencing 28 Nov 2022.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watt, accessed 27 Nov 2022. This error sounds particularly egregious as I write this article only a few hundred meters from where James Watt lived, studied, and worked.
- Robert H. Shmerling, ‘Is the COVID-19 Pandemic over, or Not?’, Harvard Health, 26 October 2022, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-the-covid-19-pandemic-over-or-not-202210262839; WHO, ‘The End of the COVID-19 Pandemic Is in Sight’, UN News, 14 September 2022, 19, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/09/1126621.
- Janet Ranganathan et al., ‘The Greenhouse Gas Protocol: A Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard (Revised Edition)’ (Washington, D.C., USA and Geneva, Switzerland: WRI and WBCSD, March 2004), https://ghgprotocol.org/sites/default/files/standards/ghg-protocol-revised.pdf.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox, accessed 27 Nov 2022.