William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 23 September 2022

In November 2011, the organizers of the annual fireworks display in the beautiful town of Oban got in a muddle. Instead of their show taking 20 minutes, the whole carefully choreographed lot went up in 45 seconds. It was all perfectly safe so the (surprisingly short) video of the event is one of the most stupendously silly things you will find on the internet today: chaotic, brief, stunning, colourful, intense, loud, joyful and somewhat predictably called the ‘Obang Fiasco’.    

It’s a strange place to start a blog about iPres but it came to me while I was driving home from the conference on Friday. iPres 2022 started with an email exchange in the first week of March 2017: five and half years in planning and less than five days in delivery. I have common cause this week with the astonished audience of Obang. What on Earth has just happened?

Fractal Paths

If I could offer one message about conference planning it would be to understand that it’s entirely not a linear process. It’s more like a fractal drift where every single decision creates an infinite regression of smaller ones. You go round and round and round till you either run out of time or energy or both.

The best example is the call for contributions which (in our case) opened the floodgates of proposals and suggestions. Of course you then need to assign reviewers; and decide how they will do the review; and review the review criteria; and decide whether you agree with the review outcomes; and then how to communicate the review; and whether review actions have been followed etc.

That’s just one obvious case study but it’s true of every single decision you make. Sometimes you know even from the outset (strictly no bagpipes indoors); sometimes you get to the details just in the nick of time (those lovely pictures on the draft marketing materials, you know that’s Edinburgh right?); sometimes you can make a virtue of it (well if you can’t do more scarves in time can you do ties or hip flasks?); and sometimes with the best will in the world, the details evade you (yes the cupcakes were colour-coded vegan and gluten-free alternatives but we completely forgot to tell anyone). Sometimes it’s just too late (I’ve completely run out of time to give any meaningful closing remarks, so here’s some music instead); or you just can’t process any more (I’m refusing to take a view on which particular shade of green the volunteer hoodies should be). But every single decision creates more decisions.

(Photo by Roberto Ricciuti - Mint green volunteer hoodies)

What delegates experience is the great heap of small decisions informed by the insight and ambition and rush and luck and flaw and humour and humanity and values and budget and expediency which swirl around them. 

Here are some of the decisions which I think we got right:

Do what we said we’d do: we made a determined effort to stick to all our deadlines so there was no doubt that iPres would go ahead. The UK has had three governments since 2017, and we launched the conference in a pandemic. The call for contributions was just closing as a land war broke out in Europe. A little confidence is needed against these odds. The call for contributions closed at the advertised date (a few late entries took advantage of our offer of alerting us that a late submission was imminent, but there was no extension to the deadline); and the conference dates, 12-16th September, were exactly those proposed in 2017.

Environment: I think 2022 was the first iPres to have a policy to remove, reduce or offset environmental damage. There’s also an assessment framework to help us measure the impact and help future hosts understand this element. There was no conference pack at all.

Hybrid: we webcast two streams from the venue, hosted a third stream entirely online, and recorded a fourth. This is a hugely expensive undertaking but we hope will be incredibly valuable in the long run as well as in the present.
Red Carpet, Sunrise Sessions and Late Shows: we wanted the online conference experience to be more than simply a series of presentations, so attempted to draw online delegates into the venue with short informal programming with in-person delegates.

New Entrants in the Program Committee: We invited a very large program committee, explicitly with people who had not served on a program committee before. They will be the next generation of leaders in our community and I look forward to the many wonderful conferences which they will organize.

Welcome and inclusion from the outset: we were explicit that the conference policy of welcome and inclusion started at the very beginning. Reviewers were briefed that every contributor should have a positive experience even if their contribution was not accepted.

Single Platform: we used a single platform from abstract management through to registration, and to populate the conference app. In doing so we moved iPres away from EasyChair whose integration with other systems and data protection policies seem antiquated.

Local Legacy: we wanted to make sure that agencies in Scotland could take advantage of the presence of so much professional expertise in the country. That was the origin of the professional visit program on Friday and exceeded our expectations.

Here, in contrast, are some of the hopes that never got off the ground but which I think are worth exploring:

Simultaneous Translation: the hybrid platform allows simultaneous translation. We experimented with different options here but the demand didn’t seem to justify the expense at this time. But if iPres is really an international conference then this will need to be developed further.

Child Friendly: we wanted to provide some capacity for childcare at or around the conference venue, such as a nursery. This request seemed to surprise the venue and our professional conference organizers and is not standard. The cost was significantly more than we could justify but again if iPres is to be an accessible conference this seems non-trivial.

Public Program: we had hoped to have a public program for iPres to engage a wider public. We identified this as a ‘nice to have’ in case the conference found itself in significant surplus but the costs of the hybrid platform meant the conference only began to break even too late to be able to do much in the public domain.

Next-Gen Take Over: we had an idea that, for all iPres is about handing things on to future generations, no one has ever yet asked them what they'd like.  This is surely an oversight.  We consulted with colleagues in a number of school and educational bodies in the city to see if we could engineer a sort of young-person’s takeover day so that the next generation was very obviously present. It was just too much of a stretch to do that, but still worth trying.

My highlight? I think I only made four actual papers at the conference so I think I can be excused from being specific; but also that would be invidious. So for me the most satisfying moment was standing back and seeing the seemingly infinite regression of details coalescing to create the whole picture, not as a plan but a lived experience.  I realise that I enjoy real life more than I enjoy a spreadsheet.

(The iPres 2022 conference theme on the lectern boards.  NB the cityscape to the left is definitely Glasgow)

I remember an early discussion about conference themes. We had adapted the theme ‘Let Digits Flourish’ from Glasgow city’s own motto ‘Let Glasgow Flourish,’ which caused a brief discussion of the other elements of the city’s coat of arms, including the little bird which sits in the tree. It’s always a small bird - a robin or a sparrow or a starling and I remember one keen birdwatcher on the DPC staff being unimpressed that it wasn’t some great imperial eagle or wise old owl. That memory returned to me as I passed the amazing mural on High Street close to the venue on the first day. The bird is supposed to be small. It derives from the legend of the city’s founder Saint Kentigern more generally known as ‘Mungo’ a name which means ‘the big man’. He is credited with restoring to life a small bird which had been killed through some rough and tumble play of his school mates. It’s an allegory: you can only become the ‘big man’ if you pay close attention to the small things.

So it’s time to call out the names of all friends and colleagues who have earned and shared that title this week.

( Photo by Sharon McMeekin - St. Mungo mural, High Street, in Glasgow)

I have spent literally the whole last week emailing (many hundreds) of reviewers and volunteers, chairs, committee members, sponsors and suppliers and many many more to thank them for their contributions. At least one program committee member has been in touch to say that he’s missing the fortnightly meetings and is hoping I might call one for old times’ sake. I am tempted to do so, but they would just hear me saying thank you over and over in an increasingly husky voice. So I am going to turn tables on them and ask them each for a conference highlight.

Looking back at my notes from March 2017 I was both sceptical about our capacity to deliver the conference and the interest of colleagues to support it. In one message to our partners in the City convention bureau I said ‘it’s probably 80:20 against doing this but the key people are not available to me just now: their enthusiasm or otherwise will be decisive for me.’ The seeds of the whole conference and its success are folded into that one short clause at the end. The enthusiasm of key people has been completely decisive. The great and welcome surprise has been the sheer number of people and the massive amount of enthusiasm they have brought. That has made all the difference.

As the posters around Glasgow almost say: People make iPres

(Photo credits: Glasgow Convention Bureau) 

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