Scaling a global conference in a pandemic

24 November 2020

570 participants, 37 countries, six continents, one global conference. 

When COVID-19 hit, many facets of our lives moved online. Global conferences were no different.   

How do you space-shift a conference with attendees from all over the world, into a dynamic virtual event? Professor Alex Zafiroglu, Deputy Director at the 3A Institute in the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science and Co-chair of EPIC2020, can tell you. 

A global pandemic on the heels of last summer’s bushfires became the unsettling and extraordinary backdrop for the EPIC2020 conference, 19-28 October 2020. As the premier international conference on ethnography in business, EPIC brings together people from every industry, including Fortune-500 companies, the world’s top technology firms, management consultancies and design studios, universities and NGOs, public policy organisations and think tanks. As co-chair of EPIC2020 Professor Zafiroglu was at the helm of transforming the conference into a virtual event held this year in Pangaea, a fitting name for the conference platform given the event’s theme: scale. 

As Professor Zafiroglu explains; “We started planning the conference in November 2019 as bushfires spread across the country and lasted for months. ‘At scale’ events kept coming, including the January hailstorm in Canberra that damaged thousands of cars and closed 80 buildings on the ANU campus alone. 

“Around the same time, we started reading about a virus in Wuhan province. The events of 2020 meant that ‘scale’ as a theme for an Australian-based conference suddenly felt prescient and horrifying. By mid-April, we had accepted that EPIC was going to look very different this year and that we needed to shift from Melbourne to a virtual space that could symbolically, and practically, span the globe.”  

A virtual super continent and a clever scaling and overlapping of scheduling did the trick. This year,the event attracted over 570 participants, effectively scaling and democratising conference participation and pointing the way for a more inclusive conference in future years.  

“The biggest challenge was how to design a virtual conference that feels like a global conference. We wanted to put together a program designed to scale our participants’ experience of space and place,” Professor Zafiroglu reflected. 

The answer was Pangaea, a platform named after the supercontinent that was a convergence of all the Earth’s land masses millions of years ago. This was the virtual gathering place for participants: a 24/7 networking hub and gateway to the entire conference program.  

To make EPIC2020 feel global Professor Zafiroglu devised a conference schedule built on a division of the world into thirds and overlapped programming so sessions always included EPIC community members from two regions during hours when people reasonably might be awake and alert enough to attend a conference – generally between the hours of 8am and9 pm.  To maintain the strong tie of the conference and theme to Australia, these regions were named after Australian towns that have particularly interesting stories of scale. These included:   

  • Geelong and the introduction of European rabbits in the 1850s -inviting attendees to consider what happens and what we can learn from past experiences with exponential growth;  

  • Wodonga and the rail station at Albury-Wodonga -inviting attendees to consider what happens when previously separate systems scale and connect; and  

  • Parkes and the radio telescope - inviting attendees to consider what new narrative of the earth, technology and humanities are catalysed when we create global experiences such as the transmission of the Apollo 11 spacewalk.  

The conference program included short-form and long-form activities, from short and sharp visual narratives, to exploring real-life business case studies, and deep dives into new frameworks and practices, along with tutorials, salons, panels, inter-regional mingles and a graduate student colloquium. Mingles, which included activities like chat roulette and share and tale were an important part of building community and recreating the serendipitous connections usually made in-person.  

The EPIC conference is targeted to those professionals whose role it is to ensure that innovation, strategies, processes and products are anchored in deep understanding of people and everyday lives.  

Professor Zafiroglu can see parallels with her work at the 3A Institute which is focussed on keeping people at the centre of conversations about next-generation technology. ANU experts from 3Ai presented tutorials on tracing the data life cycle, scale in design and communication and photography for practitioners. 3Ai Director Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell also featured as one of the keynote speakers, presenting on lessons from the pandemic.  

Professor Zafiroglu has made the leap from principal researcher at a large technology company to professor at the ANU, leading an experimental PhD program to shape the agenda for a new branch of engineering at the 3A Institute. “At ANU my goal is to apply everything I did in industry to building new and innovative knowledge, training and practices in academia.”