By Lance Simon and Judith Nielsen
It was a conference with a conscience. The title: The Sustainable Operations Summit. The objectives: Highlight sustainable operations occurring throughout the Agency, integrate more of them into existing programs, and dialogue with other agencies and partners about how to collectively further sustainability goals. The topics: biodiesel infrastructures, the woody biomass, and the industrial ecology life cycle assessment, to name just a few.
And with objectives and topics like that there had better be one more item on your agenda – make the conference itself green.
The United States Forest Service did just that. Although it had been offering environmentally-friendly sustainability summits for four years, this year’s Virtual Services Lead, Jim McGinnis said they wanted “to walk the talk even more.” In the end, they not only walked the talk, they jogged it.
They did that by creating a hybrid conference – a combination on-site and remote meeting with presenters and attendees from all over the country. With help from the virtual learning technology company, iCohere, the USFS produced three days of plenary and concurrent sessions they hoped would not only save them money, but would help save the planet. First, however, came the technical challenges.
“We were limited to approximately 25 sites without overloading our internal network systems,” said McGinnis. “So this new format provided us with internet connectivity, on-demand viewing, all kinds of things.” What made McGinnis happiest was the USFS was also using its own internal technology capabilities to the fullest, while iCohere augmented them – an admitted “sweet spot” for the waste-conscious Forest Service.
The next challenge was to get the employees there – there being their computers. Even though it might seem the Forest Service was preaching to the greenest choir in government, it wanted the biggest numbers possible for the conference, and that meant incentives. So it offered prizes - one to the unit with the largest number of remote participants and one to the unit with the largest percentage of remote attendees gathered in a single location.
It worked. There was 96% virtual attendance and more than double the attendance of its previous conferences.
The conference saved the USFS almost a million dollars in costs, counting travel and accommodations, facility, and other non-expenses. But that’s just the financial ROI. Perhaps most importantly, it saved emissions of 607 metric tons of C02 in air and ground travel, electricity and natural gas. And that’s a low estimate. Factor in more details like types of food, hotel type, waste disposal, and the figure would likely go up.
Organizers said the conference “served as a model of how the USFS can use technology to reduce our footprint. Moreover, the Summit has been an example for others, both within and outside the Agency.”
Says Celisa Steele of online strategy firm Tagoras, “Down the road, USFS might not need connection with a place-based conference for legitimacy or appeal and might be able to realize an even more dramatic environmental benefit through a standalone virtual conference.”
That’s exactly what the USFS is thinking. For upcoming conferences, it’s considering an all-virtual venue, leaner and even greener… forest green, in fact.
For more information on the Sustainable Operations conference, join the USFS meeting team, on April 25th in a webinar discussion hosted by virtual services provider iCohere. http://gov.icohere.com
“This webinar and the above blog are produced and funded by iCohere, Inc. The Sustainable Operations Summit conference is funded by the U.S. Forest Service. Any views expressed in the webinar or blog are for general educational purposes only and do not represent any official views or positions of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Government, nor the Sustainable Operations Summit Core Team.”