SHEFS Hosts Large Virtual Conference During COVID-19 Lockdown
On 30 and 31 March, the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) programme hosted its bi-annual meeting via virtual conference, linking 73 participants from partner institutions - including UKZN - based in South Africa, the United Kingdom and India.
Although this was the fourth time the broader SHEFS team met to discuss the programme, research plans and outputs, it was the first time the conference was held completely virtually, with all members joining in from their respective homes via the Zoom platform.
The onset of COVID-19 has prompted a review of how we operate as individuals, communities, academics and practitioners on a global scale. The global pandemic has transformed our lives, and facilitated a process of deep introspection and re-imagination of how we live and work on a daily basis.
Funded by the Wellcome Trust’s Our Planet, Our Health Programme, SHEFS is an international and interdisciplinary research partnership, which aims to influence policies towards more sustainable food systems, with enhanced social, environmental and health outcomes. SHEFS has been actively contributing to sustainable research not only by conducting high value research studies on three continents, but also by hosting its annual meetings using virtual tools.
The first conference was held in London, in the UK with members from South Africa flying in. The second was held in Durban, South Africa and members from India and the UK flew in. However, in October 2019, SHEFS decided to take a more sustainable route and held the conference virtually, with participants in each country site joining in groups.
SHEFS’ foresight helped to reduce its carbon footprint and save global resources that otherwise would have been used through a face-to-face meeting. It also set the stage for its readiness for continued collaboration during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Planning for the meeting was done by SHEFS Early Career Researchers across the three country sites, and included numerous Zoom meetings, preparation of meeting documents and drafting an ambitious agenda for the virtual conference. The planning resulted in multiple opportunities for engagement across countries, namely, pre-conference “journal club discussions”, where researchers met virtually to discuss publications; “feedback workshops” where researchers received inputs on specific aspects of their studies prior to the conference; and “presenter of another team member’s output”, where members of SHEFS discussed another member’s research and presented the outputs to the broader team during the virtual conference.
During the actual conference, online presentations were seamlessly delivered. It also included breakaway discussions, which allowed smaller groups of up to five participants to hold deep conversations about particular topics, before effortlessly returning to the main virtual room. Like the previous conference in 2019, the March 2020 meeting not only reduced SHEFS’ ecological footprint in terms of travel, but also cut the logistical costs associated with hosting large groups of people.
Although some members experienced intermittent challenges with internet connections, positive feedback was received and all agreed that the aims of the conference were achieved despite the fact that there was no physical contact. While the COVID-19 pandemic created a sense of uncertainty around health, socio-economic issues and general well-being amongst participants, it equally focused discussions on opportunities for the research sector to contribute to reducing the pandemic’s global long-term effects. In addition, participants reflected on possible impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on research results for studies that had partially collected data, as well as the impact on timelines on research activities.
The SHEFS bi-annual virtual conference clearly demonstrated the potential to harness global virtual connectedness to achieve climate and sustainability goals.
Words: Rashieda Davids