One Step Beyond: The ESA Living Planet Symposium 2019
Writing about web page https://lps19.esa.int/NikalWebsitePortal/living-planet-symposium-2019/lps19
Last week I had a rare opportunity to step professionally well and truly outside my comfort zone. I had taken up the rather unexpected but delightful chance to be a delegate at a major international conference in a totally unrelated academic field to my own. If you’ve not picked up from earlier posts, my own research domain is media and communications, within a healthy cultural studies envelope, specialising in academic communication. To spend a few days dipping in and out of the European Space Agency’s Living Planet Symposium, which brought together over 4,000 scientists, industrialists, technologists and industry people in the earth observation sciences was, to say the least somewhat daunting. Thankfully I wasn’t there to present myself!
Technically speaking, I was on vacation, accompanying my wife to Milan, Italy where she and colleagues were contributing to a session concerning their team’s research. However, the chance arose for me to break off from planned my marathon walking city excursions  and attend the conference too. I concluded it would be well worth sacrificing some of my leisure time to increase my experience of interacting with and listening to scholars outside of my normal realm. As the editor of an interdisciplinary title, clearly this was a great professional development prospect!
What struck me, other than the sheer size of the venue and delegate numbers , were the similarities between this and many other conferences in my own fields I’ve attended. From the friendly registration desks and bag of conference swag, through to opening plenary and associated breakout sessions, despite the topic divergence, the symposium still strongly resonated with most professional events I’ve attended. Given the international nature of the conference, I was a little surprised by the opening panel being dominated by white, older men, albeit one fronted by a young, glamourous woman hired to moderate. While she inarguably gave a polished and professional performance, her role’s juxtaposition with the other stage denizens didn’t make for great optics. Going by the twitter feed, this hadn’t escaped the audience’s attention either, and it was heartening to see the BBC’s Jonathan Amos taking the organisers to task for the lack of demonstrable diversity. The less said about a similarly composed panel commenting at one point on Africa’s past and future contribution to earth observation science, perhaps the better.
These slightly uncomfortable elements aside, I spent most of my time at the conference dipping into sessions and observing the speakers. With all kinds of academic communication being a personal interest, meant the opportunity to listen to and watch speakers, divorced from a need to comprehend their content, provided a golden opportunity to conduct a little presentational critique.
For me, I think the chief recurrent issue was that time-honoured foible of trying to cram too much information onto a single slide. The NASA representative for example, but by no means the only one, crammed no fewer than 22 lines on a single slide, displayed for less than 30 seconds. I could almost feel my teeth grinding in frustration trying to parse the information in that talk. I was also amused that, plenary speakers aside, every single speaker I sat through insisted in using a PowerPoint  style presentation. I was rather hoping to see a little more ‘hands-free’ presentation, but I guess academics and industrialists alike fall back on the PowerPoint crutch rather more than we perhaps should. Although, I can be as guilty as the next scholar in overusing, so I’m not critiquing from a higher plateau. It was just a shame there wasn’t more variety in the ‘chalk & talk’ approaches adopted to communicate to the audiences.
There was also a genuinely evidenced split between speakers with media training heritage or experience, and the majority who hadn’t. Most of the plenary speakers had clearly been coached in their presentational style, with for example the head of ESA providing a real standout in terms of clarity and engagement. Very much a style to be emulated I felt. Although, it I am going to be critical, I’d perhaps leave out the string quartet and bombastic Day Today style promotional video the audience were subjected to at various points. At worst it felt like corporate brainwashing, and at best (given the climate crisis theme of the symposium) I began to wonder if I’d stumbled into the final reel of Soylent Green.
While I accept some speakers may have been harder to focus on given my limited personal field experience and lack of shared vocabulary, there were some who really drew my interest. I know more about Finland’s space programme as a result than I ever expected, and was delighted to hear about it. Notably, quite a few senior organisational representatives fell into the trap of assuming the audience will gift them with their attention, simply because of their personal reputation and standing. Sorry to say, attention needs to be grasped, won and captured, it’s rarely genuinely given.
Other weaknesses I spotted were the inability to thread a talk with presentational narrative; the normative preference seemingly being a rhythmic delivery of: facts, facts, graphic, facts then conclusion. Perhaps this observation comes from being a qualitative scholar at an event riven with scientism, positivism and quantitative method. Nevertheless, even in these field facts can still be used to tell a powerful and engaging story, without diminishing the science which underlies them, in a manner which serves to enhance comprehension and retention. I really believe many of the papers I witnessed would have been deeply enhanced through embracing storytelling and narrative techniques, to contribute in creating far more compelling talks.
Finally, I also witnessed quite a range of disconnect between panel topics and the talks inside them. This is something most if not all academic conferences I’ve attended have a tendency to demonstrate. It can be a real disservice to the audience, who likely were expecting to hear one thing, and who then witness a speaker holding forth on a questionable or divergent topic instead. I’m not sure I have a ready solution to this one, but I’d be interested to hear other’s experiences in overcoming this within their event chairing capacity.
Overall then, the conference was eye opening for me, less so for the shiny satellites and exciting environmental-monitoring related technology, but more for the witnessed similarities. Perhaps in this burgeoning interdisciplinary world, it’s worth remembering that even snug and safe within our disciplinary niches, it turns out there’s a lot we all do communicatively which is broadly similar. Albeit, there are also many things we should as scholars perhaps be working towards improving too. I’ll be interested to see if my experiences in Milan, match up to my visit in July to the Utopian Studies Society conference; again an event outside my own disciplinary traditions.
 For those keeping score, I managed about 40 miles in three days.
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