Even the most interactive events based on networking and group discussion can be successfully run online – as the recent STFC Food Network+ (SFN) virtual Sandpit demonstrated.
An opportunity within a challenge
The SFN believes that innovation comes when thinkers from different disciplines are supported and encouraged to try new ideas, even if they have no guarantee of success. The SFN’s Sandpit events play an instrumental role in this, by facilitating informal networking followed by focused brainstorming to develop proposals for collaborative projects that explore a new approach to solve a problem. These proposals are pitched to the assembled participants with the winning entries for each theme decided by democratic vote to receive immediate funding. Face to face interaction is integral to these events; hence with coronavirus-related social distancing restrictions in place, it was clear that the Sandpit scheduled for July 2020 couldn’t be run in the usual format. Like so many events across the globe – from international scientific meetings to cultural festivals – the easiest action would have been to cancel the entire Sandpit. But as SFN technical lead Rakesh Nayak explains, the team felt that the situation actually made it more important than ever to run the Sandpit. “We saw an opportunity to fund some really innovative projects addressing the unprecedented situation the food industry is currently in” he says. “Working within uncertainty is such a focus right now, and learning lessons from this situation could help us address future challenges.” This was reflected in the three themes chosen for the event: Sustainable production at uncertain times; Resilient food supply chains at uncertain times; and Nutritional security & consumer behaviour at uncertain times.
Recreating the experience
Having decided to proceed, the team then spent two months exploring a range of different platforms to work out how to best recreate the experience online. “We were really keen to somehow retain the sensation that participants were actually present at an event happening in real time” Rakesh says. For this reason, LearnBrite was trialled to host the introductory seminar since it allowed the organisers to create a virtual 3D environment, with each participant represented by a personal avatar. “This really did help to recreate the experience of being in a physical auditorium, listening to different presenters - the delegates could even ‘walk’ in to the virtual environment and choose the seat they sat in” says Rakesh. For the following discussions however, Zoom was chosen since it had a greater capacity to manage a high volume of interactions and came with the option of organising groups into separate breakout rooms.
Networking in virtual space
Recognising that an online format would make informal networking harder, the SFN team decided to organise participants into groups with shared interests ahead of the event. “The discussions were held on different days for each theme, so that delegates could work on project proposals for as many themes as they wanted to” says Network Coordinator Gareth Crockett. “But for each theme we assigned participants to subgroups to help us focus the discussions.” These groups were based on the areas of interest that delegates had selected on the registration form. “The aim was to focus the discussion, not to restrict ideas” says Rakesh. “Everyone had the option at any point to change to a different subgroup if they felt it would suit them better.” Judging by feedback comments from delegates, it was generally felt that this approach helped to save time, increase efficiency and reduce social awkwardness in approaching potential new collaborators. “The process was very effective in bringing people together with similar passions and concerns, since we could state our interests on the application form. You need some common ground to start a focussed discussion” says participant Laura Wilkinson (Swansea University). The discussions also sparked new collaborations between industry and academia. “During the Sandpit I made new commercial and academic contacts which I consequently introduced to an existing commercial partner" says Geraint Morgan (The Open University). "This partner later told me that one of these contacts was working in an area they envisaged as being critical to their work, potentially saving them thousands in research. It has led to a very exciting new collaboration to extract high value nutrients from what is currently waste vegetable material.”
The real proof of success, however, came the following week when the participants reconvened to pitch their proposals. Stephen Serjeant (the Open University), who acted as an observer, noted that the online format certainly hadn’t compromised the ambition within the proposals: “I felt the pitches themselves were a step up in quality from previous events" he says. "The online format worked well and nearly early every presentation was skilfully timed to fit their slot." Audience feedback also indicated that the process was much more efficient than usual with many appreciating the anonymity of the voting system. Look out for our next blog post, where we will feature the winning projects for each theme.
“The success of this online Sandpit could set a trend where our future physical events are supplemented by online options to increase our reach and allow us to be more responsive to new challenges” says Rakesh. With the pitches demonstrating that online formats don’t necessarily mean a compromise in quality, Rakesh is keen to capitalise on the wider benefits, such as increased access. As Laura notes, “Having the Sandpit as an online event gave an opportunity for people to attend who may not usually be able to, for instance due to caring responsibilities or lack of funding.” Notably, this was the first Sandpit to have a prominent international dimension, including many participants from Asia and Africa. Online events are also considerably more sustainable, since they have reduced carbon footprints and no catering waste.
"It's never been so important to give people the chance to do high-risk, high-return work as the SFN does. The last Sandpit showed that they come up with some wonderfully imaginative approaches, and I expect at least some of these to pay off handsomely." Stephen summarises. Ultimately, we look forward to the day when the SFN can celebrate the achievements of its membership in person. But the current times have shown that it will take more than a global pandemic to stop our work.
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September 2022 - Caroline Wood, Freelance Science Writer