The Year We Had to Rethink How Conferences Worked

The last couple of weeks, I have watched as Covid-19, aka the Corona Virus, has wreaked havoc on the conference circuit. Already this year, major conferences have been cancelled or postponed. To avoid communicating the infection, shows including the Adobe Summit, Mobile World Congress, and the Gartner CIO Symposium have fallen by the virus’s sword (or protein shell). The list is long, and no doubt impactful on the shows’ organisers and the people who were looking forward to talking and mingling and generally being educated on their subject matter.

Covid-19, may be a conference party pooper, but I for one am glad that the virus has stopped us in our conference tracks.

As a person with a chronic health condition that sometimes makes travelling difficult, the situation with Covid-19 only reminds me of how the conference circuit is often out of reach for certain sectors of society. So, I am taking this opportunity to explain why conferences can be elitist and how we can make them more inclusive for all.


The Chronically Ill and Conferences

In the 6 months up to March 2012, I flew to Australia, the USA, and a number of European countries to attend or talk at conferences. I felt like I lived on a plane. I liked it too. I got to meet industry colleagues, hear amazing people talk, and was able to build my domain expertise through shared knowledge. I had it all. The conference circuit was enlightening and fun and it was MINE!

Around the same time as this intense period of conference going, I became seriously ill. When I think back to what initiated the disease that was to change my life, it seems to fit with a bug I got at a conference in Dallas. I can’t be sure; but certainly, that moment was a defining point in my life.

Between 2012 and 2019 I was simply unable to go to any more conferences. Last year, I attended a single conference – as a panellist at Think Digital Partners in London.

Then, in January this year, I was due to present at Data Sharing Days organised by WiD member, Mariane ter Veen. But, in the run up to the event, I started to have health issues. My disease has progressed over the years from acute to chronic and now I have an on/off struggle with mobility. I was placed under physio and upped my meds to get on top of the problem. As the conference neared, I realised I would not be able to travel. So, I contacted Mariane.

Instead of dropping me from the agenda, she coordinated a remote session to allow me to speak.

She gave me my voice back.

On the day of the show, instead of standing up and talking directly to the audience in The Hague, I gave my presentation to the packed room – from the comfort of my own laptop.


Tech Conferences for All

Being disabled or suffering from a chronic illness; being financially inhibited or with family responsibilities should not actively bar women – and men – from playing an active part in industry events. In her tweet, writer Karrie Higgins makes a telling comparison with the current state of play regards Covid-19, conferences and being disabled.


Conferences in the tech industry have up until now been run primarily for those who can afford them, have the ability to travel to them, or the lifestyle to include them. Unwittingly they have been exclusive, focussed on those privileged enough to be able to attend. But this leads to agendas that end up the ‘same’ with little innovative or representation of different perspectives. In the identity industry, we have a special responsibility to include those who are more representative of the ultimate users of our digital identity solutions. That means looking for speakers who can present different ways of thinking about the problems we are solving.

I know that there will be many reading this who live with disability and chronic illness and yet travel the world for work. I know this because I did it. But it pushes us to the limits of our endurance – and our health. But there are different ways to bring people together – already in use in other sectors of the economy.

Neuroscientists last year hosted a global ‘Twitter’ symposia and academics in environmental science are experimenting with the “Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference Model (NCN)”. Surely we can take the best of their learnings and apply the same to our technology events, creating agendas and speaker programmes that are truly inclusive of all?


“NCN conference was arguably much simpler (and certainly less expensive) than a traditional, fly-in event, especially as there is no need to coordinate air and ground transportation, hotel accommodations, catering, venue and audio-visual setup, conference dinners, and so forth. It does, however, require a modicum of digital expertise.”


A ‘modicum of digital expertise?

Correct me if I am wrong, but as a veteran of the tech industry, I am sure we do have some of that ol’ ‘digital expertise’!!




susanSusan Morrow

Having worked in cybersecurity, identity, and data privacy for around 35 years, Susan has seen technology come and go; but one thing is constant – human behaviour. She works to bring technology and humans together. 

Find her @avocoidentity

 March 11, 2020