Experiences of an Online Conference

adobe

Online Conference

Last month I attended a conference with a difference, The INSS annual meeting was held in 5 different cities at the same time, as well as online, in an attempt to cut down on travel for participants. I attended the London site and was one of only 2 people to fly to the event. This is remarkable considering that last year we all met in North Carolina and dozens of people flew internal and trans continental legs.

The physical Conference was held at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina, Oregon State university, Arizona State University, Michigan State University and University College London.

Very much an experiment, the practicalities of conducting a conference over several different time zones posed some issues, with early starts for those on the US West Coast and late finishes for those in Europe. The technology worked incredibly well, with very few glitches over the days’ events. Participants were able to ask questions, follow seminars in any of the sites they chose, and interact with the poster and key note presenters using online media.

The event was run out of North Carolina, and the web management was all taken care of from that site. I must say that I was rather skeptical at the beginning, having lived with Skype developments over the years, but how wrong could I be?

Communication Technology

The communication was taken care of using Adobe Connect, so anyone could participate through their own computer or by visiting any of the sites. We in London lost the last 5 minutes of a discussion after one of the lectures, but for the rest it all worked perfectly.

Now as someone who travels to a lot of these kinds of things I can only marvel at the progress made. Each site shared some seminars and papers, but all had different agendas. The London agenda included a day of field trips, as well as as a panel during which presenters discussed their experiences of building the Engineering Exchange, a university lead action group whose aim is to bridge the gap between communities and planners preparing urban regeneration projects. Read the abstract here.

We also toured some of the capital’s largest redevelopment projects, including a visit to Crossrail, a huge rail link and urban regeneration project that cuts through central London. A guided tour of the Elephant and Castle redevelopment area with the interest group “Social Life” followed, a context of urban regeneration that has caused many locals to question both existing and future plans in that area.

The context was also helped by the involvement of a member of a local interest group that aims to support people whose houses are under threat, and promote the idea of refitting houses to maintain communities, rather than rehousing and rebuilding. There is a lot more to think about in urban regeneration that you might imagine.

The Network

The closing panel was hosted in Charlotte and entitled Social Sustainability Initiatives in Planning and engineering Organization. Full details of all the participating site agendas can be found on the INSS website.

The network is open to all interested in participating, so keep an eye on the website for further information. We volunteer our time, we learn a lot, we try to raise social sustainability issues, and we always have a bit of a social at every event. I must say that the multi-site format was a worthy experiment that worked extremely well, and I think could offer a model for future events. Is the era of the online conference coming to life? Looks like it to me.

Maps or I Pads?

airlines-110705

A few months ago I bought a so called smart phone just so that I could use it as a satellite navigation tool. I never wanted to do it, but now I live in a new country (again) and I really couldn’t do without it.

All went well, I got it together, I could use it offline so I didn’t spend all my money on data, but then….

It stopped working. It will still give me a route plan, with a blue line to follow, but the arrow stays at home, so I don’t know how far I am down the blue line.

Now, I still carry maps in the car with me of course, because I know as well as anyone does that you cannot rely on technology. It will always let you down at the very moment that you need it most. That is what it is designed for.

So I get the maps out and all is good. I am not glorifying the world of map reading though. My dad traveled the country with a suitcase full of AtoZ’s, individual city maps. You need a fair collection at $5 each just to cover the UK, and he had to stop the car to read them.

No need to stop the car now though, when the system works of course.

So it heartens me to read that American Airlines had to ground a load of their multi billion dollar fleet this week because one of their Apps stopped working. Yes we love to be paperless, saves on trees (and fuel if you are flying that paper round the world), but look what happens when something small goes wrong.

I like the story though, they had to drive back to the terminal and connect the I pad to the airport Wi-Fi and download something. Maybe that burnt more fuel and cost more runway time fees than the money saved by carrying a suitcase full of paper around.

When I was a kid each diary had a map of the world, a map of the UK and a London Underground map in the back pages. Now there is a serious piece of technology! You get it out, get your Swiss Army Knife with a built in compass to hand and you can navigate your way round the world without any problems.

Ask yourself a question, how many of the numbers in your phone do you actually know? I don’t even know my wife’s number, I lose the phone and I am like a lost child. But I can still remember the numbers that I used to dial 30 years ago of my school friend’s parents. My brain has lost the capacity to remember phone numbers, ambulance drivers and pilots have lost the capacity to read maps, and pretty soon we will collectively lose the capability to write with a pen and paper.

It alarms me that an airline relies on an I pad and an App, and without it the world of aviation (and the commerce that relies on it) falls apart. It also amuses me though.

How much money would it save the company in fuel if all American Airlines pilots went on a fitness regime and lost half a kilo? Maybe they could ditch the badges and wear lighter weight uniforms instead, I am sure there are more reliable means.

Nanotechnology Regulation

Nanotechnology applications chart

Last week I did not post as I was preparing to chair a session at a plenary for the European Commission in Brussels. Full details are available here, but today I would like to pose a few issues that were raised during the event.

This is not the first time I have spoken at conferences about nanotechnology regulation, nor is it my first Technology bloggers post on the matter. Readers might like to take a look at these posts going back to 2012.

But as an overview my interest is in regulation. And the problems raised 3 years ago are ever more pressing. Nano products are everywhere (see the diagram above, and that is old), they do not have to be labeled, and there are still questions about health and regulation that have never been answered.

Last week’s topic was the Responsible Nano Code, a document drawn up to offer guidance to nanotechnology producers as a guide. It is voluntary, has no legal standing (I will come on to that though) and is a set of principles rather than a regulatory code.

The code can be freely downloaded here.

The principles address issues such as Director Board accountability and involvement, stakeholder involvement, worker health and safety, public health, safety and environmental risks, wider social, health, environmental and ethical implications and impacts, engaging with business partners and transparency and disclosure. And if you read the code you find nothing that anyone wouldn’t agree with.

The preparation was a serious endeavour too, it took several years to come to its final draft, and involved a lot of people. Founders included the Royal Society, Nanotechnologies Industries Association, Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network and Insight Investment.

Upon completion the code was presented across the world. In the USA however several problems were seen due to the nature of the law there. One problem is the risk of being sued. If a company states that they follow a code they become liable to legal action if someone can demonstrate that they did not in fact follow some aspect of the code. So companies are reluctant to state that they follow a code unless it is mandatory.

Also if a code is followed by a group of companies, it becomes the benchmark, so all companies are then judged according to that code, even if they do not participate. So implementation carries some really serious consequences.

In the US, nanomaterials are regulated in the same way as any other materials, and not specifically as nano, which to some seems problematic. Health issues have been raised (see my first nano post through the link above) and never resolved. And we must bear in mind that we are talking about hundreds of thousands of products in all sectors. In order to follow through on the pledges in the code, producers would have to educate and look after not only their own workers, but anyone who deals with these products throughout their entire lifespan. This includes, transport workers, salespeople, shopkeepers, waste collectors and disposal workers, end users, the list goes on.

And if there is a need for regulation, who is going to write it? I can’t write it, so do we need an expert? But can we get a nanotechnology expert who is probably positive about the undoubted advantages of pursuing a technology to write the regulations? Will they be balanced? Or should we ask a member of Greenpeace, or anyone else who might hold serious doubts about the processes and politics involved?

These are open questions, and although I cannot myself offer any answers it is something that we can and should all discuss. And it makes for an interesting line of work!

Bacteria, Fungus and Decomposition (and growing new materials)

Maurizio

Bacteria, fungus and decomposition.

Doesn’t sound like a great start for a technology blog. But last week I was fortunate to visit a lab in Utrecht University where rather unsurprisingly I learned a lot about decomposition, fungus and how to grow innovative new materials.

A young Italian designer runs the lab, this is him above, working on the border between art and biology. His name is Maurizio Montalti, founder of the “Officina Corpuscoli” in Amsterdam (2010), whose goal is not only to produce beautiful artifacts, but to stimulate thought about the central aspects of design (above all the use of materials) and to provoke questions about much more. The nature of humans (the relationship between life and death) or the nature of progress and its relationship to the world and its ecosystem.

Materials

The lab is the point of departure. Here he showed me different materials with different properties, all grown from fungi. Some is like plastic, can be transparent and in sheet form, and others look and feel a bit like skin, some looks like polystyrene.

Grown Pellet

A Grown Pellet

The choice of materials is central to the idea of the project. The materials that are currently favoured in design such as plastic, foam and metals, are produced using industrial processes that are detrimental to the environment. Maurizio wanted to raise this issue for discussion, and so he began his fungus interest.

For the designer the beauty and fascination for fungus lies in its role in nature. He told me that fungi are everywhere, in the soil and in the air, but we associate them with revulsion, disgust and danger, and we minimize their importance, whereas in fact they are fundamental for decomposition, transformation and recycling. He is interested in its role as re-cycler of biological materials.

Synthetic Biology

And the holy grail: the System Synthetics project, turning plastic waste into energy. Maurizio was interested in crossing fungal capacities to degrade with that of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, forcing them into symbiosos, to create a microorganism able to decompose plastic materials and give back energy in liquid form (bioethonol produced by the yeast). It is a synthetic biology program whose objective is to provoke questions about the potentials and implications for this discipline (very much a work in progress, whose aim is to involve a wider public in the synthetic biology debate).

other forms

other forms

I would like to add that Maurizio is part of an informal network of “fungicites”, here find an article of a start up in the USA that is producing bricks from bacteria, cutting out the clay and baking process and making it a much more sustainable product.

Read more about Maurizio here, including photos and an interview.