Virtually there

Next week at least 6,000 people will not travel from across the world to attend a two-week conference organised by the Institution of Chemical Engineers in London. Delegates will not have to traipse around looking for accommodation, will not have to pay for their board and lodging and will not have to be away from […]

Next week at least 6,000 people will not travel from across the world to attend a two-week conference organised by the Institution of Chemical Engineers in London. Delegates will not have to traipse around looking for accommodation, will not have to pay for their board and lodging and will not have to be away from their places of work. But they will all be there.

Environment97, Scheduled for 3 14 November, will be a virtual environmental conference and is the IChemE’s response to the 2020 Vision programme initiated by Dr Alan Rudge, chairman of the Engineering Council. It challenged engineers to look towards 2020, the challenges society will face and how engineers can have an effect.

The conference is the brainchild of the exuberant Dr Mark Smith, manager of safety, health and environment at IChemE. He says holding the conference on the Internet means that ‘Environment97 alleviates the need for travelling, and thus reduces unnecessary pollution, which surely is the main aim of any environmental conference. It is ironic that conferences, particularly international ones, have a large environmental impact. By running a so-called flesh conference to discuss the problem, we can actually make things worse.’

The chemical industry is naturally sensitive about environmental issues, particularly as it only seems to get mass-media exposure when one of its members is involved in a pollution incident. Ever since its inception the industry has fought to establish its environmental credentials, and the focus and nature of its conference is aimed at bolstering this cause.

More than 140 papers will be presented at the conference and the list of distinguished contributors includes Sir John Houghton, chairman of the Royal Commission of Environmental Pollution; Sir Ronald Hampel, chairman of ICI; Jaqueline Aliosi de Larderel, director of the United Nations Environmental Programme; Michael Meacher MP, environment minister; and Professor David Bellamy, botanist and media personality.

Houghton, who is also co-chairman of scientific sssessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will present a paper on global warning and the challenge facing the energy industry.

Other speakers include Paul Spare, director of Profase Engineering Cheshire, who will argue the case for building more nuclear power plant in order to power the sustainable economy. Anthony Milburn, executive director of the International Association on Water Quality, will outline the actions needed to bring about a blue revolution in the way mankind uses the planet’s fresh waters; Jim Hopwood, training and communications coordinator in the Safety, Health and Environmental arm of Exxon Chemical Europe, will argue that environmental training is a waste of time if it is not part of a carefully-designed change programme; Ronan Palmer, chief economist at the Environment Agency in England and Wales, will look at costs, benefits and the environment; and Rosalind Malcolm, practising barrister and senior lecturer in environmental law at the University of Surrey, will discuss policing pollution into the millennium.

In addition to formal papers, the conference will include a series of audio interviews, which will give delegates the opportunity to hear the views of environmental experts and leading industrialists including Ed Gallagher, chief executive officer of the Environment Agency, and Barbara Price, vice-president of Phillips Petroleum.

All conferences provide delegates with an opportunity to submit questions to the presenters after the formal presentations are complete and Environment97 will be no exception. The conference will, says the IChemE, be fully interactive and delegates will be able to voice their opinions and have their questions answered by the speakers.

To this end all the key papers will have associated discussion groups allowing delegates to table questions or comment directly to the conference. These views will then be posted on the site.

Sticking with the usual pattern of conferences, there will even be a bar admittedly only a chat bar where delegates are invited to ‘exchange more light-hearted discourse with fellow delegates’.

The theory is that during the conference this discussion will develop so that delegates will not only be able to comment on the paper but also respond to other people’s comments, building a network discussion.

John Duffy, marketing manager at the IChemE says: ‘It’s all very well reading about peoples’ views on paper (or on screen), but when we actually hear them talk we can form an opinion about their own motivations.’

Following the virtual theme the conference will have a substantially lower environmental impact than a conventional conference and the IChemE is attempting to prove this.

All delegates are being invited to take part in a life cycle assessment, which will compare cyber conferences with flesh conferences.

As part of the registration process which has been open since the spring all delegates are asked a series of questions related to their geographical location, the potential of them attending a flesh conference in London and what would have been their predominant mode of transport to it.

‘At the end we will know how many kilograms of carbon dioxide we have saved by running it over the Internet,’ says Smith.

The registration process has also shown that 72% are male (28% female); that the majority are in education, followed by service industries and manufacturing; that the largest age group is the 26 31 bracket; and that the majority, 56%, is based in Europe, with 28% in North America, 3% in Australia, 3% in Asia and the rest scattered across the world.

The Web site itself, which has already been visited by up to 20,000 people, has been designed to reflect all the trappings of a traditional conference, with a smiling receptionist, a characterless convention centre, a press room, lounges and of course, the bar.

‘If you want to take part in the discussion between engineers, scientists and the general public, we urge you not to attend Environment97,’ says Smith.

Environment97 runs from 3 14 November and can be visited at