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A silver lining of the COVID-19 era

Adapting to changes due to COVID-19 was professionally challenging for many of us. Raging pandemic, national restrictions and curfews forced us to work from home, teach remotely and meet our colleagues exclusively online. The horror of everyday uncertainty and unsure future will probably be something that we would like to forget as soon as the situation normalizes. But is it possible that the new post-COVID19 era has also brought some opportunities?

COVID-19 has changed our lives during the current year. Schools and universities have closed; conferences, events and meetings were cancelled or postponed. The major part of us has changed their routine and was challenged to adapt to a new environment. Different studies have shown that specific categories of workers have accomplished their tasks and increased their productivity when working remotely. However, the most challenging approach was evidenced for participation in conferences, interaction, collaboration, and networking.

Travelling restrictions became a devastating obstacle for conference and seminar organisers. At the beginning of the pandemic, lots of events were cancelled or indefinitely postponed. We also felt disoriented and disappointed, receiving another sad notification about one more conference being called off. "Why did I write this abstract in the middle of the night the day before the deadline?", I was asking myself hysterically, sipping another cup of coffee, dressed up in pyjama pants and a slightly more decorative top (in case someone calls on Teams). And then I noticed an ad: Conference X, fully online...My first thought was: "Probably a predatory publisher is making money on poor academics missing their yearly nerdy gathering...". But out of curiosity, I clicked the link and to my surprise, I saw that the host institution is one of the best universities in Europe.

The year 2020 set new standards for the organisation of academic online events. We took part in a few of them, and they surpassed our expectations. You might ask yourself: why is it better than watching a lecture on YouTube? Well, because it allows you to interact with people, see several sessions live. You can feel as if you were there. Some of the conferences had spectacular "Olympics broadcast" atmosphere, e.g. Digital Concrete 2020 organised by 3D Concrete Printing research group of Eindhoven University of Technology (see a recording here). New futuristic features were introduced. Have you ever tried World of Warcraft? A similar, game-like experience was offered by organisers of Science is Wonderful! Exhibition and RILEM Week 2020 where you could walk around as a 3D avatar (see the how it looked like here).

Can digital events replace traditional ones in the future? Highly unlikely. As we all know, "going for a conference" means much more than just participating in lectures. It also involves social events, visiting new places, meeting people over a cup of tea during poster sessions, fancy gala dinners. Digital social interactions are still difficult - we need better tech to experience them properly. However, the sad Covid-19 reality has also a couple of silver linings. The digital events are available at a very low price and easily accessible to everyone. How many conferences can you physically attend each year? Travelling, hotels, conference fees - it is usually a very expensive adventure. Online conferences facilitate dissemination of knowledge, sharing results and interactions with people from all over the world without ruining your project's budget. And since a lot of organisers realised this fact, now we have a plethora of digital webinars and events available online (check out our EVENTS section).

So how will the post-COVID-19 era look like? It will probably be a hybrid - physical events with online access for those who cannot attend. This would be a really positive fallout of this bloodcurdling year 2020...

But what do you think?

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