Confidence in conferences

17 April 2017

Parallel technical sessions seem to irritate conference goers, with particularly awkward setups being remembered and discussed for years after the event.

The cynical interpretation is that parallel sessions seem to be an attempt to pack the event with as many delegates as possible to fulfill a commercial objective.

Thinking generously, it could be seen an attempt to cover as much ground as possible at a large event. Albeit in an overloaded conference calendar.

Whatever the reason, it reduces the quality of the papers and divides the audience between presentations. Sometimes a hall designed for hundreds can have fewer than 10 people in the audience. It is terrible for the speaker, irritating for attendees trying to work out which talks they do not want to miss (which can regardless be wrecked by poor schedule discipline among the session moderators).

This is the point where I point out the wisdom of presenting a paper to the thousands of Tunnels and Tunnelling readers instead, before moving swiftly on to a conference that has done it right.

In March I attended the British Tunnelling Society Young Members (BTSYM) Conference. The schedule managed to cover four themes in a single session structure throughout the day, which were: technical; construction; worldwide and digital engineering; the future.

The variety and quality was impressive; the group makes an effort to seek feedback and implement it each year, which is part of the reason for the success of the event. This time around that adaptation took the form of an interactive session at the end of the day.

This was well received, although next year they think it might be better to place it earlier in the schedule.

The group also managed to solve a perennial problem with technical presentations: a nervous audience, each individual unwilling to be the fi rst to ask a question. It was Cowi engineer Mateusz Wojtasik’s suggestion to make use of This is a tool whereby anyone in the audience can type a question into their phone, anonymously if desired.

Other audience members can then ‘like’ the question, so that by the end of the presentation there are a number of queries, ranked in order of popularity. The speakers enjoyed questions galore, and did not face the nervous wait to see if the moderator had prepared an emergency backup question to rescue an awkward situation.

Engineering conferences should be sensitive to the merits of a streamlined schedule. Someone once told me: ‘an engineer can do for a penny what any fool can do for a shilling’.