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Fly Less, Videoconference More
Mindy Lubber, 31 Aug 07
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I love my job, but the endless travel drives me crazy. Charlotte, San Francisco, New York and Washington are just a few of the cites I've flown to this summer. More often than not, the trips have included mind numbing airport delays caused by thunderstorms, power outages, presidential visits and who knows what else. And I am not alone in my travel testiness. Flight delays have reached record highs this year and they are expected to only worsen as more passengers fly in the coming years.

Sometimes I feel like my office is Terminal B at LaGuardia; on others I feel like a hostage imprisoned on Runway C.

My point is that there's got to be a better way to get our work done -- not just for the sake of our collective sanity, but for the preservation of our stable climate: air travel is among the fastest growing sources of global warming pollution. It currently accounts for 2-3 percent of total greenhouse emissions in the US and this number is likely to increase rapidly, as the number of flights in the US is expected to double or triple in the next 20 years.

I have to admit that my organization, CERES, is part of the problem. I just reviewed our sustainability report, and air-related travel by our staff doubled last year to more than 475,000 miles. Just this week, three of us flew back and forth to New York for a 90 minute meeting with a company and a key investor. The meeting was important, but it also ate up 20 hours of precious staff time. The flights themselves accounted for 238 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

To be fair, some of our travel can be attributed to holding our annual conference in Oakland instead of hometown Boston. And some of it speaks to the increased recognition of our mission: we're growing as an organization and my staff is getting lots of speaking invitations. Still, 475,000 air miles a year is unacceptable and we've got to do better.

We could buy carbon credits, of course, but why not cut to the chase and replace unnecessary flying with conference calls or, better yet, videoconferences -- which would allow us to meet face to face without being fact to face? Last month, several of our investor allies flew from California to attend an all-day planning meeting in New York. Couldn't that meeting have been accomplished by using the most basic videoconferencing technology?

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that videoconferencing can save companies and NGOs lots of money by reducing travel costs and boosting employee efficiency. Microsoft says it is already saving $50 million a year by deploying its "Office Live Meeting" conference service. State Street Corp. has invested $4 million in video and audio conferencing equipment in the last year alone.

I'd like to take advantage of all this for CERES. But being a bit of a Luddite, I'm looking for a bit of help here. What resources are out there to help non-profits take advantage of the time, financial and emissions savings that videoconferencing would enable us to achieve?

Mindy S. Lubber is president of Ceres, a leading network of investors, environmental groups and other public interest organizations working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change.

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Where I work we videoconference a LOT. The equipment is very sophisticated and works well (we use Tandberg). It's pretty expensive though.

We also fly a lot. I believe the conclusion from looking at the matter was that videoconferencing increases flying because it makes it easier to work with people who are not physically adjacent, and because it's not actually a replacement for being with people, it means you end up flying to meet people you otherwise would have had no contact with at all.

The best way to eliminate these kinds of things is just to rely more on email, imho. A lot of meetings could be replaced by email conversations between the relevant parties, but without all the annoying timezone and technology issues that videoconferencing has. It also means people can take the time to think out their arguments or phrasings.

Posted by: Unconvinced on 1 Sep 07

One interesting alternative to video conferencing is using Second Life. In many ways it's more dynamic than video conferencing:

Colleagues from around the world log in and have an avatar each. You can move around talking to people as per a real conference, have panel discussions, breakout sessions, show films and presentations etc. If you want to have a private conversation with someone you can both walk to the other side of the island and have some privacy and the whole island is secured so no one can listen in. You do lose some of the body language cues you get with VC but I reckon it has potential.

OneClimate island on Second Life can be used for conferences:

Posted by: Scatter on 2 Sep 07

I keep in contact with my colleagues in sustainability from around the globe using SKYPE. It's basically a VOIP tool - voice over internet protocol - great technology, allows for video and voice conferencing, and it's free to speak to fellow registered users.

Posted by: Michael on 3 Sep 07

Our online laboratory Minciu Sodas has been organizing video bridges this summer as part of Franz Nahrada's vision for global villages We have looked into the relevant technology and are using VideoSkype for Windows but may someday in the future use the Sony PCS-G50 technology that Franz is using at his Hotel Karolinenhof in Vienna, Austria. Franz's idea is that a robust video connection - projecting images on a large wall - allows a village to participate wholeheartedly in contributing to global knowledge and applying it locally to create an ideal environment for us to thrive as human beings. We're very interested to connect with you. My skype handle is minciusodas.

Posted by: Andrius Kulikauskas on 4 Sep 07

Hi Mindy,

I write for ooVooworld, the unofficial WOM world for the free video conferencing download ooVoo, and have seen a lot of similar discussion arise about this issue.

Especially with a download like ooVoo providing professional quality multi-user video conferencing for free - an improvement on Skype's 2-person, sometimes dodgy video chat in my experience! - surely there is no excuse for the die-hard flyers to continue their habits in the face of all the eco awareness about?

Be interesting to see if any of your readers have changed their ways because of applications like this - and if they find it a good enough replacement for 'real' meetings.

Posted by: Molly on 5 Sep 07

I, too, have been looking for ways to do business effectively and am a newcomer to Skype and online chats. Having met colleagues from all over California and from Canada during a three-week graduate-level library studies program residency here in California this summer, I've found Skype and group chats through Google Talk to be an extremely useful way to stay in touch with them now that we've all returned to our homes. I can see my use of Skype and the Google chat function (with its wonderful transcripts, which eliminate the need for note-taking during conversations) increasing dramatically during the next few months as we continue doing distance-learning projects together, and I'm as fascinated by the way we're working as by how effective the online tools are proving to be.

Posted by: Paul Signorelli on 5 Sep 07

Paul - I completely agree, I really think this is going to change the way we work, however slow the trickle-through is across companies. I think the video conferencing aspect makes 'impromptu' meetings and conversations between colleagues, as well as more formal meetings, much more personal and productive. I do think it's taken this long to take off though because you do need good enough quality and the ability to have a number of participants without technical problems or it is just frustrating. It's amazing to see how quickly using applications like ooVoo just becomes second nature.

Posted by: Molly on 7 Sep 07



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