Virtual Conferences and Building Your Network – Reflections on Asia Pacific Week 2020

Day 1 of APW 2020

Multi-day conferences are one of the best ways to meet, connect and learn from people who share an interest and drive in areas similar to your own. On topics as wonderfully diverse and minutely specific as prosthetic leg technology, fish farming or the United Nations; conferences form an essential part of bringing passionate, proactive experts together to discuss policy, ideas and build connections that underpin cross border relations and contribute to a global community.

For this reason, many were concerned in 2020 as the spread of COVID-19 looked to plaster a big ‘POSTPONED’ notice over conferences worldwide. As the pandemic set in and individuals, companies and countries learnt to adapt and manage the initial drawbacks of limited face to face contact, we witnessed the increased popularity of virtual conferences conducted entirely over online platforms like Zoom.

What is Asia Pacific Week 2020?

Now in its tenth year, Asia Pacific Week (APW), organised by the Australian National University (ANU) College of Asia & the Pacific brings together the voices and experiences of students and young professionals engaged in the region, and provides an environment where they can be challenged and inspired.

Guided by this year’s theme ‘When Oceans Rise – Surging Voices and Hidden Perspectives’, the virtual conference provided a platform for young and emerging leaders to contribute to discussions central to the future on topics such as climate change, activism, foreign affairs, and the impact of COVID-19 in the Asia Pacific.

80 delegates represented by 19 nationalities living in 13 different countries – the diverse cohort was bound by a shared interest in furthering regional relations and attacking global problems with a multilateral mindset and an open mind.

Creating this digital space to meet ‘screen to screen’ showed not only the resilient adaptability of today’s youth but also their progressive digitisation to help overcome the problems of an isolating pandemic. As one delegate Jin Heng Tan noted:

“I have been able to connect with people from countries I thought I would never have a connection to.”

Jin Heng Tan

How was the content?

The 4 and a half-day virtual conference incorporated 5 panels followed by discussion, trivia, threatcasting, cooking class, movie night, pacific dance class, tai chi and a gala dinner. Jam packed to say the least, with thanks to new technologies like Netflix Party, Zoom breakout rooms and no small amount of background tech work, the organisers did a remarkable job at converting in-person activities onto the online format.

Opening the conference with addresses from Senator the Hon Penny Wong, the Hon Julie Bishop, Sharon Bell (Dean of ANU’s college of the Asia and the Pacific) and APW’s Academic Convenor, Associate Professor Katerina Taeiwa – the stage was set for a distinguished, engaging and wide-ranging series of panels.

As one organiser noted:

“A key benefit [of the online platform] is being able to access high profile speakers and VIPs from multiple locations with minimal disruption to their day-to-day activities.”

APW organiser
APW Virtual Gala Dinner

How did the online platform differ?

Let’s start with what worked well. Accessibility is perhaps the number one benefit of online conferences. Many young people reasonably do not have the time, money, capacity and/or confidence to travel across states or seas for a 4-day conference. An online platform creates a more inclusive space for all by leveling the barriers to participation.

The online platform also limits air travel – a leading contributor of global carbon emissions.

Inclusion and diversity were a central theme of the conference, with over 65% of the delegates identifying as female and a focus on LGBTQI+ delegate representation. Panels were always equitably represented, including panel 5 being dedicated to women in diplomacy with a well-regarded panel of 4 women from DFAT and ANU located in Australia and Vanuatu.

While there is no replacing the face-to-face value of in-person events, Zoom does a pretty good job. Conversation flows, breakout rooms promote dialogue, panellists can Zoom in from anywhere in the world and every speaker, delegate and tai chi instructor could be adequately seen and heard from the comfort of their home or office.

I spoke to Kazimier Lim, APW’s Delegate Coordinator on what he thought worked well and what didn’t about the online platform as well as how important it was to have such a diversity of delegates:

“Aside from the obvious benefits of having a virtual conference (increased outreach, equity and accessibility, lower operational costs), having an online-only component within the Asia Pacific Week conference in 2020 greatly helped with mitigating logistical issues around organising tours (to Parliament House for example) and social events for the large number of delegates”

Kazimier Lim

Kazimier went on to say:

However, an online conference can struggle to form strong community and networking relationships that build within the delegate cohort. Unfortunately, without in-person events, the experiences of delegates will be limited to purely content. This goes both ways as without delegates to boost morale, organisers may struggle with motivation or morale.

Kazimier Lim

How do I get involved?

At a time when governments are looking increasingly inward, and a great power rivalry plays out in the Pacific neighbourhood – youth participation in multilateral forums such as these are vitally important. In a globalised world, “people-to-people” links between Australia and Asia will be as important as political linkages. They will help shape perceptions and foster mutual understanding in ways political delegations might never do.

There are various annual and one-off virtual and in-person conferences being run out of Australia every year. Along with plenty of forums for young leaders looking to get involved in the Australia-Asia space and cut their teeth with some regional engagement.

The Australia China Emerging Leaders Summit (ACELS) have just opened applications for their 12th edition. To learn if this is the summit for you, read an account of the 10th edition in Guangzhou here.

The Indo-Pacific Student Mobility Dialogue has just wrapped up with a comprehensive report on the state of student mobility in Australian universities and recommendations for the future.

There is also multiple conferences run by the Australian Institute of International Affairs including their recent Korea-Oceania Next Generation Policy Expert Forum.

Be sure to regularly check out resources like the Australia China/Japan/India Youth Dialogue, the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership and Australia Indonesia Youth Association along with the links above and sign up to their newsletters and socials to keep on top of opportunities.

These conferences are powered by the people who participate in them and applying can be as easy as completing an online form. The invaluable personal and professional connections you make along with critical thinking and networking skills will empower your personal growth and career development well into the future.

APW Virtual Pacific Dance Class

All in all – The APW proved itself and then some in the online transition. Helping passionate, driven and energetic young leaders from the Indo-Pacific connect, share experiences and work together on solving some of the world’s biggest problems. As we look to a future with an impending COVID vaccine and in-person conferences will likely resume – I hope there remains a space for these sorts of virtual experiences which create an accessible, efficient, economical and technologically optimised way of connecting with peers from around the world.

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Zach Eggleston

Zach works in communications at both the Australia China Business Council and the Australia China Youth Dialogue. A Mandarin speaker with an Asian Studies major from La Trobe University in Melbourne, he has spent extensive time studying in Shanghai, Chongqing and Taiwan.

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