In March 2020, the spread of COVID-19 pandemic was accelerating and the lock-down measures—put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus—were taking a harsh toll on businesses. But scientists also began witnessing a different kind of impact. They were reporting that CO2 and other heat trapping gasses had begun to slow from what seemed an irreversible rise. It was the first hint that human adaptations to pandemic were having a positive—albeit unintended—impact on worldwide carbon emissions.

While on a smaller scale, that same kind of dynamic was at work in the run up to the IBM Think Digital event in May 2020. Deliberating on the best course of action, IBM planners realized that health risks alone deemed a traditional physical conference a no-go. Just as compelling, though, was their conviction that clients—facing perhaps their most complex and demanding challenges ever—needed to engage to meet them. With less than two months to go and in a spirit of can-do pragmatism, IBM committed to delivering Think as a digital experience.

Trees make the case for digital events

With nearly 120,000 registrants—triple the number of the previous year, and far above expectations—the IBM Think Digital experience was a resounding success. It epitomized how forced adaption, enabled by advanced technology, can lead to an even deeper level of engagement with clients.

While Think demonstrated what could happen through digital adaptation, it also showed benefits from what didn’t happen. Attendees didn’t drive to airport, fly to the host city, take an Uber to the hotel and perform any other of the many carbon-emitting activities that business travel entails. Here’s another way to look at it: trees.

A 2019 study found that the average face-to-face meeting generates roughly two tons of carbon when travel, food and lodging are factored in. The lion’s share of this is due to transportation—the burning fossil fuel for cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes—which is responsible for generating almost one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.

As a point of reference, it takes about 43 trees a full year of photosynthesis to offset that carbon. So, for example, if you have a physical event that attracts 40,000 attendees, it would take a forest 15 times the size of New York’s Central Park—some 2.6 million trees—a year to offset the carbon generated by all those physical attendees.

A digital event drives deeper engagement

The environmental impacts alone make a pretty strong case for the benefits of virtual events. But like many business adaptations, IBM’s reinvention of Think also opened the door for a deeper, more targeted and hence more subject-relevant engagement with clients, who themselves were looking for insights on how to adapt their businesses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To pull off an all-digital experience, IBM needed to transform not only content delivery, but also the nuances of the experience—from the registration and authentication of attendees, to the means by which they reach out to subject matter experts and to their peers. And all of it needed to be done on a massive scale, with high-quality and low latency.

IBM Enterprise Video Streaming technology, whose ability to accommodate surging attendance without manually provisioning additional capacity, was able to deliver it. Front and center were IBM Watson Media running on the IBM Public Cloud, which has a proven ability to support over a million concurrent users on a single broadcast.

From previous experience with Watson Media, the IBM events team had insights on how users consume video content. On the strength of those insights, the team combined functionality like built-in chat, Q&A, Polling, and clickable video overlays to enhance the user experience and keep attendees focused.

A reThinking: melding digital and physical events

There’s little doubt that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on large scale physical events like conferences going forward, and that the shifting mindsets due to heightened risk awareness are the big reason why.

But within IBM, the tremendous success of IBM Think Digital 2020—and the lessons gleaned from the experience—have led to a fundamental rethinking of the expanded possibilities of digital events. Perhaps most likely is a hybrid model of digital and physical events, all of it coordinated to deliver an experience that meets the needs of IBM’s clients, prospects and Business Partners.

As the first and only company to win a Climate Leadership Award from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and The Climate Registry seven times in the program’s eight-year history, IBM has long track record in promoting environmental sustainability. By providing the technology and solutions to make large-scale digital events succeed, IBM is moving that track in a new direction. And, reducing the burden on trees along the way.

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