RILEM Week goes virtual

2020 was supposed to be the year that the University of Sheffield welcomed delegates from across the world for the 74th RILEM Annual Week and 40th Cement and Concrete Science Conference, but Coronavirus put paid to that.

One of the virtual poster session rooms from the 40th Cement and Concrete Science Conference

Instead, the decision was made for the University of Sheffield to host the conference virtually so that researchers could still share their work, and the latest developments could be shared, as they would have been at a physical conference. An extended deadline for abstract submissions for poster presentations, along with an opportunity for researchers to deliver 4 minute 'flash' presentations, meant that those who were unable to physically attend the event could still present their work.

Across the 3-day Cement and Concrete Science and RILEM Week Conference, a total of 91 flash presentations, 127 oral presentations and 11 plenary and keynote talks were delivered, alongside the RILEM week activities of standing committees, technical committees and journal management meetings.

The 320 registered delegates, from time zones as diverse as New Zealand (GMT+12) and Oregon, USA (GMT-7) had access to five parallel conference sessions, together with poster sessions and networking rooms. By using pre-recorded talks, any potential issues with internet connections were avoided, as well as mitigating any issues with extreme time zone differences.

The organisers embraced the virtual aspect of the conference to provide virtual reality rooms for displaying and discussing poster presentations and networking opportunities, and worked hard to make access to all the online sessions simple and easy to navigate by providing user guides tailored to the sessions we were hosting.

Dr Sarah Kearney's poster presented at the virtual poster session of the 40th Cement and Concrete Science Conference

The sessions themselves were hosted from a socially-distanced technical hub (known for the week as the “nerve centre”) located onsite at the University of Sheffield, where the staff of 3 managed the operation of the parallel sessions, poster rooms and networking spaces.

Professor John Provis, Professor of Cement Materials Science and Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield and RILEM Honorary President 2019-20, commented, "Changing the way the conference was delivered this year was challenging, and the efforts of the local organising committee - Dan Geddes, Sam Ghazizadeh, Sarah Kearney and Antonia Yorkshire - must be recognised. Their work, with the support of the rest of the Cements@Sheffield team, helped the event to be a huge success, and we're really proud of how well the event functioned."

Dr Sarah Kearney added, "Feedback from attendees has been really positive, and we hope that all the attendees enjoyed the week and found the event informative and interesting. We'd like to thank the presenting authors, sessions chairs, and delegates for contributing and attending."

The Sheffield team are now sharing their experience of online conference planning with the team in Mexico who are hosting the 75th RILEM Week in 2021. Whether the 2021 event also needs to run in an online format remains to be seen, but our experience this year shows that success can be pulled from the jaws of disaster, whatever is thrown at us!

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