Decarbonizing the NIME Community: towards more sustainable practices

In the afterglow of the first fully online, and highly successful, NIME conference it is worth taking a big-picture look at our habitual practices as academics, scholars, and artists.

In particular this year’s conference shed new light on the question of what we can do to mitigate the need for long distance travel for participation in the NIME community. Anna Xambó drew attention to an in-depth consideration of the question by musicologist Richard Parncutt, currently in press for publication in Computer Music Journal 43:4. Here is just one excerpt from Richard’s eloquent and powerfully stated plea to decarbonize our practices:

“… please let’s not descend into a long, sophisticated discussion about who deserves to fly and who does not. The simple truth is that nobody does. The only morally defensible kind of academic or musical conference in the year 2020 and beyond is a decarbonized one. I respectfully invite those readers who believe that they “must” fly to think for a moment about what they mean by “must.” What we “must” do is drastically reduce emissions. Not by 10% here and 5% there, but 90%.”

I can highly recommend reading the entire letter carefully for Richard’s valuable insights.

Alexander Jensenius then drew attention to a quantitatively reasoned analysis of academic conference travel, recently published in Nature magazine, also well worth careful reading and reflection:

Our current circumstances give us an excellent opportunity to think about how the adaptations we have made this year can be carried forward into more sustainable practices in both our personal and professional lives. I encourage everyone to share ideas about how to do that here.


I totally agree that we should act individually and as a community towards this goal.
Last year at ISMP, Richard Parncutt shared his experience with organising a fully remote conference (the international conference on music cognition) - in the pre-Covid era. Definitely a suggested reading, also with respect to the other topic of this forum on virtual conferences.


I agree with this position, too. As much as I love traveling, and seeing all of my friends in the NIME community, I can’t justify flying for academic conferences.


It’s also worth noting that when we have no physical presence, we can reduce conference registration fees substantially, opening up our conference to students, the public, and other interested parties. Money shouldn’t be a gateway to accessing our research, and though we do provide open access to the proceedings (which I applaud), allowing people greater access to the conference itself as digital attendees will expand NIME’s reach and make a more inclusive community. I fully support this initiative.


As much as I agree with the discussion and all the answers above, I think about the live concerts. I wonder how great it would be to watch the wonderful Crewdson & Cevane concert and all the others from NIME 2020 alive. As a musical community, the live audience will be shortage. I also think about the interactive installations and demos presentations.


I totally agree with you @Isabela in that we loose not only in-person interaction but also high-quality experiences in a completely virtual version. Watching concerts on my TV at home was OK, but very different from a concert hall experience. I also miss touching and testing various interfaces/instruments in demo session.

That is why I think local/regional hubs may be an interesting thing to explore (what I called hybrid conference over here). The challenge, however, is how to make this work well for everyone, particularly if we want to make it work both for people in hubs, but also people choosing to attend completely online.


The article by Richard Parncutt, linked by @fabio above discusses exactly what @alexarje is asking about - how to organize a hybrid conference.
However, given that the online format is new for us, I think it would be worth considering running the conference fully online for a year or two to understand how best to do this, then experiment with adding physical hubs after some good practices have been established.

Here again is the link @fabio shared:


It is worth bearing in mind that concert, demo, and installation proposals for NIME-20 were made assuming that the conference would be held as usual. The situation will be different if it is known from the outset that an event is going to be held online. There may be some very creative approaches waiting to be discovered and this can itself be a stimulus to NIME research.


I’m totally into decarbonizing, it is something I’ve started doing with my gigging tours pre-covid and while I could not eliminate completely flights, even the simple query to an organizer to book a train instead of a flight provokes thoughts and perhaps changes.

When it comes to academic conferences, the amount of travels done globally is outrageous. Then personally, being now mostly an independent researcher and touring artist (i.e., no institution paying for my travels, etc…), there were several NIME conferences that I couldn’t attend (when I could have) because of too expensive, overseas travels.

All that said, decarbonizing NIME is something I believe we must do. But, as others have emphasised, we need to find a solution that keeps alive the liveness of music as we intend it, and as we love it. We make instruments and pieces to be played live in venues, not to be listened alone on a couch. Otherwise, I’m afraid we would end up again in the “engineering limbo” that NIME has found itself in from time to time, where expressiveness, performance and non-verbal communication plays seldom a role. Through the review work I’ve done in these years for NIME I noticed an increasing interest in musicality, performance, embodiment, and I would like to support the growth of this trend within our community.

Hence, local hubs is something very good, something exciting to explore. I’m not sure going for a fully virtual conference as a trial for a couple of years would be a productive move.


I’m not sure going for a fully virtual conference as a trial for a couple of years would be a productive move.

Well, there may not be a choice for 2021. Intercontinental travel is currently all but impossible for most countries. Realistically speaking, I would not be surprised if this lasts for another year at least. Not to say that a few local hubs will be impossible, but it would be safer to plan for a mainly online conference for 2021.


yep, agree. What I meant to say was that perhaps it would be good to start planning online + local hubs already from the 2021.


I’m guessing that hubs need to organize in a somewhat de-centralized fashion, independently but in cooperation with the host, which is in Shanghai for 2021. So if you want a (Berlin ?) hub, Marco, the onus is on you! Something out of C-base might be interesting?

But you may want to discuss this with Gus Xia.

Have you read this:

More generally, I’m sometimes surprised that it’s not obvious to people that, with an organization like NIME, if you want something to happen you pretty much have to make it happen. Not saying you don’t already know this.

Initially NIME was an intentionally quasi-anarchistic loose organization. @alexarje pulled things together when it was in danger of falling apart in the early 10s, and with a few volunteers, is doing a lot to keep things happening smoothly, but it is still far from being a well-defined centralized organization. That has pros and cons, mostly pros, imo.

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Yes, we are very interested in exploring this option. The challenge, however, is whether we are able to do it well. It also requires to have more people on board to run the local hubs!

Several questions pop up from an organizational point of view:

  • What should a hub look like?
  • Should we define a set of minimum requirements for number and size of rooms, concert facilities, etc.?
  • Who should be in charge of the hubs?
  • How many hubs make sense to have? One per continent? One per country?

To play devil’s advocate: how is a hub different from several people participating in a virtual conference from the same physical space?

And again, to act as a foil, perhaps a decentralized, let-it-happen and evolve organically approach could be an option.

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Good questions. I am thinking that if we actually announce a hub somewhere, and people spend time and money to travel there, we would like to ensure that it is properly organized. So that means a team to welcome people, posters with locations, and infrastructure to make it happen. What I have seen of hub-based conferences so far, is that they typically have the same setup in diffrent places, which allow for a somewhat similar experience across hubs.

I fear that an anarchistic approach would not work very well in practice. Then I think that a completely virtual option is probably better. This would still not prevent people from experiencing the conference together, though.

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@alexarje Yes I see your point. However I would avoid encouraging people to travel at all for the foreseeable future. I think it is unethical right now to incentivize people to cross borders or make distance trips even within the same country. So this definition of ‘Hub’ is for the post-pandemic future, imo.

I think in the longer term we should also consider the possibility of several smaller hubs that can host something like one oral session, a workshop, a performance night and of course provide video link to all the other NIME events. These mini-hubs could be hosted in smaller venues, without having to be a major institutional operation, and without requiring a large team to make them happen. Having numerous, smaller, and agile hubs would help decarbonising NIME and, at the same time, maintain a closer relationship with the physical world and local communities.


Yes, I like this idea. But: would it then be a point of trying to create some larger hubs with more developed infrastructures as well? Or, put differently: will we manage to create good experiences for everyone if we combine too many different approaches?

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Nice idea, @federicovisi I wonder if this is something that could be tried for the concert program in the future? For example, the concert would rotate through three different hubs on three different nights. If the hub locations are well chosen, then this can distribute the time zone mismatch. Not sure I would try it for the academic program initially, as I think this may need a centralized format. Maybe that intuition is incorrect. Still for 2021, it may be better to avoid trying anything too tricky, and again I think the default until the pandemic situation is much better, is to discourage travel.

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@alexarje My feeling is that you could in principle have both: a few institutional hubs designed to host the parts of the conference that are more demanding in terms of infrastructure (e.g. that require an auditorium, a larger stage for an ensemble concert, etc.) and distributed to cover timezones effectively. These could be 4-5, which are chosen 1+ years before the conference takes place, similarly to what happens at ICMPC. The mini-hubs on the other hand would be more attached to particular cultural venues or events, designed to cater local communities or “NIME scenes” that may arise. Since mini-hubs would require less organisation, you could even send a call after submission has taken place based on the data you gathered from the submitted works: e.g. “we have received many submissions from Colombia, therefore we encourage expressions of interest for hosting a NIME mini-hub in that region”. That way mini-hubs would be tailored to local NIME communities, helping emerging scenes to grow, and effectively reducing travel based on data gathered from submissions. This of course would be a long-term plan, which needs to be tested and refined to understand what the challenges may be and whatnot, but it could be helpful in many ways.