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Cisco TelePresence Taking UN Climate Change Conference Virtual

Svend Olling of the Danish Foreign Ministry talks about how Cisco TelePresence will make COP15 more accessible and environmentally friendly

December 7, 2009

It's a first for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. Attendees at the event in Copenhagen this month will be able to hold virtual meetings, negotiations and press conferences with stakeholders in their home countries via Cisco TelePresence.

Taking place Dec. 7 – 18 in Denmark, the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) is a gathering of government representatives from around the world with the aim of hammering out a global agreement for reducing greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities. In addition to members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), attendees will include intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and members of the media.

With Cisco's technology sponsorship, the Danish government aims to make the conference as environmentally friendly and collaborative as possible. For more information about the partnership between the Danish government and Cisco, how it will benefit both physical and virtual attendees of the conference, and the implications for future international conferences of other kinds, News@Cisco spoke with Svend Olling, head of department at the Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

How did the idea come up for using Cisco TelePresence for COP15?

Svend Olling: The Danish Foreign Ministry has been using videoconferencing systems for a long time. Back in 2002, I was head of the IT department, and we rolled out some videoconferencing systems based on economic calculations of return on investment and reduction of travel costs. At the time, we had just established a wide area network (WAN) for all Danish missions abroad. We soon found that our calculations were off. It turned out that the greatest return on investment was not to be found in places with the best access and the greatest usage, as we had thought – places like New York City, Brussels and London. Rather, the best bang for our buck came from using the technology in hard-to-reach places where the travel costs are enormous – places like Africa and Asia where our development assistance efforts are focused.

"What's different here is that the TelePresence experience is fully integrated into the core of the conference."

— Svend Olling, department head, Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Back then, people were hesitant to use the technology. It was not really part of their normal routine, so it was a slow start. But at some point, it reached critical mass, and then we could barely keep up. We had to increase capacity in our videoconferencing rooms here because suddenly everybody wanted to join the party at all of our embassies. Today, videoconferencing is a daily part of work for the Danish diplomacy. It's been a tremendous success.

In fall 2008, we realized we needed to incorporate videoconferencing as a natural part of our preparations for COP15. We also wanted it to be a visible part of the way the conference is designed, particularly with it being a climate conference. Videoconferencing is an obvious tool we can use to help us both reduce the carbon footprint of the conference, and also add to its inclusiveness by enabling more people to participate. At that point, we launched a public tender for sponsors for our videoconferencing and other network components, and that's when Cisco stepped in. They said they'd love to be part of it. Cisco met our demands in terms of the company's sustainability strategy, its corporate social responsibility (CSR) program and its adherence to the UN Global Contact, so they became the technology provider for the conference.

Have you personally taken part in a Cisco TelePresence meeting? What was it like?

Svend Olling: The new conferencing systems like TelePresence add a completely different dimension to social interaction. What you get with the first generation of videoconferencing systems and legacy systems is not very precise communication because you don't have eye contact and so on. That said, there is a sort of social contract behind the relationship, which goes from a letter to an email to a phone call to a videoconferencing system. The next evolution of that is the high-end videoconferencing systems like Cisco TelePresence, where you add to the quality of the interaction with things like eye contact, the lifesize people on the screen, and the fact that you are not just sending a video but creating a virtual meeting space. You fool your brain into actually thinking you are there in the room with the virtual attendees.

I noticed this in two ways. First of all, I act more like I do in a physical meeting when I'm in a TelePresence meeting. I forget it's a virtual meeting, whereas with legacy systems, there's a part of your brain, part of your mental energy that's always directed toward the awareness that this is videoconferencing. There's a layer of technology between you and the person on the other side. With high-end systems like TelePresence, that layer disappears so you can concentrate on the meeting.

The second thing you notice is that after a long meeting you tire, but only as much as in a regular physical meeting. With a legacy system, videoconferencing demands more of your concentration. With systems like TelePresence, communication is more precise because you can look a virtual attendee in the eye, see the nuances of the smiles, and the immediate reactions to a funny remark or whatever. In terms of how far we've come from the legacy videoconferencing systems toward the actual physical meeting, I'd say we're at least two-thirds of the way. It's going to be difficult to progress further than that, and of course we'll never be all the way there until we can serve a cup of coffee across the screen and shake hands. We'll see what Cisco comes up with next.

What do you hope to achieve through this that has not been possible in previous meetings of delegates?

Svend Olling: A couple of things. I've already mentioned the most obvious one, which is reducing the carbon footprint of the event. In a global conference like this, about 92 percent of the carbon footprint is air travel to and from the venue. Obviously, that is much lower if you're here virtually, so that's one direct gain from using the high-end systems.

The second gain, as I mentioned, is inclusiveness. This is a UN conference. All UN nations are represented and will be here with their delegations. But some small, poor countries have a hard time financing their participation. Travel costs and accommodation are a real issue for these countries, so they often come with smaller delegations than they need. And also some NGO participants cannot be there as observers. They have a hard time financing their presence, even though they should be there.

An equally vital part of the equation is that we add TelePresence sites all around the globe where people can go to attend the conference. There are 100 locations worldwide where you can go free of charge to hook up to Copenhagen. Not doing that would actually widen the digital divide by creating an advantage for delegations from places that already have the necessary infrastructure – Singapore, Tokyo, Beijing and New York, for instance. Continents like Africa, on the other hand, would be at an even greater disadvantage.

Can you describe in greater detail how the TelePresence experience will work for virtual attendees at COP15?

Svend Olling: Imagine you are an NGO in Ghana and you want to come to Copenhagen but you're not able to be there for financial reasons. You can have your counterparts in Copenhagen walk up to the meeting assignment counter and ask for a meeting. They just have to say that one of their participants could not be here physically and is in Ghana and ask for help. At that point, the concierge will say that your colleague in Ghana will just have to show up at the Danish Embassy in Accra, and you will be assigned a virtual meeting room. It's that's simple.

Working with Cisco, we've set up 75 offices worldwide and opened 25 Danish embassies for this kind of participation, for a total of 100 sites worldwide. They supplement each other nicely because Cisco technologies like this are typically found in the richer parts of the world, while Danish embassies are typically located in the poorer parts of the world as part of our development assistance efforts. We are heavily represented in Africa. And then there are four TelePresence rooms at the conference venue itself for the two-weeks that COP15 is going on.

This is a new development. Similar setups have been used in other international conferences, but what's different here is that the TelePresence experience is fully integrated into the core of the conference, rather than being on the sidelines, perhaps in an extra facility on a commercial basis. These virtual meeting rooms are on a par with the traditional meeting rooms.

The partnership with Cisco lasts through 2010. How do you foresee the technology being used post COP15?

Svend Olling: Denmark will be the COP president for all of 2010. After the conference, we will continue using some of the TelePresence rooms that are already in place under the sponsorship agreement with Cisco – specifically, those that are located in countries that are key players in the climate debate. In addition to the Danish Ministry of Climate and Energy, these include the United Nations offices in New York; Bonn, Germany; Nairobi, Kenya; and Geneva, Switzerland. These will remain operational to enable these countries to coordinate efficiently.

Traditionally, climate diplomacy depends heavily on shuttle diplomacy. Delegates travel around a lot and do loads of bilateral meetings to determine the national positions, what the compromises might be and how to work them out. That is the role of the president of the COP team. Using a technology like this makes it a much more efficient process. Imagine the number of bilaterals you could do in a day using high-quality virtual conferencing versus shuttling around in a jet. Add to that the fact that you are walking the talk because now your carbon footprint is a lot smaller.

In addition, we are a small nation, but we like to think that our diplomacy should "punch above its weight" for our mission. For us to do that, it's about commitment and trustworthiness, but it's also about speed and efficiency. With TelePresence, if you need to talk to the executive secretary of the UN Climate Secretary about an issue, you can practically walk down the hall and you're on. Your reaction time is a lot faster than if you had to go there in person. We need our guys out there to be fast in reacting to news so that they will be the first guys running down the hallway saying, 'How about this item on the agenda?' That's the only way, because nobody will wait for us.

What do you see as the implications of this kind of technology for other communities of interest, such as regional trade talks, nuclear disarmament discussions, etc.?

Svend Olling: It's a step toward changing the way conferences might be done in the future. That being said, it's also an experiment because it hasn't been done before. We've approached many other current and potential users with different ideas for use cases and tried to develop them with Cisco to see how we can use this for press outreach, for participation of NGOs and observers, and for other organizations who cannot attend physically because of calendar issues. There's a huge interest in it.

It will be fascinating to see how this moves forward. Come January, we will be much wiser as far as what works and what doesn't. If it's a success, I think we'll see this approach replicated in many different types of international conference. I don't see any such events, at least under the UN auspices, where this won't be a natural component. But it will be a long-term development because there is lots of tradition in the way these things move forward. I don't imagine there will be a completely different way of doing international political conferences in 2010. For our part, I can promise you the Danish government will try to push this further. The possibilities are endless for how it could transform meetings of this type.

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