Last week I attended Web Summit, Europe’s largest tech conference. This was the first year they summoned in Lisbon, Portugal having been in Dublin the years prior. The conference brings together over 50,000 attendees, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, globally renowned thought leaders and tech magnates as well as government officials ranging from city administrators to supranational institutions, such as the EU and the U.N.
Insulated by the high-tech, progressive and dynamic culture characterizing my home city Austin, I haven’t done enough to understand what is moving and shaking outside of our SxSW infused city limits. So when I received an email invitation and free ticket to Web Summit from Paddy Cosgrave at first I didn’t know what to think. It turns out the Web Summit organizers walk the talk when it comes to tech. Artificial intelligence is not just something their speakers talk about and their start-up attendees pitch. Web Summit uses AI and network algorithms to organize every aspect of their events! And this is how I ended up with free tickets to a conference I didn’t know anything about. Paddy’s algorithms had honed in on me based on my work, interest, connections and other facets that would be a good fit for the Web Summit. Maybe they figured I would be likely to write about it, like I’m doing now?
Despite an audience far too large for the hosting arena on the opening night (I didn’t get in), the overall organization of the conference was well-planned and thought out. Whereas SxSWi takes place at various hotel locations around Austin city center, Web Summit confines its happenings to the giant MEO convention center, which actually consists of three consecutive convention centers followed by the 15,000 person arena. So you could easily move from one session to the next without accounting for the time it takes to get from A to B. It also made it easier to leave after a few minutes if the session didn’t meet expectations, which I found was rare given the quality of the speakers. Each stage was assigned an overall theme, such as Robotics and AI, Money and Fintech, and Future Societies (these were the ones I traversed the most),
The Night Summit is where much of the networking takes place. I was lucky to make several new contacts, some whom I am thankful to include into the fold of new friends, and I was able to strengthen existing connections. It is usually in these moments, where dynamic, future-oriented people from many countries are packed together that you get the inkling of where our future is headed next.
Asking ‘so what’
The “so what” question tends to filter everything I absorb at these types of conferences. I was thankful that most of the sessions went deeper than the typical one-dimensional, somewhat naïve techno-optimistic narratives. Most panelists asked critical questions, more interested in seeing technology as neutral tools which can augment social good and bad. While I’m in technological awe with most of the startups pitching their products, the future needs more of us than merely being clever. It’s not enough for your gadget to pass the Turing test. I often think that to survive in an age where everybody wants to build a better mousetrap, your ideas have to pass the “Enduring test”. Not only does the product have to satisfy a distinct future need, the idiosyncratic social contexts within which these ideas are being implemented matter a great deal as well. For a startup to succeed, anticipating how human behavior succumbs to mercurial forces are at least as important as promoting a product which makes rational sense. The speakers’ ability to observe darker social forces is exactly why I didn’t want to be any other place the day after the U.S. election.
Technology and its backlash
All over the world tech communities depend on governments being open to change, scientifically oriented and inclusive of diversity. This is particularly important for younger generations who are coming of age sensing that the old paradigms aren’t working anymore. That the only roadmap to the future is one of trial and error, not exactly knowing if the pot at the end of the rainbow is full or gold or dirt. Where the best way forward is to explore new, creative ways that can disrupt unsustainable, unjust or inequitable elements of the status quo.
But breaking the status quo often means alienating the ones who technology leaves behind. People far away from these conventions who feel out-aged and out-performed rather than in awe by these new promises. The last two days after the election were filled with a mood reflecting these challenges. Is change accelerating so fast that people revert to fear instead of hope? Will we be able to get the right people into the right places when stringent new immigration policies take effect? Will all the “Girls in STEM” efforts pay off if our daughters are witnessing that the graphene-reinforced glass ceiling above them is less penetrable than ever before? Will we be able to move toward a renewable energy paradigm in spite of a regime that plans to put coal miners back into their obsolete jobs rather than training them for 21st century jobs?
In sharp contrast to a wall to keep immigrants out, the countries represented at the venue, especially the host country Portugal, extended welcoming graces to the many U.S. residents who suddenly felt displaced by their prospective government.
The last keynote was a panel interview with Iranian-born Shervin Pishevar and Josh Geigel, founders of Hyperloop One, the hypersonic transportation system that allegedly would make airplanes seem like horse and buggy. Hyperloop One recently decided to set up their first commercial route between Dubai and Abu Dhabi instead of San Francisco and Los Angeles as many had expected, perhaps an early caution of the reverse brain drain that might occur unless the new administration seriously commits to work with tech entrepreneurs and build tomorrow’s infrastructure.
Web Summit’s new home is Lisbon, and if you decide to go next year, you won’t be disappointed. Not only is Lisbon, or Portugal in general, incredibly picturesque with its 17th century quaintly worn buildings flanking steep and narrow, cobblestone covered avenues transporting trams, vehicles and people in its dense and antique but pulsating city-scape. It’s the perfect choice of location where the old and preservation-worthy meets the high-tech that will bring us into the future. And if our next U.S. administration will understand that the new does not need to negate the old, but instead complement it and reinforce it, maybe we can continue to inch toward a better future for people and planet.
Image: Anne Boysen, Actress Shailey Woodley at Web Summit