Largest web summit yet voted for positivity
If there was one unifying theme that ran throughout this year’s Web Summit, apart from of course technology (which is always the central theme) and the fact it was hosted in Lisbon for the first time this year (meaning much better weather) it was probably politics. OK so that’s three themes, but anyway, politics was a biggy: as the aftershocks of the Brexit vote and its impact were being debated at the Summit, the fresh earthquake of the American election took place on the Wednesday in the early hours. It’s probably fair to say it was a lot for the record 50,000 strong crowd to take in. On top of the usual innovative tech, exciting new startups and thought provoking talks, the weight of these two major political upheavals presented multiple uncertainties with regards to how they will affect industries, growing companies and individuals in the future. For the forth consecutive year, the 33Seconds team worked with Web Summit in the run-up to the conference, inviting journalists from across various markets and were also on the ground at the event, networking with attendees and soaking up knowledge from the fantastic line-up of speakers.
Thankfully, we found that despite of, or possibly partly due to, these unfolding dramas, Web Summit came back fighting and the rhetoric running through the sessions, demos and general after-party chat was overwhelmingly positive. It could be argued that perhaps these political turmoils created an even greater drive than usual to celebrate and take to new heights the values the tech and startup communities hold dear, including (but not exclusively) diversity, creativity and innovation. As part of this, a number of speakers discussed how their organisations were deviating from traditional business models and definitions in a variety of ways. Marian Goodell, CEO of the Burning Man Project spoke about how the company didn’t want to be seen as a ‘brand’ but rather ‘a movement that offers a sense of hope and helps us look outside our daily lives.’ Actress and cofounder Shailene Woodley also introduced her new venture ‘Up to Us’ which is part community platform, part educational resource, with the aim of encouraging people to find common causes and passions in order to spark both on and offline activism.
Even some of the more corporate organisations and speakers alluded to the fact that forward thinking businesses were increasingly implementing and relying on more than just traditional metrics in order to drive success. Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo Di Caprio Foundation used the example of Cisco and explained how the company was able to increase innovation, sustainability and profit by focusing on the target of reducing its carbon footprint, rather than standard financial goals alone. By doing this, Cisco discovered that staff air travel to meetings in other countries was a big contributor to its environmental impact and therefore set about developing its video conferencing technology, which in turn improved innovation and the company’s offering to clients, as well as provided huge cost-savings. Taking this concept one step further was the entrepreneur and model Lily Cole, whose app and web platform Impossible People, is based around the idea of users trading skills but currently includes no financial transactions whatsoever. Cole’s mission to create a movement based on ‘kindness and gratitude’ is certainly both interesting and highly ambitious and it will be interesting to see how this and other ‘gift-economy’ ventures develop in the future.
Companies implementing goals for the good of society rather than capital gain may sound idealistic but as one reporter we spoke to pointed out, the recent news about startups such as YPlan (sold for £1.6m after backers invested £37m) point toward possible limitations with regards to the metrics by which business potential and success have previously been measured. This sentiment was echoed throughout the Summit schedule in the number of talks dedicated to the importance of aspects such as diversity and creativity in tech, including Joseph Gordon Levitt’s keynote, which focused on his site for creators, HitRECord. Rather than aiming for mass user numbers and vast turnovers, the platform is primarily interested in quality connections, collaboration and meaningful output by the artists it attracts. Of course, as always, new technology itself was also a major highlight of this year’s Summit, with mind-blowing talks and demos from the likes of Hanson Robotics and the brains at MIT regarding AI, machine learning and automation. But the common thread running through many of these discussions was fundamentally the importance of people, including the ethical issues presented by these developing technologies regarding jobs, how future industries will function and in what ways all of these changes will impact on individuals and communities over the coming years. Of course nobody had a crystal ball but the desire to do good and be good – and do things because we should not just because we can – that the conference fostered was infectious. For now though, we can only hope that our current and future leaders around the world, both in business and government, can take a leaf out of Web Summit’s book in this respect.