Web Summit Puts the Arena Rock in Tech: Inside Europe’s Biggest Web Conference
by Dianna Dilworth
When you think of the Iberian Peninsula and digital conferences, one town comes to mind: Barcelona, home of the Mobile World Congress. But the government of Portugal didn’t get the memo. Lisbon is hosting the Web Summit this week for the first time (it’s previously been held in Dublin) and 53,000 plus people from 166 countries showed up.
Droves of Portuguese youth stood in lines wrapped around the FIL arena for hours on Monday night and it wasn’t to see Radiohead or Beach House. They were lined up to hear politicians discuss economic policy and the role that technology will play in the future.
The prime minister of Portugal, the president of the United Nations and the mayor of Lisbon were among those that took to the stage to talk about the future role that technology will play in the global economy. (The live stream of the event drew one million viewers, according to conference organizer Paddy Cosgrave, founder/CEO of Web Summit).
The consensus on the stage: governments need to commit to creating the framework that opens the way for innovative technologies to succeed in all aspects of society. The Portuguese government is putting their money where their mouth is: Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa revealed a public fund of 200 million Euros designed to attract the best investors to help Portuguese start-ups become more global.
But tech innovation is not going to come over night in Europe where there are 28 different digital markets due to differing laws, unlike the US where there is one. Resistance to one true digital market is a problem for startups who can’t afford the cost of legal compliance issues against the big tech players, said José Manuel Barroso, Non-executive Chairman, Goldman Sachs International and former Prime Minister of Portugal and former president of the European Commission, arguing that European governments could do more to help.
To inspire European technology entrepreneurs, the conference programmers brought out the tech heavyweights and Hollywood actors. Leaders from Facebook, GE, Tinder, LINE Corporation, Reddit and even Hollywood actor/entrepreneur Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Director, Founder, hitRECord, took to the stage to talk about digital disruption.
Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer opened up the show with the first official keynote on Tuesday morning revealing the social network’s plans for the next 10 years. Facebook’s plans are centered around connectivity (for the 4.1 billion people on the planet that don’t currently have access to the Internet), artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Schroepfer discussed both the challenges and advances of machine learning and why robots are still a long way from being as intelligent as humans. He also showed some pretty impressive advances in virtual reality, like how Oculus and robotics combined are helping people that have lost the ability to walk, reactivate neurons that weren’t damaged so that they can walk again.
When it comes to advertising, leaders from the space discussed that while digital has disrupted transmission, storytelling is still at the core of all good messaging. Facebook CMO Gary Briggs said that while fundamentally you still have to get to the core of what the story is, the number of executions you have to build and how fast you have to build these iterations has changed. He also pointed out that today brands have the ability to target to much narrower audiences stressing the importance of knowing who you are talking to.
Maurice Levy Chairman & CEO, Publicis Groupe concurred that digital has changed the speed with which advertisers must work, and said that data is changing how advertisers understand their audiences. Still, he stressed that machines could never replace human creativity.
Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty, spoke about the importance of privacy in an ever more connected world. While he praised the advances of technology (the group used drones and crowd sourcing to help expose human rights violations in Darfur and they have also live streamed living conditions of Syrian refugees to help raise money, he also pointed out the dangers lack of privacy presents – dictators running the show and jailed journalists to name a few.
In a debate with Shetty, technologist Robert Scoble (who went glove to glove while outfitted in VR glasses) played devil’s advocate arguing that people will be willing to give up privacy in order to benefit from the bells and whistles that VR has to offer. He says people will be willing to let devices access their LinkedIn page so that you can see who people are on their VR glasses or contacts as you walk by them at a conference or give access to your camera so that you can see guided pathways to the bathrooms with the shortest lines in the baseball stadium and so that your hotdog can be delivered to you.
Whether we’ll be wearing VR gear while riding in self-driving cars to our offices that are half staffed with robots, remains to be seen. The startups that filled the massive halls might influence the direction it goes in, or they might not. What is clear is that Lisbon wants a piece of the tech business and they rolled out the red carpet to prove it. From Web Summit check in desks at the airport and billboards plastered throughout the city to parties in the Barrio Alto (whose hills will give any San Franciscan a run for their money) and packed subways and the news radio in the taxis, one thing was clear: everyone in Lisbon was abuzz about Web Summit.
“The is not the new Silicon Valley. This is Portugal,” read a billboard outside of the FIL, boasting nationwide broadband 400million Euro for co-investments with business angels and VCs, as well as tax benefits. “We rolled up our sleeves to take businesses global since the 16th century and we’re doing it again.”