Lessons from Lisbon

What I took away from Web Summit 2018

Last week saw Tilley and myself head to Lisbon for Web Summit 2018. For me it was my first visit to the city and first time at Web Summit. For those not in the know, Web Summit is a global gathering over three days bringing together an estimated 70,000 attendees from over 150 countries. A truly global melting pot of tech. Spread across a vast complex, the summit hosts more talks, discussions, labs, stands and networking events than you could ever manage to attend. It was quite a daunting and overwhelming experience arriving on day one and diving into the thick schedule of events. After wading through the stands, filtering through the schedule, attending a variety of talks discussions and debates and munching on copious amounts of pastel de natas here is my take on Web Summit 2018. The key takeaways from Lisbon, the trends in tech for the year ahead and a hint at what direction the ‘industry’ might take in the years to come.

1. Tech is growing up and with age comes responsibility.

Often likened to the wild west gold rush for the past 20 years, the tech world now seems to be reaching a certain age of maturity. We have seen multi-billion dollar companies forced to face up to the responsibilities that come with having such great influence over our lives and daily routines – The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal being just one example. The ‘tech revolution’ or what is often termed the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is well and truly underway. We rely on tech for much of our work and this is only something that will increase in the coming years, we will see technology continue to blur and fuse with the physical, digital, and biological worlds.

With this growth it is apparent that the tech world is facing more challenges than ever before, from Russian hacking to data misuse and beyond. Father of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee opened Web Summit by launching a global campaign to keep the Web free and protect people’s rights online – a ‘Magna Carta for the Web’ so to speak. With 50 percent of the world now online it is glaringly obvious that we do need to consider carefully how the cyberworld is governed. Perhaps this is too little, too late though? Attempting to establish a contract for the web when so much investment and infrastructure is geared up to running things as the status quo is going to be a mammoth challenge. But requiring internet companies to respect data privacy and “support the best in humanity” as Berners-Lee put it is now more important than ever.

2. Values, borders and the age of the tech race

“Before we wake up and find that the year 2024 looks like the book 1984, let’s figure out what kind of world we want to create.”

Brad Smith (President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft)

China’s role in tech was a topic that popped up in a number of discussions. A question that many seemed to be asking was ‘how do we combat and challenge a set of customs, principles and values at odds with our own?’ If it is to be believed as to how much the Chinese wish to invest in tech over the coming years (particularly in Artificial Intelligence), how are we to ensure that the outcomes aren’t threats to our own security and values? Is this going to be the start of the AI race similar to the US v USSR Space Race that took place during the Cold War? A key theme going into 2019 looks set to be around access Chinese companies are given to technology solutions in the West. Earlier this year Australia took measures to ban the Chinese tech giant Huawei from providing technology for the country’s 5G network. Perhaps a move that will be replicated by other countries, no doubt America as President Trump looks to ramp up his trade war with China further.  

Values – not just ‘the West v China’ but the US vs European Union. It is clear from those I heard speak regarding the EU’s stance on tech that Europe is setting out to push tech as a way to solve a number of key societal and environmental challenges. With the introduction of GDPR it is clear that the EU is getting serious with taking Big Tech to task. Although not perfect, the EU seems to be pressing ahead with creating a territory that sees tech as the way forward. European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said; ‘Digital technology has immense power to do good. But technology that powerful is bound to create risks as well. And it’s not an attack on technology to acknowledge that those risks are real’. It seems a real focus for the EU in coming years will be how to apply offline rules and regulation to the online world.

There were warnings however that this is something that could be swayed easily. With upcoming European parliamentary elections there is a real threat of Russian hacking interference that could change the course of the EU. In the UK too with Brexit looming there is uncertainty as to which way the UK will lean on tech, rights and values. Will we stay aligned to the EU’s policy around big US tech companies and data or will we lean more towards the American stance? In the words of Tony Blair, despite all these big questions “the biggest challenge is to make the policy makers understand the change makers”. If the majority of politicians remain as clueless about technology and data as at present, how will we be able to effectively create laws to help govern tech for the good of society?

Fundamental civil liberties are only going to continue to be challenged by technology such as facial recognition. At one discussion President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft, Brad Smith commented; “before we wake up and find that the year 2024 looks like the book 1984, let’s figure out what kind of world we want to create. What are the safeguards and limitations on both companies and governments for the use of technology?”.

3. Investing in an innovative future

So how do we utilise tech to change the future? From the talks that I saw, a number of people had high hopes for the current generation of entrepreneurs leading the way. Millennials, snowflakes, whatever you wish to call us, are often attacked for being self interested and only caring about being able to drink flat whites and eat smashed avocados. It would seem however that we are shaping up to be more civic-minded than previous generations. Evidence suggests that our generation cares more about purpose than profit.

Social responsibility was a key theme in many discussions I attended across the conference. Entrepreneur and investor Yossi Vardi made it clear that people want to see that what they are doing is meaningful, stressing that doing good makes people happy in themselves. Crunchbase CEO Jager McConnell stated; ‘just as you should be thinking about having a diverse team from the beginning, you should be figuring what is your social impact as a company from the beginning’. If you are starting out and have little to offer in terms of financial remuneration social purpose is key. People want to know that the work they do each day is doing good, it can’t just be something that is an afterthought to the company. And it’s not just those building technology that care about it being used for good intentions, we have to also think of consumers and users of technology. Monique Morrow, former CTO at Cisco Systems, said; ‘There is a gravitation towards something that is purposeful. People want purposeful intentional use of technology’.

My takeaway feeling from the summit is that of excitement – there is is great potential for tech to really revolutionise the way we live and work, but I can’t help feeling a little apprehensive. It is clear that there are a number of pressing challenges on the horizon to be addressed by the tech industry, society and government together. If we don’t face up to them and collectively set out how we wish tech to be used and governed we will not be able to fully realise its benefits and rewards.