Lisbon played host to Web Summit this year – the first time where the event was held outside of Dublin. With over 21 conferences taking place across four pavilions and the MEO arena, the former EXPO ’98 venue provided the perfect home to Europe’s largest technology event.
On opening night, there was a distinct air of excitement as founder Paddy Cosgrave addressed an audience of 15,000 with Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa. This buzzing atmosphere lasted for the entire duration of the event and through all hours of the day as the crowds took the Web Summit spirit onto the streets of Lisbon; swapping pints of Guinness for cachaça-fuelled caipirinhas.
The whirlwind trip provided a glimpse of the disruptive technologies taking place, discussions on how technology could be used to tackle the world’s most pressing issues and introductions to the visionaries shaping the industry.
Here are some of the key themes that I took away from this year’s Web Summit:
Lisbon – the new digital capital of Europe?
Lisbon has long been likened to the West Coast of America for its trams that scale the city’s steep hills and the red suspension bridge across the bay – and on opening night of Web Summit, the intention to emulate San Francisco’s tech scene was clear.
With its lower cost of living, comfortable Mediterranean climate and higher quality of life, the government is working hard to boost entrepreneurship in Portugal. The conference opened with a montage of why the organisers fell in love with the country followed by a speech from the Prime Minister on how he hoped for attendees to see it as dynamic, progressive and open to business.
This message also permeated throughout Lisbon in the “This is Portugal” campaign highlighting the country’s tax benefits for early stage investors, its blooming start-up ecosystem and broadband infrastructure.
There is still a diversity issue in tech
The industry’s gender gap is a big problem and this was echoed throughout the event. Despite nearly half of the attendees at Web Summit being women, the scale of the industry’s challenge remains vast. Of the 663 speakers, only about 100 were women – and the lack of diversity extends beyond gender. While some inroads have been made to address the imbalance, the organisers recognise there is more work to be done to address the issue.
Defining the future of VR
One of the more interesting talks I went to looked at the future of Virtual Reality and its application – not just from an entertainment perspective but also within the smart city planning and education space. The Lockheed Martin Mars Experience Bus, for example, was used to showcase on how VR can be taken beyond the headset to inspire young generations.
While it is a hot topic, the scale and potential of VR remain pretty undefined as the industry applies a test-and-learn approach.
Is technology good or bad for democracy?
A number of discussions that took place questioned whether the proliferation of social media sites and the internet was good or bad for democracy – especially in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump’s victory.
While the internet empowers people to have their own voice, questions were asked on whether it allows for critical thinking, constructive dialogue or rational discussions in situations where people with opposing views end up in an online spat, where newsfeeds fill up with articles that are tailored to personal preferences or likeminded people congregate with each other?
And the end result? An echo chamber that entrenches people’s ideological positions.
Summarising my experience at the Summit, the energy of the event was definitely infectious. I’ll be looking forward to book my ticket again next year.