Five lessons from Lisbon

In the space of eight years, Web Summit has established itself as the most important tech conference on the planet. Dubbed ‘Glasto for geeks’ by the Guardian, it brings together leaders from tech and beyond to discuss ‘answers to the questions posed by the tech revolution we’re all living through.’

It was this promise of insightful debate that lured us there for the first time – and absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it’s now held in Lisbon. Anyway, here are five things we learned from our maiden visit.

It’s a bit much (in a good way)

We’re not going to lie, it’s pretty intense. There are 60-odd thousand people there and they’re not the wandering round with their hands in their pockets type. They’re more inspired, pumped and pitching the next big digital thing. There’s also a crazy amount to take in. Where else can you listen to both the Portuguese Prime Minister and Wyclef Jean (ft NASA) before lunch

Social impact features more than social media

The Summit was more socially aware than we were expecting – and all the better for it. Almost every talk confronted a big social issue, from data democracy and feminism to the impact of tech on employment, sustainability and inequality. Responsibility came up a lot too. With governments unable to match Big Tech’s resources and expertise, the onus to be responsible will fall on them. Gulp. Antonio Guterres gave a great talk on this topic, about how Big Tech could and should be doing more to solve many of the world’s issues, while the EU’s Margrethe Vestager (Borgen inspiration and scourge of Apple and Google) was a welcome reminder that there is still some accountability out there. You can watch one of her excellent talks here.

Some people haven’t given up on humans

Yes, you heard the letters ‘AI’ twenty times a day and we met a robot who’s now a citizen of Saudi Arabia, but there’s hope for the humble human yet. In a talk ominously entitled ‘Hybrid Humans: when, not if’, Bryan Johnson discussed hacking the human brain to make us smarter. Johnson made his fortune selling a payment company to PayPal. He’s since invested $100 million of his own cash into Kernel, a company dedicated to better understanding the human brain so that one day it can be upgraded with microchips. Kind of scary, to be honest.

We kind of respect Trump’s digital campaign director

Sacrilege, we know. He’s called Brad Parscale and unfortunately you couldn’t help but be impressed by his intelligence and the way his team out-thought Clinton’s. His take on data was particularly concise and insightful: ‘you don’t start with data. You start with the need. Then you use the data to ruthlessly target it.’ The level of targeting in that campaign was staggering, something like 60,000 bespoke pieces a day, all done on a lower budget than the Democrats. See his talk here.

Hustling is more important than helping

Investors are given special badges at the Summit and we saw some turn theirs around so they could attend pitches incognito – which makes sense. Then there were the volunteers: they were hiding their name tags too, so they could focus on pitching their app or website rather than giving directions to the food area. Who can blame them really? The whole sector preaches the power of entrepreneurialism and seizing every opportunity you get – and we guess that’s what they were doing. Inspiring, yes. Helpful, absolutely not.

All in all, it was a fascinating and frenetic few days. We’ll be there again next year.

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