A Diary from Dublin

Web Summit is one of the biggest tech conferences in the world. But why?
Web Summit

When the co-founder and Editor-in-chief at The List, Trondheim’s English language magazine, offered to send us his thoughts from Web Summit, we wholeheartedly accepted. After all, Dublin’s Web Summit is one of the biggest tech conferences in the world and has grown almost exponentially over the past few years.

We wanted to know what was good, what was bad, and what can Technoport learn from its success?

Over to you, Wil.

Personalisation

The clever people at the Web Summit have clocked I am coming from Norway and have tailored my web content accordingly. When I scanned the programme of this Dublin-based summit from a Norwegian IP address, the recommended speaker list was littered with Norwegian CEOs and Nordic startups. Combined with the buzz about Trondheim, it was easy to imagine that half of Norway was Ireland-bound this week.

Mine was a last minute invitation and so in the hustle and bustle of making my way here this morning - a 3am start, groan! - I too was under the impression that I was joining a pilgrimage to this internet technology conference, which has exploded in size and reach since its launch in 2010.

An international perspective

The seemingly infinite opportunities offered by these global markets inspired me to take today as a chance to see our Norwegian enterprise in an international perspective. This was particularly relevant for me, as our company’s primary product is local and in print.

Not every enterprise was necessarily scalable anyway, as I learnt from my chat with OPTLN, a US-based startup which wants to change the way women work, with particular emphasis on getting mothers back into work after maternity leave. In this respect Norway is already considered a world leader, though both nations still have a lot to do to get more women in the boardroom, and into the conference. Web Summit have launched ‘Help Us Change the Ratio’ initiative for 2016, offering 10.000 free tickets to female entrepreneurs.

I have to say it was a much better initiative than at day one's evening event, when an app allowed you to order your drinks from wherever you were standing in the enormous nightclub, and have it delivered to you by one of their 40 waiting staff. Suffice to say they all seemed to be pretty, young women, who encouraged people to buy more at any opportunity. It was pitched as a queue jumping solution, but was sexist and irresponsible in my book.

Web Summit was littered with moments of revelation or beauty as your trudged between the events on the bill. One such seminar - ‘Factivism, feminism & the sexist date crisis’ - had not caught my attention on the bill (a charity enterprise headed by Bono… a little too cliched for my first trip to Dublin!). But I got caught up speaking to one of their volunteers, Ben Fraser, who explained that their goal was to alleviate poverty through better access to internet. Ben referred to the internet as a “uniquely useful tool for the developing world to gain access to public services and ensuring accountability”.

This is not revolutionary stuff but Ben pointed out that the developing world is not simply following in the West’s footsteps, a decade behinds (as if they all have Nokia 3310s instead of iphone 6s). Instead they are carving their own path. In Kenya, for example, M-pesa is a mobile based money transfer which has been widespread since 2007. And at the donor end new technology is helping aleve giving fatigue: Charity Water allows donors to follow their pound/euro/kroner from the point of giving to the recipient.

Web Summit 2015

Go big or go home?

Generally speaking it felt the momentum of the conference was behind taking your idea to the greatest possible scale, for profit and for maximum scrutiny.

Israeli journalist and Founding Editor of TheMarker, Guy Rolnik, reformed his country’s media landscape by refusing to bow down to the status quo. TheMarker is now the country’s leading financial news organisation. Rolnik was kind of astonished to learn that Irish media is dominated by two men - Rupert Murdoch and Denis O’Brien - and gave a scathing attack on cronyism in multinational media outlets. But he maintained that small scale, local operations were slaves to advertisers whims and scaling up was still preferable:

Rolnik went on to stress that impartial arbitration and regulation were essential in improving journalistic marketplaces where practitioners are part of an equilibrium and can "avoid certain issuse in unison". This took place on the Society stage, and I thought it was particularly apt that it was folowed by Dan Lopez’s showcase on technology and imagery of earth from the International Space Station.

The more I think about it, this was perhaps the most expansive and thought proking technology I witnessed on day one: as we were introduced to what was effectively live Google Earth. Like Go Pros on a million skydiving Felix Magaths, this technology was giving live satellite imagery of everything from shipping yards to refugee camps.

Lopez pulled all the right heart chords: how to tell how effective middle eastern irrigation systems were, crop productivity, catching illegal loggers, counting the numbers in Syrian refugee camps. But he dropped a bombshell when he quickly noted that the cameras would be supported by high flying drones, in order to penetrate cloud cover. there was a murmur of discontent at this idea of all encompassing surveillance, which I heard echoed around the conferences in other fields. But Lopez’s 20 minutes were up, and so he left without questions, leaving us thirsty for more answers.

Innovation through storytelling

Inspired by my chat with a ONE Foundation volunteer yesterday, I started the second day with Scott Harrison’s passionate presentation about his charity, and had a chat with him afterwards. Charity: Water is using technology to rejuvenate the donor market: “We shot the Virtual Reality piece ourselves using Charity: Water team members in collaboration with VRSE who built us a rig," he said.

He told the story of a 13-year old Ethiopian girl who committed suicide because the hardships of her life and lack of access to water. When Scott first heard the story he went to Ethiopia because he did not believe things could be so bad. The conditions were so shocking that he began his charity 9 years ago, and has since gained 1 million supporters, activated 17,000 water projects and helped 5.5 million people to drink clean water in 24 countries. Yet in all that time he has only managed to take some 200 people out there to witness the situation first hand. I am not advocating poverty tourism here, but it is undeniably useful to inspire people and out disconnect with the realities is accentuated by our distance.

“We are creatures of story. How long has this Syrian crisis been going on. One child dies and suddenly we are all speaking about it. So, how do we innovate with story? What if we could take more people there? VR is an empathy machine," he said.

Web Summit Dublin

Which way to turn?

The Web Summit sometimes descended into a study of behavioural economics. A combination of short seminars, too many people and no clear paths to follow through the programme, left many participants bemused, many ideas unexplored and many ideas evaporated into the ether. But the intensity and frantic pace meant there were many unexpected golden moments and chance meetings with like-minded and inspiring entrepreneurs.

This introduces one of the prevailing themes of the Web Summit conference 2015: the internet of everything has caused all start ups and enterprises to be analysed in terms of their global impact. The moment you launch you are cast into an enormous pool, with thousands of competitors. But are all businesses destined to be international in reach? How do we shift the measure of success?

Not every business is destined for global success

We want to see our companies get to market as quick as possible, beat the competition and make it as easy as possible for advertisers and investors. But how do we manage scale?

Take MooDoo, an app which helps users to get together with friends and participate in different activities. One of the managers, Lucy, from Mumbai, told me that Google had launched a similar initiative two days previous. MooDoo is planning to launch in Mumbai and Oxford to begin with, so that they can attempt market take up in defined areas to begin with. “We are putting a lot of effort into marketing,” explained Lucy. "We are creating network of ambassadors, applying for seed funding from various universities, and collaborating with Oxford University. We are not focusing on downloads to begin with, but on building engaged communities of users."

Many of the speakers seemed to use the platform to promote themselves and their businesses on quite a superficial level. Yes they were afforded relatively short time slots, and few had any time for questions, but I felt that Web Summit was quite "tech lite."

In conclusion

The number of start ups I encountered in a few hours on the first day was made even more remarkable by the revelation that nearly all of them are replaced by a new batch on the next day, and then again on the final day. What was once referred to as a ‘dot-com bubble’ has quite simple become the primary marketplace for all aspiring enterprises. Even traditionally web-wary companies have been enticed to embrace the opportunities afforded by mobile technology and the subsequent growth on offer, though the ‘Smart Scaling: are you scaling too fast’ seminar urged cation on this front.

With as many as 40,000 delegates and speakers in attendance this year, from all corners of the globe, it was true organised chaos.

It's not so much brushing shoulders with your peers, as bouncing off them like a pinball as you ricochet from one twenty-minute lecture to another, down the avenues of startups, their logos pinned to the chipboard walls, with illuminated Macbooks showing off the beta versions of their websites and apps.

Photo: Web Summit


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