The annual conference promised a brave new world—though not without its perils.
This year’s Web Summit festival was shot through with a sense of reckoning. As 60,000 attendees converged on Lisbon, the overarching message was this: the thrill ride is over. The world is entering an era of extreme complexity, where the tech industry must start to find some answers to the questions it has posed.
Founder Paddy Cosgrave set the tone on opening night, assuring delegates that the event would address both “the promise and the perils of technology.” “Technology’s impact is only just beginning,” said Cosgrave. “But on the other hand, there are things happening in the world which, because of technology, are deeply concerning.”
The industry is increasingly under scrutiny and there was no shortage of individuals willing to ask the tough questions at Web Summit. Among them was journalist and founder of Recode Kara Swisher whose opening gambit to several of her interviewees was: “How f***ed is Silicon Valley?”
Yet for the most part, tech seems willing to face its demons. Speaker after speaker called for a more thoughtful, human-centric approach and a need to grapple meaningfully with the tough issues.
Silicon Valley’s impact
Over the three days of the Summit, panels and speakers wrestled with Silicon Valley’s impact on the world, with topics ranging from the coming jobs apocalypse to tech’s political influence, from privacy to tax avoidance.
Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s Commissioner for Competition who fined Google €2.4 billion in June, was introduced to delegates as “one of the most important people on the planet right now,” underlining the role that European regulators could play in reining in the powers of Big Tech. Vestager spoke of the need for technology to “serve people” and underlined her commitment to a competitive playing field, warning, “When you grow, you shouldn’t deny others the chance to challenge you.”
Chief scientist at Hanson Robotics Ben Goertzel is also looking to level the playing field in artificial intelligence and challenge the concentration of power. In 2018, he plans to launch SingularityNET, a decentralized open market for AI which will be underpinned by blockchain technology. The market will bring together disparate AIs focused on narrow tasks and allow them to work together to learn from one another.
The buzz topic of fake news and tech’s influence over the news agenda also got an airing, with Joseph Kahn of the New York Times arguing that tech companies now have unprecedented influence over public debate, which “goes beyond what they envisaged.” He added, “None of these platforms has thought about how they should exercise this power.”
The growing sexual harassment media storm cast its shadow too, with Victoria’s Secret model Sara Sampaio relating her experience at the hands of Lui magazine, which she says, published nude images of her without consent. A panel discussion entitled “Sexism in the Valley” brought the theme closer to home. Christine Herron, a Silicon Valley investor who advises the business incubator StartX, said that women in the industry had been told “to shut the f*** up about [sexual harassment] forever, and that is not OK.” She explained how investors could put pressure on firms by asking for their policies on sexual harassment as part of the diligence process.
Diversity, an omnipresent issue for tech, was also under discussion. Blake Irving, CEO of web hosting company GoDaddy, told attendees that instead of shifting blame to women for not seeking promotions enough, companies should instead create systems that solve the problem.
Sustainability & Fashion
Another industry that’s facing up to its responsibilities is fashion, the second biggest polluter after the petrochemical industry. The environmental costs of production are extensive, particularly for synthetic fabrics. David Breslauer, co-founder of Bolt Threads, told the audience at the Modum stage that fabrics like polyester take 200 years to decompose. Shreds of fibres are alleged to have found their way into our food supply. Add to this the toxic sludge from the dying process for a major sustainability problem.
Bolt Threads (featured earlier this year in our SXSW roundup) is tackling these issues by creating sustainable fabrics that copy “nature’s blueprints.” The company develops innovative proteins that mimic the properties of spider silk, which are then used to create fabrics that feed rather than harm the environment. The silk is incredibly strong and biodegradable, with anti-microbial properties. Most recently, Bolt Threads collaborated with fashion designer Stella McCartney for a golden silk shift dress featured in the “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Their yarns can now be spun on commercial machines, paving the way to sustainable, high-performance fabrics.
Global luxury group Kering is putting sustainability at the core of its business strategy. Marie-Claire Daveu, the company’s chief sustainability officer, described how the business created an environmental profit and loss scorecard, which measures the performance of not just Kering’s operations but their entire supply chain. With a highly complex supply chain running into the hundreds and thousands of companies, collaboration is vital. The company assigns a Euro monetary value to their impacts, which enables them to identify and prioritize ways to reduce them. The methodology is open source, enabling other fashion businesses to adopt the idea.
In addition, Kering introduced full traceability across its materials and introduced its own Materials Innovation Lab, which promotes the use of sustainable fabrics across the business. The company also collaborates with Plug and Play and Fashion for Good on an accelerator programme for sustainable innovation start-ups in luxury.
As a luxury brand, says Daveu, Kering has a “particular responsibility to show the way” on sustainability for the fashion industry. Their customers are highly supportive, particularly millennials who are increasingly demanding when it comes to traceability, workers’ rights, and impact on the planet. “Sustainability,” says Daveu, “is no longer an option—it’s a necessity.”
Taking to the Skies
Urban transportation is also seeing extreme disruption. While self-driving technology company Waymo’s autonomous vehicles are now ready to the hit the road, other businesses are looking to the skies. At a panel dubbed, “Where We’re Going We Won’t Need Roads: Flying cars are coming,” speakers predicted that a skyscape of flying cars or multicopters will be a commercial reality in just three to five years. Bladerunner was not far off the mark with its prediction of 2019.
German aviation start-up Volocopter hopes to launch its fleet of autonomous air taxis within this timeframe. Backed by Daimler, the company is currently testing its fleet of eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles) in Dubai. Its Volocopter 2X is summoned by smartphone and can fly two people comfortably in its cabin equipped with luxurious leather seats.
Airbus also has several eVTOLs in the works, including CityAirbus, a craft for one to four passengers, and Vahana, for single travellers or cargo.
The benefits of urban air mobility are numerous: easing congestion, lower infrastructure costs, reduced pollution as well as speedier journeys. As Mathias Thomsen, Airbus general manager for urban air mobility, commented, “This is about getting faster from A to B.”
Even this nascent industry is provoking ethical questions, with suggestions that such services are likely to deepen the divide between the haves and have-nots, with those who can afford to soaring above the congested streets.
Uber, which is planning its own fleet of ‘air taxis,’ challenged this notion, saying it would make its service cheaper than running a car. Uber’s Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden pointed to manufacturing at scale, efficient load factors and low maintenance vehicles as just some of the factors that will help keep costs down.
UberAir, which already has plans for services in Dallas and Dubai, announced a Los Angeles launch for 2020, alongside a partnership with NASA on airspace management. While initial flights will be piloted, UberAir trips will ultimately be autonomous. Vehicles will be capable of a 60-mile range on a single charge, with recharging taking less than five minutes.
Saving the Planet
While Web Summit gave the industry something of a rough ride, it also pointed a clear path to its rehabilitation, with speakers from Al Gore to UN Secretary-General António Gutteres urging the industry to use its powers for the good of the planet.
There is plenty to aim for. Robert Opp from the UN World Food Program talked about the agency’s bid to leverage technology to solve hunger by 2030. One in nine people on the planet does not have enough food to it due to natural disaster, conflict, displacement, or poverty. The agency is using machine learning to analyze drone images of disaster-hit areas to quickly understand the situation on the ground, while chatbots are helping to track food insecurity in hard-to-reach areas.
Zurich-based Climeworks is one startup turning carbon emissions into a business opportunity. Co-founder Christoph Gebald explained how their technology captures CO2 emissions from the air, much like trees do, and then stores it underground, where it becomes mineralized and turns into stone. Their first plant was installed at a geothermal power facility in Iceland, and has achieved negative carbon emissions in testing.
Clean energy firm Lanza Tech is also turning pollution to good use. They ‘ferment’ pollution using patented bacteria to create new chemicals and fuels that may be used in industries like aviation. Chief Scientist Freya Burton sees huge potential in applying this technology to all kinds of industrial facilities from steel mills to landfill plants.
All music to Al Gore’s ears. He closed the Summit with a rousing speech rallying the tech industry to the climate change cause. “I want to recruit you,” as part of the solution, he said, adding, “We can’t condemn the next generation to lives of degradation and despair.”
Technology, he said, will be instrumental in solving the climate change problem, pointing to the impact already made by alternative energy sources like solar. Gore promised technologists that there is a growing market for their innovations. “Everything is at stake,” he concluded as the crowd rose to its feet. “Now is your time.”
For more on the growing backlash against big tech, stay tuned for our upcoming Future 100 trend report.
Main image: 9 November 2017; A general view at Night Summit following the final day of Web Summit 2017 at Cais do Sodré in Lisbon. Photo by Seb Daly/Web Summit via Sportsfile.