At Web Summit 2020, Europe’s largest annual tech conference, there was a sense of the familiar amid the unfamiliarity.
Slimmed down to three days and hosted entirely virtually, more than 650 talks were on offer, provoking the usual ‘talk FOMO’ and dilemmas over which stage to choose. At least this year, the other stages were just a click away, rather than a scramble through the event halls.
Organizers and attendees wrestled with the inevitable technical glitches associated with broadcasting hours of content across five channels to more than 100,000 global attendees who were also networking, attending masterclasses and chatting at roundtables.
Once things settled down, it became apparent that the tech industry continues to grapple with many of the same problems we’ve seen debated before, here and elsewhere: inclusion and diversity, ethics, data privacy, climate change and sustainability. This time, though, we had the added lens of the pandemic, figuratively and literally, as contributors participated on-screen from all over the world instead of from the stage in Lisbon.
A host of problems, then, but do we have any solutions? Certainly, there was a sense across many of the talks that the pandemic was something of a kick up the proverbial—and that if lessons are learned from the harsh experience of 2020, they should be put to good use to do better.
What does this ‘better’ look like? Highlights include a new formula for brand success, an echoing call for consumer control over their data and the democratization of the content economy.
A better world: brand collaboration
Businesses are realizing that change at the system level requires action in concert with others and that success increasingly entails putting competition aside and working together to tackle social and environmental challenges. At Web Summit, we saw evidence of this growing willingness for brands and business to collaborate in service of the greater good.
In a session dubbed “Rebuilding broken systems,” Helena Helmersson, CEO of the Swedish fashion giant H&M, described how the retailer has tried multiple times to bring its many sub-brands together to tackle the problem of unsustainable packaging for e-commerce deliveries. Helmersson, formerly sustainability chief at H&M, explained that it was only when the businesses stopped working in silos and started to collaborate that a breakthrough came, resulting in a recyclable paper packaging design that is now used in 19 countries across four H&M brands. The retailer is now partnering with both supply chain partners and competing retailers on a fair living wage project that sees around 20 businesses working together to change purchasing practices and ultimately benefit garment workers.
Vas Natasimhan, CEO of pharmaceutical Novartis, spoke to Fast Company’s Ruth Reader about the unprecedented collaboration that the pharmaceutical industry has seen since the pandemic, which has led to the discovery of suitable vaccines in months, in a process that usually takes ten to twelve years. The spirit of collaboration stands the industry in good stead. “The real thing that gives me hope” he said, “is we know we can do it when we come together across sectors to work in a collaborative fashion.”
Collaboration does not mean the end of competition, said Natasimhan, but he believes there are opportunities for the whole industry to benefit from more sharing. “You don’t want to lose the competitive dynamic” he said, “But we’re realising that there’s a bigger pre-competitive space where knowledge could be shared. Clinical trial sites, pre-clinical assays, algorithms; there are things we could share, where all boats would rise.”
The Wold Health Organization’s Soumya Swaminathan agreed, pointing out in a session named “Covid, Covax and the cure” that it’s global collaboration and data sharing that has landed us these vaccines. “No one has held back information” she said.
Governments still have much to learn from the collaboration playbook, though: the pandemic reaction highlighted Europe’s fragmented response to the challenge. In the session Building Back up: The Economy in 2021, Mairead McGuinness – European Commissioner for Financial Services, Financial Stability and Capital Markets Union says “The one thing Europe learned was that when there is a public health crisis, Europe needs to work together quicker and more effectively.” She reflected on the challenging times Italy and Spain were going through in early parts of the pandemic, and the tragedy in “feeling that Europe wasn’t with them.” She urged nations to learn from mistakes and work towards a more collective response to future crises.
A better internet: empowered data ownership
Privacy was yet again a topic of discussion at Web Summit as the debate over who controls personal data goes on.
In “Internet: who owns our data?” Cindy Cohn from the Electronic Frontier Foundation made the case that companies, and law makers should work together to ensure consumers are able to opt out of platforms and services whenever they want, taking their data with them. Cohn’s call for more consumer control was echoed by others at the conference, including the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who wants to enshrine the individual’s power over their own data in Europe’s new Digital Services Act. Clear legislation will be a good thing for businesses, since according to Cohn, ambiguous policy makes compliance challenging. In the meantime, Cohn counsels start-ups entering this territory to look for “ways that people can use your services in ways that really empower them…and offer them a better choice.”
Apps and tools that promise better consumer control of data are not new, but thus far, none of the challengers is causing Big Tech to lose any sleep. In 2021, one Swiss start-up may prove to be the game-changer. Inrupt was co-founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, known as the father of the world wide web, who has often spoken of his dismay at the ways in which his creation has been subverted. Berners-Lee and his co-founder John Bruce were at the Summit to discuss this year’s milestone launch of Inrupt’s enterprise-ready SOLID servers in their talk “Realizing the web’s potential.” SOLID’s privacy technology “puts people first,” said Berners-Lee, and empowers them to create their own data stores called Pods (personal online data stores) from which they can grant access to third parties at their own discretion.
Inrupt is already running trials with a host of organizations and businesses including the National Health Service (NHS), NatWest, the BBC and the government of Flanders. Bruce sees Inrupt as “part of a new era of inclusive capitalism” that will see that “everyone gets to participate in the creation of value.”
Are we on the edge of a new, more inclusive era for privacy? Even Big Tech now acknowledges that data ownership should be interrogated more closely. In a fireside chat titled “Facebook, elections and political speech,” head of global affairs Nick Clegg said it was “an ongoing and legitimate source of debate” and pondered whether it was possible to “do more with less data that you hold for a shorter period of time.” Watch this space.
Better content: the immersion revolution
2020 saw a surge in content consumption as life migrated to the screen, unlocking an exciting new era in immersive engagement across realities.
In the “Remixing Reality” session, Phil Libin, co-founder and CEO of All Turtles and mmhmm, discussed the “DJ-ification” of content and entertainment with music duo The Chainsmokers. Today, everyone from teachers to musicians to CEOS is remixing and blending live and recorded content to create truly unique and exciting performances. Libin’s start-up mmhmm, which was created and launched during lockdown, allows users to turn their video conferences into interactive and engaging performances with backgrounds, pop-up elements and the ability to manipulate images on the fly.
Now more than ever, people want to feel like they are part of the story, according to Mike McGee, co-founder and chief creative officer at Framestore. Explaining how elements of the virtual are infiltrating real life and vice-versa, McGee pointed to Framestore’s work on augmented reality app His Dark Materials: My Daemon, which launched in November alongside the season premier of BBC and HBO’s His Dark Materials. In the app, users create their own daemon (an animal familiar from the show). Users can spend time in their daemon’s world, completing activities that follow the plot of the show, hanging out in the environment and even meeting other characters. The daemon also encourages users to complete real life selfcare tasks like going for a walk, taking time for themselves or catching up with a friend.
In his session “Improbable: The Advent of Virtual Worlds,” Herman Narula, co-founder of distributed computing company Improbable, highlighted how the virtual world is adding new dimensions to everyday life and how IRL values are infiltrating virtual worlds. He called out how items purchased or acquired in the virtual realm now hold as much value as those in real life, noting that it supports sustainable purchasing habits. In Narula’s talk at the DLD Conference a few weeks prior to Web Summit, he shared how game developers actively program more equitable economies into their games to engage more players.
The tech industry has never shied away from ambitious aspirations, but innovation has traditionally been geared towards personal pursuits. Web Summit 2020 reflects a significant shift in the industry towards a burgeoning collectivist mindset, which sees tech leaders looking beyond the individual to innovate for the greater good.