Web Summit 2018 insights: it’s all about the people

You might expect that a technology conference would have a primarily tech-focused message. But having just returned from a stimulating few days at Web Summit, a start-up and scale-up tech company conference in Lisbon, it’s clear that the tech sector’s current focus is on people. We can’t let ourselves get carried away by the pure excitement of technology and what it can do: we have to think about the impact it has – and could have – on people.

Attended by around 70,000 industry insiders, Web Summit featured high profile speakers for whom the people theme emerged strongly. For example, António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, highlighted the impact technology could have on society as automation replaces numerous jobs, triggering the need to retrain the workforce or risk mass unemployment. He also highlighted the problem of misuse of the internet in the form of fake news and cyber-attacks, as well as the potential for artificial intelligence to be used in a weaponised environment – robots fighting our wars.

Guterres wasn’t alone in seeing the need for action to protect people from potential negative impacts of technology. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, saw the need for a ‘contract’ for the web. He discussed the role of government, people and companies in making the internet secure and preventing it from being turned into a form of abuse. Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, also talked about cyber security, identifying the need for a ‘digital peace petition’ and for people to be able to hold governments to account for use of the internet.

Looking at the people issue from a slightly different perspective, Matt Brittin, President of EMEA Business & Operations at Google, emphasised the importance of using digital technology as a force for good. He focused on the importance of education, arguing that the way we educate ourselves has to change in order for us all to embrace developments in technology.

What underpinned these talks is the sense that the technology debate is changing: we are moving on from talking about what we can do with technology – what can be achieved – to considering ethical issues. What should we be achieving? How should we be achieving it? And how should we be protecting ourselves from the misuse of technology?

For example, the internet was once seen as the ultimate free space and there has been a reluctance to let governments and companies control what individuals do there. Now, however, we are discussing the role of governments, companies and individuals in controlling the internet and making it safe for the people who use it.

What does this mean for individual tech companies? Web Summit provided an opportunity to hear what investors look for when deciding to back tech businesses. Is it the latest, most advanced technology that attracts them? No, it’s not. Investors are interested in the management team – who is behind the business and what are they like as people. They also want to know what problems the technology will solve for society and consumers – for people.

So the overriding message from Web Summit was that, yes, technology matters and is exciting, but it’s the people factor that really counts. What’s the impact on people? Web Summit itself illustrates this idea: the subject matter is technology, but the purpose is to get people together – in real life – to make personal connections. It’s all about the people.

If you were in attendance at Web Summit, please get in touch to let us know your feedback.
 

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