The drum beat of Web Summit has got louder still as we approach it’s third year in Lisbon. While it has got bigger and bolder, growing far beyond its Dublin roots, you still find incredibly valuable insights by attending the right talks to get ‘under the circuit board,’ and by checking out the start-ups pushing the boundaries.
With that in mind here are six insights on what to look out for this year:
1. Big tech on the defensive?
Last year saw the big tech giants, such as Google and Amazon, take the prime slots on the main stage to talk about topics including virtual reality and Deep Learning. The content revealed the exciting advances being made by the tech leaders, but it was also interesting to see the automotive brands — which had been centre stage the prior year — moved to relatively smaller stages.
This year I expect big tech to still dominate headlines, but look out for stories of the new technologies that are forcing big tech onto the back foot to protect their business models. For example Web 3.0, whereby users are put back in control of their own data, is challenging the 'owned data' dominance of Facebook. Likewise, voice-activated search is affecting Google’s visual search business model. Customers are usually presented one or less search results when they use voice, meaning that Google cannot generate as much revenue from paid listings on screen.
2. Digital couture: the ascendance of fashion x tech
The Modum stage is always my personal favourite. The blend of fashion, design and technology is super exciting because fashion has always set the bar high for pushing boundaries and self expression. When you combine this limitless creativity with technology the outcomes can be scintillating.
Levi’s collaboration with Google ATAP to create 'smart clothing' was a highlight from 2016. Last year the talk from Boltthreads on man-made fibres that copy nature such as spiders webs was easily the most fascinating. This new technology has the benefits of modern fibres in terms of quality and durability but is 'natural' and actually bio-degrades, creating sustainable clothing. This year some of the speakers are from leading brands such as Swarovski and Tommy Hilfiger, so expect to learn a lot more about 'smart jewellery' and perhaps hear how Tommy Hilfiger are raising the tech bar once again for clothing.
3. Mobility turf wars:
A big theme from 2017 was the amount of talks focussed on the future of mobility. For many there is an assumption that automated cars will be the main form of transport in the decades ahead. However, from listening to talks by brands such as Uber and Airbus last year, the mobility revolution will not just be on our roads. Drones, gyro-cabs and HyperLoop are all competing with the automotive car brands for transport supremacy.
Ultimately this will lead to a new mix of urban mobility; on land, underground, and in the air. This year will see an increase in announcements of government-backed autonomous drones and car schemes in major cities, and another wave of vehicle designs and updates. The key is looking at variations between launch dates of these schemes, as some countries have more dynamic regulatory frameworks than others. Either way it seems highly likely that autonomous cars and drones will be in operation in the five major continents of the world by 2022.
4. Getting serious about green tech
With 12 years left to prevent a potentially irreversible two degrees of global warming, I expect there to be a lot more focus and attention on 'green tech'. Portugal itself is a great example of what can be achieved after decades of action to move to sustainable energy generation. Last year there was a lot of content around electrification of transport to reduce emissions and on technology used to capture and reduce emissions.
There was also an eye-opening talk from Siemens around their work to create decentralised networks of power generation, including wind and solar technologies, generated from a wide network of home-based energy generation. This model will pit them against the big companies whose strategy is to maintain centralised power generation from non-renewable sources of energy, such as oil and gas. Given what is at stake, I expect there to be a clearer line than ever between companies seeking to 'tweak' the energy business model of today, and those bold enough to accelerate things far more rapidly. The key will be noting the actions taken and the results, rather than the promises of action.
5. AI x emotional intelligence
Stephen Hawking opened Web Summit last year, a few short weeks before his sad passing. His powerful words on the dangers posed by unregulated artificial intelligence are truer now than ever. AI, machine learning and neural networks were certainly the buzzwords of 2017.
The presentation from Hanson Robotics, with a live demo of 'Sophia' the robot, made the front pages of many news titles, and presented the fun and experimental side of AI. Although many see this technology as a threat to humankind, the truth is that widening people's understanding of how it can help us is critical.
When used responsibly, we can reduce the opportunities for those who seek to use AI for unethical means. Microsoft's recent book,' The Future Computed' explains that it will require a combination of emotional intelligence and computer logic to develop the best framework for using AI technology. We need to learn to be 'more human' and to develop the emotional, creative and empathy skills that computers simply don't have. So this year, look out for an increased focus on explaining and humanising AI, and it's wider technology applications.
6. Immersive technology is maturing
Immersive Technology includes Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality. Together, these new technologies are offering brands new ways to engage and entertain, but with added depth. The past few years has seen a lot of stories around new headsets, such as Magic Leap. However, the real story is the growing amount of applications and content that appears within the hardware. Entertainment is one use-case but in fact there are incredible advances in using VR and AR for therapy, education, training and medicine.
There will be myriad ground-breaking start-ups in attendance and looking for investment in Lisbon. These start-ups are still the grassroots movement of creativity and technology. Collectively they form the beating heart of Web Summit. So that is my final tip: wander among the stands, listen in at the Pitch Stage and see what gems are waiting to be uncovered.
Christophe Castagnera, Head of Connected Experience – EMEA, Imagination
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa