Takeouts from the world’s best tech conference


Last week Wolff Olins were in Lisbon at Web Summit, touted by Forbes as ‘the best technology conference on the planet’. It’s certainly one of the biggest too, attended by 70,000 people. The audience is a lively mix of policy-makers, business leaders, startup founders, media and investors – all essentially asking, ‘what next?’ With such a bunch of progressive thinkers and practitioners in one place, the general vibe’s magnetic. Set over four days and tens of stages, it’s impossible to summarise the content in full and naturally the quality varies. Overall though, there were broad, prominent themes.

Better world
Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the internet, opened the event by launching a campaign to protect people’s rights and freedoms online. He told the Guardian afterwards, “For many years there was a feeling that the wonderful things on the web were going to dominate…But people have become disillusioned.” He wants his initiative, which he called a “Magna Carta for the web” (and which Google and Facebook have already supported), to hold the powerful to account so that people everywhere can be online “freely, safely and without fear.”

Next up, Senior Vice President at Apple, Lisa Jackson, focused on business practices that protect the environment. She argued that a healthy planet doesn’t have to negatively affect a company’s commercial performance. This notion of tech for social good was the order of the day for the duration of the conference, obviously partly as a result of the recent Silicon Valley backlash and various, data-related scandals. From Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew explaining how their popular app, Calm, has improved users’ mental health by reducing stress, to Samsung’s President Young Sohn pushing for a principle-driven approach to business development, positive impact was much further up the agenda than fat bottom lines.

Better together
In 2017, there was lots of talk about how artificial intelligence and machine learning, fed by growing data sets, were set to have a drastic impact on existing processes. This year there was evidence of this in practice. Methods were both shared and up for debate.

A few examples: Cassian Harrison and George Wright of the BBC showed how they’d successfully created an AI that created two nights of programming for BBC Four. Graham McDonnell of the New York Times unpacked the publisher’s ‘persuasive design’ techniques in some detail. Hannah Allen of Babylon Health and Roy Smythe, Chief Medical Officer at Philips, demonstrated how their companies are using AI to revolutionize healthcare on a global scale.

Businesses revealed the ways they were not only employing but pushing technology. Though this sector had a reputation for being hyper-competitive, the transparency in this environment – and the collaborative spirit underpinning it – were striking.

Better brands
There were lots of speakers from the worlds of marketing, branding, content creation and advertising. Our CEO, Sairah, talked to a thousand-strong audience about ‘designing the brands of 2050’ on the Creatiff stage on Tuesday (watch in full here). She looked at brands as physical spaces, as humanised operating systems, and as entire ideologies, taking cues from current examples from Apple, Aesop, Amazon, Patagonia, Alphabet, and Airbnb.

She then took part in a number of sessions about tech’s impact on both creativity and the creative sector. In Wednesday’s panel with Susan Credle, Chief Creative Officer of FCB Global, a Buzzfeed journalist asked whether brands would even exist in future. I saw this question crop up in a few places and speakers offered a similar response – namely that brands aren’t needed for commodities, but lots of products and services aren’t actually commoditised.

For as long as people care about where they come from or how they’re done – in other words, for as long as people have an emotional connection to what they’re consuming – brands will thrive. Most importantly, they’re getting smarter, more interactive and more nuanced thanks to the way tech’s bringing the people driving them closer to consumer desires. Michelle Peluso from IBM told the audience how her teams now work ‘in agile’ and have ‘daily stand ups’, and Ian Wilson of Heineken described how their brand is evolving to meet customers on their mobiles first, thanks to a comprehensive grasp of data. For agency folk and clients alike, it feels like brand building is fast becoming a rather precise science.

All in all, Web Summit was nothing short of phenomenal and left me feeling optimistic about the potential in this community. I’m already looking forward to 2019’s event.

Were you there? What did you think? Let us know over on Twitter.

By Jem Elliot, Head of Content and Marketing

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