2017 Web Summit: From Trump to Blockchain

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Francois Hollande, former French president, speaks at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, last week.
Francois Hollande, former French president, speaks at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, last week. Credit: Daniel Rodrigues/Bloomberg

Web Summit attendees last year were blindsided by Donald Trump's victory in the vote for U.S. president, which took place during the conference. One year later, they haven't moved on.

At last week's 2017 Web Summit, many people shared stories along the lines of, "I remember exactly where I was when I found out." Others made political appeals in light of subsequent events.

That didn't go down well with everybody. "I was in shock around the amount of conversation on Trump this year," says Camilla White, board account director at Leo Burnett. "Although government regulation is certainly a hot topic for us all, I feel like the political opinion of speakers was given too much airtime and most of the time it was not entirely relevant."

Al Gore, for example, opened his presentation to attendees with videos of Trump making claims that global warming is merely a myth. "My purpose here is to recruit you to be part of the solution to the climate crisis," he told the audience. "You can have a bigger impact than practically any other group in the world."

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, who issued a record-breaking $2.7 billion fine against Google in June, told attendees that the duopoly of Google and Facebook can "end up closing the door to innovation."

"That's why dominant companies like Google have a special responsibility not to undermine competition," she said.

Caitlyn Jenner was also in attendance to discussing "Defining Gender," but her 20-minute talk focused more on how someone can achieve success.

Her advice? "Gamble, cheat, lie and steal."

What is the Web Summit?

"Web Summit calls itself 'the largest tech conference in the world,' but I actually think it's broader than tech," says Michael Chui, partner at the McKinsey Global Institute. "It provides a forum for a global, diverse set of people from all types and sizes of companies, but all passionate about innovation. And it's not just innovation around technology—you see topics in areas from the music listening experience to women in tech to ethics in news."

The Web Summit attracted some 400 people when it debuted in Ireland back in 2010, but its most recent event drew a new high of 60,000. Crowd members range from the big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon to unknown startups and media publications. But they also include investors, whose badges specifically call them out as such.

"The level of diversity–not just the people and the companies–but with the types of conversations on stage and off," Chui says. "There was an undercurrent of talking about social issues more generally–whether politics, gender, unemployment from tech and the market power of tech giants."

"I wonder what we would have thought if we saw this agenda 10 years ago–I don't think the connection between these massive issues and opportunities with technology would have been clear, or perhaps even exist," he adds. "But today, the digital lens is relevant for all leaders to look at issues around the world."

Cars take backseat at tech conference

Unlike the Consumer Electronics show, which last year was dubbed an auto-trade show due to the vast number of car manufacturers that attended, the Web Summit itself only had a handful of players.

BMW, for example, returned for its second year as the official auto partner of the Web Summit and displayed for the first time its i3 electric sedan. The vehicle will now integrate Google's voice assistant, Home.

The company also allowed attendees to try out its "HoloActive Touch" display, which is fancy a fancy way of saying drivers can issue commands using hand gestures while in vehicle.

Mercedes Benz made its first appearance at the event, too, but mainly came because rival BMW was present, according to several Summit insiders who helped organize the event.

"They're just here swinging their weight around," one insider said. "They didn't want to be shown up by BMW."

Mercedes and BMW were the only automotive partners at this year's event. Other auto marketers such as Lamborghini were present but as attendees only.

Perhaps the most substantive presentation came from an upstart car manufacturer that has massive upside.

Alphabet-owned Waymo said it's been testing driverless cars on public roads in the Phoenix area without anyone in the driver's seat, a first.

The company previously saw its safety "drivers"–who were behind the wheel in the event something went wrong–displaying extreme faith in its technology. It said video had captured drivers napping and eating, among other things, during earlier tests on Phoenix highways.

Although many people expected Waymo to initially cater to the commercial trucking industry, it has decided to create a driverless taxis business, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a speech at the summit.

Cryptocurrency gets the spotlight

Although there was much talk about machine learning and artificial intelligence (Stephen Hawking spoke on the first day of the conference, saying AI could be the worst or best thing for humanity), all the buzz seemed to center around cryptocurrencies and blockchain tech.

According to CoinMarketCap, a website that tracks the various forms of currency currently available, there are roughly 1,270 digital coins or tokens on the market, with a total value of more than $205 billion.

Cisco, for example, had a large display setup with speakers educating attendees about blockchain.

With so many startups and so many investors looking to cash in on what some describe as a modern-era gold rush, it's no surprise that cryptocurrency mania was on full blast at the Web Summit—but its ultimate uses in marketing remain uncertain.

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