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Web Summit 2017 - the highlights

news #inspiration #tech

An idea I came up with won me a trip to Web Summit (also known as ‘the best technology conference on the planet’).

So, off I went to spend three inspired days in Lisbon with my colleagues, Dan, Ryan & Ugly James (I’m Beautiful James, in case you were wondering).

Web Summit 2017

To try and sum the whole experience up in an article would be folly, and there are several things that I’m sure my colleagues and/or the press will write about more eloquently than I could ever attempt. But here’s a brief executive summary:

The fight for Urban Mobilisation is real. Autonomous cars are here, the race to take control of the sky via “flying cars” is on (and I say flying cars, because everyone seemed to hate the term, yet constantly used it) and A.I. scares and excites us on many levels.

Oh, and the question isn’t "are you going to get a chatbot?" It's more about WHEN are you going to get a chatbot. Amazon is going to start selling insurance. Elon Musk will be massive. Hardware companies will become software companies and Silicon Valley’s monopoly is over. 

So stripping all of that away, what else was left to talk about? Here's a very small list of my favourite things.

1. Smart technology is being used in amazing and unexpected places

“In 20 years the earth will need 40% more water than currently exists.”

This was the opening statement of Robert Bernard (chief environmental & cities strategist - Microsoft Corporation) during his engaging talk called Hacking the Future of Our Planet.

Now that's a problem statement if ever I've heard one. And in order to tackle this, and problems like these, the human race needs to stop thinking in terms of percentages, and start thinking in multiples. So instead of “We need to improve 20%” it should be “We need to improve 10x”, which was a way of explaining numbers even I can digest. 

There were three main Microsoft projects highlighted: AI for Earth, Earth Beats and Project Premonition. All deserve airtime, but it’s the latter that really impressed me.

Project Premonition is a “smart” way to help increase the cataloguing of species on our planet. If left to our current devices, it’ll take about 50 years to do so. And if we’re honest, many species will be extinct by then anyway.

How does it work? Insects fly into smart traps that house a shedload of different scanners, able to quickly identify an existing or brand spanking new species. Nothing special yet right?

Now imagine that a mosquito flies in. The trap can detect if it has recently fed i.e. it has blood in its body. The mosquito is then trapped, and the blood is scanned against a database of known creatures. By cross-referencing the database and understanding the radius of a mosquito’s life, you can quickly paint an accurate picture of the life in a given area.

Mind = Blown.

2. Lego is awesome

The Secrets of the Lego Brand by Lars Silberbauer showcased two very good campaigns that were run over social media. The first was around George - you can read more about that here. 

And the second was about the Kronkiwongi Project.

98% of people are creative geniuses at three years old. By the time we're older, the majority of us have all but lost our creative genius. When Lego first searched for the term Kronkiwongi it got 0 search results across Google, Facebook and Instagram. So it must not exist right? Depends on who you ask.

3. Understanding the difference between a campaign and a movement

I thoroughly enjoyed Data-driven Influence: Can People Hear the Truth? by Matthew Freud, who spoke a lot about reputation as your most important asset, especially today when it feels that no-one’s reputation seems safe. It was also interesting to hear him describe his perspective on the difference between a campaign and a movement.

A campaign is simply when you're trying to get a message out, whereas a movement is trying to evoke some type of reaction to a message.

We live in an age where social media carries more weight than ever before. Social platforms are helping to expose shady behaviour, but they're also being abused by people with ulterior motives ("fake news" was a topic that I heard mentioned a lot during the Summit). Manipulation of social networking was featured many times throughout the conference, and it’s clearly a massive threat.

TRUE movements are built with populist support, and we genuinely all have an opportunity to harness modern technology to make impactful change for the future.

My favourite quote was in relation to Freud's PR firm's reponse to clients who ask how they can be seen as to be doing better. The answer is a no nonsense, “It’s simple, do better”.

He also took great pains to point out that building a big corporation first, and then giving back later, is archaic. Startups have the opportunity to “bake goodness in”. Amazing. And this leads nicely into the next section.

4. Be a 'Creactivist' by making meaningful campaigns

Gail Heilmann ran through a history of campaigns during her talk Creativity in an Activist-driven World. The history lesson included the Boston Tea Party through to The Guerrilla Girls, but really shone the spotlight on two campaigns, the first being the #itouchmyselfproject. It’s best described by itouchmyself.org.

Released in December 1990, I Touch Myself was a hit single for the Divinyls. It reached number one in the charts in Australia and reached the top five in the US.

Lead singer Chrissy Amphlett died in 2013 after a battle with breast cancer.

The website says: "Chrissy was passionate about spreading awareness of the importance of early detection, so the I Touch Myself Project was launched in her honour in 2014 with a mission to create campaigns that encourage and remind women to touch themselves.”

It's best understood by watching the following video:

Gail also shared a haunting yet brilliant campaign around female genital mutilation called The Brutal Cut, which seriously impacted me, not only because of its subject matter, but due to the sheer brilliance of its execution.

Gail also spoke at length about our roles as creative people, and how we need to become creative activists - hence the term “creactivists”. 

I walked away from her talk shaken to my core, and inspired to make a difference. Let me know if you're keen to collaborate on something.

5. A decade or more between, and all is well

I saw Ze Frank speak once at Design Indaba in Cape Town around 2007. He gave an incredible 20 minute talk on how badly-designed aeroplane safety cards were. He has since been a personal hero of mine, and his presentation style is something I’ve attempted to replicate.

So it’s no surprise that I became massively giddy when I realised that he was in the lineup. I eagerly sat waiting for Constants and Variables: Creativity Where Humans and Data Meet with my pen and notebook in hand as they had been for every talk. 

My plan to document it all quickly failed.

If you've ever watched Ze Frank talk, you'll understand that the pace and intensity at which he delivers his talks means that the chance of both writing and enjoying his talk at the same time is impossible.

A harsh decision had to be made. And with that I closed my notebook, deciding that this talk would be my Web Summit self-indulgence. For me, and me alone (and about another 1,000 people watching at the same time). 

And so ends my shortlist of highlights.