The entire arena was buzzing with energy. Phone torches were lit, originally by people whose friends were trying to locate them amidst the 15,000 people, before everyone pretty much lit theirs too. The seats were quickly filling up, and we heard thousands of people were stranded outside in the chilly Lisbon evening watching the live streaming of an event that was hardly 30 meters away.
A Mexican wave was started by someone and over several rounds, grew into epic proportions. The gargantuan stage was generously illuminated by congregations of lanterns of purple, pink and green neons, all diverging from the top of the arena down to the center stage. The soundtrack on loop was “Reborn” by Talos. For a space this big, the acoustic was amazing and succinct. The backdrop, nestled between two giant screens, simply said “Web Summit”.
I was at the Davos for Geeks alright.
How did I end up here?
Late one night in November 2015, I received an email from Paddy Cosgrave, the founder of Web Summit, saying that Lilyana Latiff, the CEO of Aleph One has sent me a full guest ticket for the 2016 Web Summit in Lisbon under the Women in Tech initiative. That was a smart move by Web Summit, giving up 10,000 free tickets to female entrepreneurs and executives to promote better representation of women.
And obviously we women talk. And we talked a lot. We talked about Web Summit and Lisbon on Facebook and Twitter and to our fellow women friends. The 10,000 women were the catalyst to Web Summit’s social media marketing. Smart.
” In the spirit of YOLO, I claimed the ticket and decided to worry about it later.”
In the spirit of YOLO, I claimed the ticket and decided to worry about it later. With my workload, I didn’t think it was remotely possible for me to carve time, no matter how tempting the speakers lineup get (they tempt so, so bad) or how industry-changing the talks will be (they were) or just the fact it’s Lisbon, one of the most vibrant startup cities in the world (totally was).
I didn’t worry until October this year, when somehow, with the Web Summit happening in 3 weeks, I suddenly found three things converging at the same time: a good window of time to extricate myself from work, an amazing AirBnB deal and a good company to actually make the trip.
The opening (that we almost missed by ‘THIS’ much)
It was really difficult focusing on work to the days leading to the Web Summit. Some of us in what Malaysian Web Summit Whatsapp channel were already in Lisbon gallivanting in Belem and enjoying egg tarts.
A day before the summit, we arrived in Frankfurt for our connecting flight to Lisbon, which we totally missed due to the long immigration line and impossibly short transfer window. We were rerouted 14 hours later to Porto (300 km away from Lisbon) by the kind people at Lufthansa. We checked in to the most last-minute AirBNB I’ve ever pulled and the morning after, took the train from Porto to Lisbon. We arrived at noon, promptly settling in into our actual AirBNB in Graca, Lisbon’s historical neighbourhood. An Uber later, we finally joined the massive queue outside the MEO Arena.
We made it to the opening just in time.
Some Web Summit veterans preferred to watch the opening keynote from the comfort of their hotel rooms. I contest that you have to be there to absorb the electricity that was Web Summit. The feeling of “I’m on the right track. What I do matters.” is the level of self-awareness you get being in the same room with 15,000 other geeks.
Collectively, you shape the industry and through the products you build, you shape how the world will experience the future.
Paddy Cosgrave kicked off the opening in his signature Web Summit tee and an iPad, which I assume is the lifeline of the entire operation. This is the 6th edition of Web Summit and despite the phenomenal increase in size (53,000 attendees this year), his team has found a good rhythm.
You see volunteers approaching people who seemed a bit lost (like us) offering genuine help and a smile—that sort of confidence will only come from solid crowd control planning beforehand. Most volunteers I know from other events tend to cringe from human contact or lacking information of the big picture. Even the live stream failure due to Wi-Fi problem was pretty much forgivable. After all, we’re the very people who deal with “shit breaks” on daily basis.
Many people know Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the actor but you can add startup founder to that long list too now. His panel session was insightful and a major crowd-pleaser but I was almost envious at the lineup of Portuguese technopreneurs and startup founders honoured on the center stage by their Prime Minister and the Mayor of Lisbon. #startupLisbon is real.
The Summit happened during the US election day. One day we were all excited and empowered by the first Woman President and the next day everyone walked around in utter disbelief. This particular meltdown happened on that very day.
Another one of my favorite is the keynote by Gary Vaynerchuk. If you haven’t followed Gary, please do that now. He’ll psyche your inner entrepreneur like no one else can.
The Web App
The conferences are spread into three days and they run at the same so you will likely be running and dodging people from one stage to the next if you’re not careful with your planning. 53,000 people is quite the crowd and making real connection gets difficult when everyone has the attention span of a goldfish.
The good thing is, the Web Summit has predicted this calamity-waiting-to-happen and released the Web Summit App two weeks prior to the event. You can browse attendees and speakers list and connect with them. (Hey, Ronaldinho did you get my message?)
I know a few people does this to secure seriously precious comm time with investors and potential partners before the Web Summit, and then attend the event to finally meet and seal business deals. The app also contains your ticket and people quite simply flip their smartphones for identification during Registration.
” The Web Summit team also sends out push notification to alert attendees of potentially popular session so they can do crowd control better.”
I used the app to connect to fellow Girls in Tech members, several key business partners and to plan my day throughout the Summit. The Web Summit team also sends out push notification to alert attendees of potentially popular session so they can do crowd control better. This is probably the gold standard for all conferences in the future.
21 Conferences under one roof (well, technically five)
The MEO Arena is not alone in hosting the Web Summit. The arena itself is huge (I’m running out of good adjectives here) but the 4 pavilions espousing it are each large enough to hold 2 conferences at both ends and an exhibition floor in the middle. There were in total 21 conferences happening at the Web Summit and if they didn’t make any sense to you at first (PandaConf? Future Societies?) trust me, they quickly would.
Everybody seems to be talking about AI, bots and machine learning this year. Tech people are not necessarily fearful that the bots are taking over, but we do puzzle if our human skills will be made obsolete by smarter machines and how do we collaborate with AI to produce really astounding results and products we couldn’t possibly come out with without intelligent computational power.
Blockchain is making a huge wave too and I found myself nodding along, thinking “what in the world is blockchain?” and making mental note to Google it up.
Sidenote: I did Google it like the information hoarder that I am. A blockchain is the technology that allows for transactions to be securely recorded from computers globally into a decentralized digital ledger and cannot be changed after that. It is the technology behind Bitcoin but can easily be used between banks or financial institution, making transaction really fast and reducing cost. Think of sending money abroad and the transaction is almost instantaneous. Yes, we’re talking disruptive speed, baby.
But blockchains aside, one of the (many) reasons I happily endured the long flight to Lisbon was because of this guy.
John Maeda is a designer and a technologist and his work explores the area where business, design, and technology merge. Previously a Professor at the MIT Media Lab and President of the Rhode Island School of Design, he currently heads Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic (the company that build WordPress, yes THAT WordPress). Maeda advocates the movement of design for business and economic advancement (as opposed to design for arts) and that struck a chord in me. As a designer, we are positioned at a very strategic place to make a truly large-scale impact. In his own words, “Art is about making questions. Design is about making solutions.”
His panel session together with Bracken Darrell from Logitech titled “Design At The Core” touched on the importance of design thinking and its lack of inclusiveness in the industry. Designers by nature are not huge on collaboration. We tend to be private in our processes and vulnerable in our execution. In UX, sometimes we focus so much on making that we forget to ask the question who we are making it for. In the end, we should be aware that we are not designing for ourselves, but to solve problems for others.
Since this was my first Web Summit, my purpose was to absorb and learn as much as I could. I wanted to get a glimpse at the future in tech and I wanted to position Stampede to embrace that future.
Most of my time were spent attending talks and panel sessions chaired by design thinkers and tech entrepreneurs, discussing themes ranging from the future of working collaboratively with AI to designing responsibly in a world that is constantly hijacking your attention. I found myself overwhelmed and awed by the depth and strong morality theme behind design as the agent for good and I’m inspired to share them with as many designers out there.
Malaysians at Web Summit
My trip buddies were Lilyana Latiff, Linda Rasip and Ty Mazawaty from Aleph One. The long flight, the running like possessed trying to catch our flights at Frankfurt airport and eating so many Portuguese egg tarts we lost count; I did it all with these girls.
I’ve also had the privilege to meet a few other Malaysians at the Web Summit. Summer Goh was one of them. Originally from Pahang, she now lives in the south of France with her husband and came to the Summit as a volunteer. We connected over the app a month before Lisbon and she looked me up at the Creatiff Track. Summer and I also met Arnaud Ginioux and Leon Hudson from the stock image giant, 123RF.
The crew of 16Two were also there, all 16 of them for the entire two weeks for some well-deserved Lisbon Time.
I also met Karu Khoo, a veteran of Web Summit and founder of CreativeUnicorn, a digital marketing agency based in KL. After the Summit, Karu came up with his own bot to drive better brand experience. How cool!
The Web Summit started in Dublin but quickly outgrew the city’s available infrastructure (one of them the facilities to enable wi-fi usage for 50,000 people). It moved to Lisbon and will stay in Lisbon for at least another 5 years, and for good reasons. The Summit generates 200 million euros for Lisbon’s economy through hotel bookings, restaurants and taxi rides alone, and we haven’t even talked about direct values to businesses and startups in terms of investments, mentorship and market penetration. Uber raised their first $37 million at the Web Summit.
But if I could sum up Lisbon in three words, it is efficient, charming and (pretty) cheap.
Efficient because the entire city geared up and prepared well for the onslaught of the Web Summit. The government has a positive and supportive presence at this totally non-political event and you cannot miss Web Summit banners around the city. There was hardly an Uber driver who does not know where the Summit was held and we also found that Uber sent additional drivers from Porto to help meet the demand for Uber rides throughout the event. A few Uber drivers were even attendees themselves and have their own startups. The metro station closest to the summit is 3-stops away from the airport, and within short walking distance from the arena itself. Since there were four of us, we took Uber mostly and the longest we’ve had to wait was 9 minutes.
Charming because the people of Lisbon are friendly and always happy to help. I have not been to many European countries but Portuguese are easily the friendliest ones I’ve met so far. In Portugal I felt welcomed and celebrated as a person in tech.
Cheap because the cost of living in Lisbon is comparable to Kuala Lumpur, which I didn’t know possible for a European city. Some groceries are in fact cheaper than KL and public transport makes going around really easy. All attendees get heavily subsidized metro fares for the entire week, making travel to and fro the event affordable and quick. If you’re flying TAP Portugal to attend the Summit, you could also use an attendee code and get 10% off your flight fare.
As a production, the Web Summit is truly a massively successful undertaking. There is much to learn from how the Web Summit team managed to pull this feat and what attendees bring home with them after the event. As a city, Lisbon is beautiful and at the cusp of a technology revival, with the right startup infrastructure and without the astronomical cost of Silicon Valley. It has grown on me and I’m excited to bring members of the Stampede team with me for Web Summit 2017.