Au revoir, Web Summit - it’s time for you to go

Organisers need to take it elsewhere to learn maybe some of their ‘problems’ are self-generated

It's Thursday, the last day of the last Web Summit in Ireland. Maybe.

Crowds have thinned noticeably, but that just means you can push past people, rather than having to elbow them out of the way.

The Pitching Stage, a buzzy corner of the Simmonscourt “Village” area, where start-ups have been flogging their companies to attendees and judges, has gone quiet. Judges are off pondering the pitching competition winners.

But that's hours ahead yet, and right now the Centre Stage has Michael McAvoy, chief executive of satirical website the Onion. Its writers produce 1,500 idea leads a week before peeling off the layers to get to a final 25.

Sometimes a panel surprises. Over at the Money Stage, a group are discussing being "driven by data" in the financial services area. It's all about markets, loans, financing, and data analysis.

Then Deutsche Bank chief data officer JP Rangaswami reminds us that at the end of the day, the industry should not forget its potential impact. He's been reading about a rise in suicides linked to small loans that some people struggle to pay.

“It isn’t about money, tech or even data. It’s about humanity,” he says.

Cutting through the huge Centre Stage arena, I hear someone on the stage saying: “The relationship with a phone is a six- to 18-inch relationship.” Now, that’s not a sentence you’d hear every day, but it is the Web Summit.

Later on Centre Stage, laconic and iconic hacker/artist/company founder of messaging app Wickr Nico Sell says every company should hire hackers to try to break their service. Far more shocking, though, is her stern advice to parents to never post pictures of their children to social media – “It’s irresponsible” – drawing some sharp intakes of breath.

Late afternoon, and summit co-founder Paddy Cosgrave takes to the stage to wind things up before a final "fireside chat" with legendary Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull.

Graciousness itself

What will we get? Another assault on the Government? No: Cosgrave is graciousness itself, as he thanks attendees and Ireland for being home to Web Summit, from its tiny start as a 400-person event to an international goliath.

He makes a sincere and moving pitch for a campaign (Walk4Eva.com) to remove the restriction that gives Catholic children priority entry to Irish schools.

He announces another to bring 10,000 women entrepreneurs to the next Web Summit in Lisbon because “it’s incumbent to use our position of influence with a high degree of responsibility”.

“Dublin will always be in our hearts,” he notes. “We’re leaving, but hope to come back in the future.”

It’s a (wisely) measured distance from the overblown rhetoric about government “hush money” at the start of the summit.

And it’s what makes Cosgrave, an incredibly bright but contradictory personality, so maddening, yet so compelling – exactly like the extraordinary event he has created.

(Addition: Cosgrave later pulls out of a scheduled appearance on The Late Late Show on Friday night).

Web Summit, from its first year to now, ranks as one of the most colossally disorganised events I’ve ever been to. And organisers seem to alienate nearly everyone they work with, every year (many of them refuse to be involved again).

The massive event sprawls like a bloated piece of computer code, and much of what made it unique – the intimacy, the easy networking, the proximity to big names in tech – is gone. In many worrying ways, Web Summit is now a giant container for its goal of creating efficient conference-generating algorithms, forfeiting much of its original human touch.

And yet.

Cosgrave often bridges that gap through sheer force of personality (when he’s acting properly grown up). Within the exasperating event maelstrom remains an accessible, approachable, kaleidoscopic, informative, inspiring technology conference of great spark and contrast. The only thing remotely comparable is Texas’s South by Southwest.

But, it is time for Web Summit to go. It’s too big for existing Irish venues. It has been great for Dublin and Ireland, but has become less uniquely Irish every year and Ireland’s tech ecosystem stands on its own.

Perhaps too, organisers need to take it elsewhere to learn that maybe some of their “problems” are self-generated.

And, with luck, better support infrastructure will be put in place as the city and state learn some lessons about attracting conferences.

Then it can come home. I certainly hope so.