With rain coming down in buckets in Lisbon at the weekend, there were many who wondered if this year's Web Summit might be a washout. That it was happening at all seemed something of a miracle. After all, earlier in the year when co-founder and chief executive Paddy Cosgrave announced plans to proceed with an in-person event, the idea seemed somewhat fanciful.
At that point, Covid restrictions were being lifted in many parts of the world but there were considerable doubts as to whether people were ready to mingle en masse again.
Given Cosgrave’s ability to cause upset, there were more than a few people wondering if this might be the moment he got his comeuppance. As it turns out, some 42,751 individuals were willing to come to Lisbon, where they got to think about issues other than the pandemic, even if many of the key topics this year – such as climate change and the damage done to society by big tech – were also horrifying.
Whistleblowing was another big theme, with former Facebook employee Frances Haugen taking to the main stage on opening night to warn once again of the consequences of the now-rebranded Meta's alleged prioritising of profits over safety.
Cosgrave may have hoped to make the so-called “Leo the Leak” controversy an international scandal by highlighting the alleged leaking by the former taoiseach of a confidential copy of a new GP contract to a friend in 2019, but in reality it had little real impact. Save for the Irish attendees, it passed over the heads of almost all those in the Altice Arena.
Among the Irish, it was mostly something to be chuckled over, although some expressed annoyance and disappointment at the tactic.
“It was all a bit cringey and I think no one really understands what he [Cosgrave] is up to at all at the moment. Many of us feel a little disappointed that at a moment when he should have been happy that he pulled things off, that he couldn’t just enjoy the moment,” said one well-known tech veteran, who declined to be named.
“I think it takes away from what may be his biggest achievement yet, which is managing to stage a hugely successful event just months after the world started emerging from lockdown,” he added.
Another put it more bluntly: “What the f**k is he up to? There is just no need for it.”
Other Irish entrepreneurs expressed similar views, although their refusal to go on the record shows how wary many are of saying anything critical of Cosgrave publicly given the power he is seen to have and his habit of airing disputes on social media.
But as for Web Summit itself, more than one person stressed that it is about far more than just one person.
No one could expect to ignore Covid completely at this year’s event, of course. There were restrictions in place, with the mandatory wearing of masks and evidence of either vaccination or a negative PCR test required. But for most attendees, just being back at a big tech conference in person was a celebration in itself, regardless of who was speaking at it.
"It's wonderful to be back," is how Bobby Healy, founder and chief executive of drone delivery start-up Manna, put it. "Web Summit is a giant Irish success story. It's a pity Portugal Inc gets most of the benefit."
His view was echoed by many others who, while initially nervous of getting back out among crowds of people, found it surprisingly easy once they did.
"It's great to meet people live in person again. I'm loving the energy of the event, it's energising and feels like a bit of a reset," said Sarah Ouellette, chief executive of Kindora, a company that has developed a platform for the sale and resale of children's goods such as prams.
In terms of content, some of the big conference names over the years were missing, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing; they often overshadow the more interesting speakers. Notably, there were speakers from Meta/Facebook and Apple who normally tend to steer clear of conferences outside of events they organise themselves.
Meta was involved in a damage-limitation exercise after finding itself on the back foot following Haugen's opening speech. It also had to contend with bruising comments from Roger McNamee, an early investor in the company and former adviser to chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.
Democracy “may never recover” if Facebook does not change, McNamee warned, while also calling for criminal charges to be brought against the company, and for the “misuse” of users’ data to be labelled as unethical as child labour.
It wasn't just people formerly associated with social media companies who came to criticise, though. Former footballer Thierry Henry was among many who spoke out against them. He told attendees he has no plans to end his boycott of the industry because platforms are "not really trying" to tackle online abuse and they "make money from hate".
Nick Clegg, vice-president of public affairs at Meta, was leading the defence. It was wrong to suggest that Facebook "deliberately spoonfeeds people with extreme, hateful content", he said.
“I don’t think riling people up into a semi-permanent state of fury is the best way to get people to look at ads,” he said, adding that “the vast majority of content on Facebook is babies, barbecues and bar mitzvahs”.
Meta's chief product officer Chris Cox, meanwhile, said the debate created by Haugen's document leaks raised an "important set of questions" but claimed people weren't paying attention to the many billions of dollars the company was spending to keep people safe.
The European Union announced at Web Summit that it intends to take further action against big tech companies to force them to act more responsibly. The companies concerned have naturally baulked at attempts to rein them in. They were joined by Apple this week, whose head of software Craig Federighi made a rare appearance to complain about proposed European regulation that could force it to allow "sideloading"– the ability for users to install iPhone apps from the web instead of through Apple's App Store.
Federighi is considered by some to be a potential successor to chief executive Tim Cook and his comments are seen as an escalation of recent arguments made by the company over what could go wrong if it is forced to make changes.
Elsewhere, there was a lot of talk at Web Summit about sustainability, climate action and how to apply new technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and data science to the problem. Some of it was well informed; some of it, in climate terms, might be deemed “hot air”.
Among the genuinely informative talks about using science to solve climate change was one featuring Dan Jeavons of Shell, who explained how the oil giant is transitioning to go beyond fossil fuels, and doing this through the use of "digital twins".
A digital twin is something that is constructed virtually, such as a power plant, or oil refinery, in electronic form before it is physically built. Companies such as Shell, who build huge facilities, can design new plants using digital twin technology to ensure in advance they will be more climate-friendly.
Andrew Brown, an oil executive with Galp, said the oil industry, outside of the United States, would drill its last exploratory well in 2022. After that, the extraction of fossil fuels is over, said Brown, who previously worked with Shell for 35 years.
The summit has also been obsessed this year with artificial intelligence (AI). For almost every problem known to man, including climate change, there is someone adopting AI in a bid to solve it. It would have been good to get more specifics about how AI and data science is actually being applied to address climate change, or anything else, and fewer vague, ambitious statements.
Overall, attendees largely felt Web Summit was relatively strong in terms of content, though there were some who wondered if things are going a little stale.
“I’m curious as to what’s next for the conference and if the current format might become stagnant. As other conferences become more focused on not just content but interactive live experiences, I wonder if Web Summit has the same aspirations,” said Conall Laverty , founder and chief executive of Wia.
“I felt there were some things that were introduced at last year’s online-only conference that would have been good to keep in some format. I really enjoyed the ‘randomised virtual speed meetings’ [sort of like ChatRoulette for business], for example, and was hoping for similar unique networking opportunities this time round,” he added.
Away from the main stage
While the big names make the news, much of what happens at Web Summit goes on away from the stages. For some start-ups, such as Co Longford’s LendRB, exposure is the name of the game.
"The fact that we are even here is building the brand at this early stage," co-founder Mark Keenan said.
First-time attendees can often be taken aback by the fact that, while it is now located in Lisbon, Web Summit remains an Irish event.
"This is my first time and, as a rookie, I have been taken aback by how many Irish people are in Lisbon. On the plane over, I bumped into Bobby Healy, the founder of Manna. When I arrived at my hotel, the first person I met was Fergus O'Connor from Chargify and the list goes on," said Martina Fitzgerald, chief executive of Scale Ireland.
For established entrepreneurs, Web Summit is a place where contacts are made and deals are done, but also where there are plenty of opportunities to party.
"Web Summit is like an iceberg with only about one-eighth of what is happening visible. There is all the activity on the stages but as you go beneath the waterline, you realise it is almost like a tribal gathering," said Mark Little, founder of both Storyful and Kinzen.
“I’m not really sure if its purpose is to set agendas, but I think we are moving into a new period where purpose-driven technology is going to be front and centre, and if there is any key takeaway from this year’s event, I think that is it,” he added.
Barry Lunn, chief executive of accident prevention tech company Provizio, agreed, adding that tech start-ups are increasingly thinking big when it comes to disruption.
“One thing that has struck me is scale, people talking about and tackling big problems, multi-year approaches and raising big money to see it through. I think the sheer liquidity in the markets is giving people an opportunity to really take on the incumbents and change industries, and it will be really interesting to see that play out,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sean Duke