Web Summit Day 1: What’s tech doing for (and to) the world?

Today the Web Summit 2017 agenda kicked off, and I’m not going to lie — it was completely full on but in an amazing way. Being a tech-for-good-geek, I tried to pack in as many relevant sessions as I could, as well as meetings with cool people and side sessions/external events. It’s now early 1 am and I’m pretty wrecked, but I want to give you the dish on everything straight away, so here it is!

I had planned to dive into sessions early-ish in the morning but grossly underestimated travel (and queueing, and security) time. I ended up missing a 10.45am session I’d planned to see but arrived in time to hear about the future of food production at the Planet: tech stage. Kathleen McLaughlin, Chief Sustainability Officer of Walmart (the world’s largest grocer!), discussed their efforts to reduce emissions and the role of big business in addressing food security in the future. It was refreshing, to say the least, because I totally bought all of Walmart’s messaging hook, line, and sinker. She discussed the ways that economy, society, and environment are inexorably intertwined and can’t be treated in isolation, plus their commitment to the environment in spite of (short-term) negative impacts on their share price, and whoever the federal government might be.

Their work feels powerful and important. That may just mean that Kathleen is a wonderful speaker, but still, I believed her. I say this with hesitation because a lot of my teenage leftist-activism is alive and well in a corner of me somewhere. Before the presentation actually began, there was a lot of “Boo! Evil corporation!” going on in the back of my mind — even though I now thoroughly believe in the power of the private sector to create transformative good. It’s a strange contradiction, I know, but I’m working on it.

Next filmmaker and environmental activist Alexandra Cousteau discussed how we can all make changes to live more sustainable lives. This really clicked with me as I’ve been on this path myself taking practical steps to align my values with my lives reality. I’ve taken action by refusing to purchase unnecessary clothing, replacing items only when broken, borrowing/renting dresses for events, opting to stop eating red meat or milk (though the latter is also due to lactose intolerance — I ain’t gonna lie), actively (and sometimes aggressively) recycling, and a number of other individual choices.

Alexandra also had some beautiful thoughts to share about the power of positive stories. She shared an analogy from her skiing instructor that I quite liked. To paraphrase it (probably poorly, as I don’t believe in skiing, seems like a dicey fun-to-risk ratio and I like my legs un-broken) — when you ski you shouldn’t look at the trees, or you’ll ski into the trees. Instead look at the end of the hill because that’s where you want to go. Right now, we look at the trees and discuss all of the dystopian, terrible outcomes that may result from our current path, but we don’t spend enough time focusing on the end goal. What is our ‘end of the hill’? What kind of planet do we want to live on, what kind of future do we want, and how do we create that?

Next, the focus was on how we can refuse, reuse, recycle, retrieve and redesign plastic. The panel consisted of Tim Brooks (LEGO), Mark Kaplan (Unilever), Dianna Cohen (Plastic Pollution Coalition), Rosario Dawson (Studio 189) and Jan Piotrowski (The Economist). It turns out that, shockingly, over eight billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since 1950. According to the panel, only 10% of this has been recycled, with 80% ending up in the environment (including as landfill) and 12% has been incinerated, exacerbating existing environmental issues. The entire group demonstrated passion and shared interesting points — including Unilever discussing their work with the GSMA to retrieve and recycle ocean plastics — but due to the size of the panel and it’s very short timeslot (25 minutes) I don’t think anyone got into enough depth. And that’s a shame, considering the caliber of the participants.

Next, Thomas Ermacora (Clear Village), Marcus Shingles (XPRIZE) and Derek Mead (VICE) dove into the roadmap toward sustainable homes and communities, discussing the breakthroughs required to develop homes that address human needs, while also adapting to a changing environment. I was particularly impressed by XPRIZE because their funding method sounds genuinely new, exciting and impactful. Check them out!

Then the session most relevant to my work was up: Robert Opp, Director of Innovation at WFP, shared five tech-based solutions helping to end world hunger by 2030. These include blockchain to deliver cash transfers, UAVs and AI for rapid humanitarian assessment, chatbots to better understand hunger and mobile connectivity to connect farmers to markets. I won’t bother sharing my second-rate notes on this because the talk was shared live on Periscope and you can watch it yourself in the tweet below!

I then took a break to meet up with a very cool start-up founder who I connected with through the app, who turns out to also be a famous German actress. Our conversation was so wonderful and wholesome that I just completely skipped the next talk I’d planned to go to, but #NoRegrets. So glad to have found a meaningful connection amidst the chaos (60k attendees at this event, and including vendors and staff over 81k through the door!)

Next, we asked if maximising resource use is distracting from the urgent need to tackle our wasteful consumerism? Michael Molitor (Uniti Sweden AB), Peter Lacy (Accenture Strategy), Rick Ridgeway (Patagonia), and Jan Piotrowski (The Economist) dove into this topic, looking at the circular economy, and how we can make the most of what we’ve got. It might be because it’s nearly 2 am and I’m exhausted but I can’t remember anyone except Michael from Uniti. They sound really awesome to me because they have based their operations in Sweden and Australia so they are in the locations of the resources they are using in production. So simple, but I haven’t heard of anyone else doing this so strategically? Instead of flying lithium to wherever they are, they’ve set up shop in South Australia right next to a lithium brine and are utilizing the assets of pre-existing producers. That’s how you do environmental consciousness! Love an optimised supply chain.

So then for my final session at Planet: tech, I‘m pretty sure I sat through the whole thing… but I was also trying to plan out my travel to the next venue and was responding to work emails on my phone, so all I can remember is writing this tweet about beer:

I then headed into the city to an investors’ side event, Bits, Bites, and Beats. We heard from a group of very cool health tech start-ups tackling important health and wellness issues in Europe.

I closed out the night with a delicious dinner with my Global Shapers Community comrades at the Naval Military Club. Many plates of Portuguese food and glasses of champagne-sangria later, and I rekindled old connections (with friends I’ve made on trips to Ukraine, the UK, China and Italy) and made new friends — that’s the magic of connecting with other Shapers though.

All in all, the Web Summit experience so far has been a great gathering of socially-minded people, and despite its size, I’ve made several close connections. Looking forward to day two! Will update you again tomorrow night. If you can’t wait — follow me on Twitter for live updates.

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