Over the first two days of this year’s Web Summit in Lisbon, we’ve attended lots of interesting sessions covering a wide range of topics. 

Here we take a look at a few themes that are taking centre stage.

1. Ethics

Edward Snowden back in the spotlight

Reflecting the themes of privacy and ethics that are dominating industry debate, the world’s biggest technology conference kicked off with US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden in conversation with James Ball, part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guardian team who brought his mass surveillance revelations into the open. 

Describing what drove him to go public, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) subcontractor Snowden said he was motivated by a sense that what was going on inside the US government – for him – ran counter to the vow he took when he joined the CIA: ‘On your first day you have to swear an oath to support the constitution against all enemies – foreign and domestic,’ he said. ‘Then later you find that what you are doing or what your agency is doing is against that oath.’

On whether regulations such as GDPR can ensure data is used appropriately, he said he thought not, adding that, in his view, greater restrictions should be placed on data collection rather than data protection

He added: ‘we are learning that data always leaks in the 21st century. Law is not the only thing that can protect you. The only thing that can protect you is us, the people.’

Technology’s ethical challenge

Microsoft’s president Brad Smith took to the stage on day two to share his thinking on how to ensure technology is developed for public good. 

Smith has long been vocal about the tech industry’s ethical responsibilities, and in September co-authored a book entitled Tools and weapons: the promise and peril of the digital age

In his view, governments must move faster to control the impact of technology, despite the fact that they themselves have the capacity to misuse it. Tech companies must also play their part by thinking ‘first about the public and secondly about ourselves’, and by sharing more information with policymakers to help them understand their innovations. 

Smith highlighted the ability of artificial intelligence (AI) to widen wealth inequality, and said there must be concerted effort to democratise access to broadband (‘the electricity of the 21st century’). 

In Smith’s view, AI’s impact on society will be similar to that of the combustion engine. More specifically, in the workplace, he singled out jobs in fast-food ordering as being particularly at risk as speech recognition improves. 

It wasn’t all doom and gloom however – he stressed the capacity of tech to do good, and also for AI to generate demand for ‘creative thinkers with liberal arts backgrounds’ who can develop and deploy it. AI will not be the sole preserve of tech companies, but instead ‘will be created on a customised basis for everyone’. 

Later, Wikipedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher echoed similar themes when she spoke about the power of open technology to build trust, which in turn can help tackle challenges such as climate change. ‘Empires were built on control of knowledge,’ she said. ‘But hope for our collective future will come from collaboration’.

How governments can shape the future

Paula Ingibire, Rwanda’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology and Innovation, joined former Slovakian President Andrej Kiska to discuss how governments can help to shape the digital future.

Ingibire described how Rwanda has created a regulatory sandbox to both foster creativity and contain the risks of tech until they are better understood, while Kiska highlighted education as the most powerful way for governments to drive innovation. 

Picking up on some of Smith’s points, they then discussed the importance of developing ‘citizen-focused solutions’ and seeking feedback from communities about where they want their politicians to intervene.

Big data, big responsibilities

Ethical data use was the subject of a roundtable discussion between Lori Fink of Xandr (AT&T’s adverting and analytics division), Steve Rempel of Walgreen Boots Alliance and François-Xavier Pierrel, JC Decaux’s chief data officer.

For Pierrel, the key to creating a successful data-driven business is ‘investing in people so they understand the benefits of data but also the risks’. 

Fink spoke about how Xandr focuses on transparency and accountability in its use of data ‘to leverage consumer insights and drive impactful advertising’, adding ‘We want to use customer data to better the customer experience, not take away from it.’

Rempel discussed consumer expectations that their data will be used for some purposes (eg personalisation) but not for others (eg tracking). For him, the future will be about ensuring people can control the use of their data on a more granular level, rather than just the ‘nuclear option of opt in/opt out’.

Similar points were raised in a separate session by Ruby Zefo, Uber’s chief privacy officer. She stressed the need for companies to ensure people can trust and understand what’s being done with their data ‘in a simple way’, and lamented that consumers currently face the burden of managing their own privacy via ‘exhausting’ cookie consents. 

One possible solution could be to provide real-time notices – although she also advocated for a federal privacy law in the US to give consumers a ‘consistent data experience’.

2. Innovation

Creativity the Wirecard way…

Jörn Leogrande and Sara Maki, respectively executive VP of innovation labs and head of innovation initiatives at Wirecard, gave attendees the inside track on how the German payments platform innovates. 

Describing a company that is ‘constantly creating’ to the point where it has ‘no stable product portfolio’, they explained how employees drive the process, with innovation ‘everyone’s business’. 

They are all encouraged to submit ideas through a social platform, which are then moderated by Wirecard’s innovation team. 

Once the submissions have been whittled down, the ‘top 1 per cent’ are submitted to the CTO who then chooses which to pursue. 

The idea owner is given a year out of their normal role to develop the project, and is taken through a boot camp to equip them with the skills they need. 

Once the project has reached a level of maturity, a team is built around it ‘with a CEO and a CTO as well as access to other skills like legal and marketing’. 

The approach has been so successful that within two months, 10 per cent of the workforce had submitted ideas.

… and the Uber way

For Uber, innovation is all about being customer-centric – even if that results in ‘regressive’ solutions. 

One example was its decision to allow customers to pay by cash, which now accounts for 40 per cent of its revenues. ‘If you provide customers with the right choice at the right time, you build product affinity and they stay with you,’ said Manik Gupta, Uber’s chief product officer. 

Gupta also spoke of the possibility of introducing a motorbike service to beat the Delhi traffic, although that could be redundant if the company achieves its ambition of building a flying car by 2023…

Other conversations we found interesting

Building culture at scale

There were lessons in how to create a strong corporate culture in a fast-growing business from booking.com, the travel aggregation platform. 

The company has thought about the challenge ‘from the beginning’, recognising that purpose is vital in driving employee engagement. 

Its senior leaders quickly understood that there would come a point when the company reached a scale where bringing everyone together became impossible, and so developed its systems in order to ensure its culture was scalable. 

Case studies are shared ‘from the bottom up’ and leaders make sure they are as visible as possible ‘across the network’. 

Key to the company’s success has been empowering its people to make decisions and allowing them to make mistakes, which helps them ‘to learn and develop faster’.

AI and venture capital

Shasta Ventures’ Jacob Mullins, Dale Chang of Scale Venture Partners and David Kelnar of MMC Ventures shared some fascinating insights on the deployment of AI in venture capital investing. 

While the technology is starting to be used, its uptake is limited by the lack of available data on private companies. 

Perhaps more interesting was the comment that some in the industry don’t want perfect data, as asymmetry of information is what preserves competitive advantage. 

Some data sets are being used that predict IPO trajectories, which for investors often mean they exit the company earlier than they would have done without them.

Facts of the day

5G technology consumes just 10 per cent as much power as 4G, according to Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and group CEO of Verizon Consumer.

Seven of the world’s 10 biggest companies are tech firms – and in the last 10 years new tech IPOs have raised $260tn in capital.

Quote of the day

‘Every company should have a philosopher on its board to ask the question: "Why do we exist?" Just existing for shareholders and revenues is not good enough.’

Saul Klein, partner and co-founder, LocalGlobe