Web Summit 2015: The Davos of Geeks

Shelby Challis

This month  marked the 6th annual Web Summit, the largest technology conference in the world, held annually in Dublin, Ireland. The conference welcomed a record-breaking 42,000 attendees from 134 countries across the globe. On offer were hundreds of speakers discussing a range of topics that included Big Data, cybersecurity, clicktivism, neuroscience, and, of course, Tinder.

So what exactly is the Web Summit? It’s a question I had pondered as I was asked to participate this year, and was tasked with covering the Summit’s activities for our very own Public Policy & Governance Review. Essentially, the Summit is a collection of conferences that centers on new and emerging internet technologies, bringing people together from across the global technology industry. Attendees range from Fortune 500 companies like Google, Facebook, and Pixar to local grassroots start-ups from around the world.

I sat down with James McCann, Media Coordinator for the Submit, to ask him about the Summit’s origins, what he thinks has been key to both its success and growth, and where he sees the Summit in the future.

The origins of the Summit date back to 2010 when it was founded by technology entrepreneurs Paddy Cosgrave and Daire Hickey. The first event had 400 attendees, mostly consisting of local start-ups. But over the past 6 years, thanks to the ever-increasing quality of speakers, networking events, and global partnerships, the event has grown into a global phenomenon. One of the key objectives moving forward for the Summit has been to achieve greater gender parity. As a participant, this gender imbalance was glaring, a reflection of the wider male-dominated tech world more generally. The Summit plans to tackle this imbalance by launching a new campaign to offer 10,000 free tickets for female entrepreneurs to attend the Summit in 2016.

Seeing as how the Summit had originated from humble beginnings, it made the sheer scale of this year’s events evermore awe-inspiring. At this year’s event there were a number of reoccurring themes that emerged. These themes centred on cybersecurity , the future of the tech industry, and ensuring sustainability.

Who better to speak to that theme of cybersecurity than Mary Aiken, a leading Cyber Psychologist and director of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland’s (RCSI) CyberPsychology Research Centre. She specializes in virtual criminal profiling and cyber behavioural analysis.  Cyber psychology, though it sounds complex, is quite easy to understand: it is the study of the impact of emerging technology on human behaviour. Aiken spoke of the paradigm shift in how we conceptualize cyberspace, and the pathologies behind cybercrime. In order to understand those pathologies, she argued, you need to understand the behavior and skill-sets behind cybercrime. Atken discussed the advent of hacking, which she believes is not properly understood by the wider public and is often only given negative connotations. She stated that “hacking is a skillset and yet it has somehow become a pejorative and negative term… back in the 50s when it was first used it was considered a spectacular skillset.” The point being that if authorities want to develop better policy towards combating online attacks, they are going to have to stop “sleepwalking [their] way into a new and evolving world” and start developing methods for understanding how cyberspace and psychology interact.

In terms of the future of the tech industry, this discussion tended to center on healthcare technologies and the future of healthcare. There were a number of discussions with industry professionals that discussed how far we should let health automation take us, and whether or not the human touch can in face be replaced. Ultimately, this discussion led to criticism of the existing business model that is operationalized by the global healthcare industry, a model which essentially does not allow for innovative tools to thrive and is one that essentially consists of back office systems whose infrastructures have not been updated since the 1990s. While health is a personal problem, solving the roots of health problems is an international one.

Adding to this theme concerning the future of technology there was a discussion on the advent of “clicktivism.” Essentially, this refers to a brand of online activism wherein individuals can become supporters of political campaigns by simply signing an online petition. The discussion centered around two examples of social media influencing politics: the advent of the Scottish Referendum, and Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, the new leader of the UK’s labour party. These cases begged the question of whether or not we are entering a new era of how we conduct politics.  Mary Aiken was once again present for most of the discussion and she emphasized the point that it is not about whether or not the use of this technology is good or bad, it can be both, rather we need to focus our attention on understanding the evolution in our own behavior. It is only after we are able to grapple with those evolutions that we can then come up with policies for how to actually address them.

Lastly, another theme that resonated throughout the Summit was sustainability. It was argued that the business models of the 21st century should not be about ensuring profit maximization, but rather should be focused on the maximization of the public good. Yancey Stickler, the creator of Kickstarter, a launch-pad for creative and innovative community-based projects, had a strong message on what he believes are the principals that should ultimately govern a company’s business model. He argued that the focus needs to shift away from growth to one of impact. A business model based on profit maximization alone, which he described as being a model based on ensuring a single winning lottery ticket, is poisonous to business culture.  Getting in the business of social impact has become more widespread in the for-profit business community, and entrepreneurs are increasingly recognizing they need to strike a more equitable balance between pursuing profits, and meeting the needs of the employees that work for them, the community in which they serve, and the environment in which they live. Governments are starting to play an increasingly integral role in supporting this trend.

There were a number of memorable moments at this year’s Summit, but I think I will leave off with a quote from Stickler, who had a powerful message for aspiring entrepreneurs and the policy-makers who will be catering to them in the future:

“Don’t sellout. Don’t sellout the long-term for the short-term, don’t sellout your values, don’t sellout your community… So much of the business zeitgeist tells you to be more aggressive, faster than everyone else, and harder. It’s all wrong. What you really need to focus on is, when you’re looking back on your life in 50 years, what are you going be proud of?”


Shelby Challis is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She previously completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto, and has since worked for the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care. Her policy areas of interest include healthcare finance, labour relations and security management.

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