Paddy Cosgrave

UN President speaking, tech must listen

A year ago Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown said something on stage at Web Summit that shocked many:

“Those creating the technology of tomorrow will do more to influence the future of human spirituality than will all the religious leaders combined.”

It was a big claim but the more we thought about it, the more it seemed true. And it is true for every aspect of human life.

Our world is being furiously reshaped by technology, more often for the better but sometimes for the worse. Everything is being transformed, disrupted or made obsolete, including millions of jobs.

For some, the tech community appears collectively deaf to the moral and social consequences of their society-shifting technologies. The tech community is too often unwilling, it’s argued, to participate in a contested conversation with policy makers. Whatever the case may be, at Web Summit 2016, the types of conversations we will have are broadening dramatically.

On the eve of the most divisive American presidential election in decades, many of the world’s leaders will be in Lisbon for the first time to discuss the impact of new technologies on our society.

No major politician, policy maker, diplomat or non-tech Fortune 500 CEO has ever spoken at Web Summit. This year that changes.

Now, on the opening night of Web Summit in just four weeks, the President of the UN General Assembly will take to the stage.

Mogens Lykketoft will be joined by Roberto Azevedo, the head of the World Trade Organisation, the body responsible for the rules that have governed the last 25 years of global trade.

They’ll be joined by Jose Manuel Barroso, who served for more than a decade in the highest office of the European Union as the President of the European Commission.

Together these three global policy architects will be joined by a new voice, the dynamic French minister Axelle Lemaire who is at the heart of Europe’s evolving approach to technology policy and regulation.

These four speakers will be followed over the next three days of Web Summit by mayors, ministers and prime ministers from across the world, who will rub shoulders for the first time at Web Summit with thousands of technology CEOs, CTOs and many others reshaping the world through technology, faster and further than at any previous point in human history.

In bringing these two worlds together, technology and policy making, for the first time at Web Summit, we hope to spark better and more meaningful conversations on some of the most pressing problems and intractable issues of our age.

I’ve experienced first hand the positive impact technology can have on charity through the work of Scott Harrison, and the contribution of Michael and Xochi Birch, and now of others like Jeremy Johnson. I’m also watching closely as Bono and Jamie Drummond start to switch on the power of big data in Africa. I’m excited by the impact of Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, Marc Benioff and Mark Zuckerberg on philanthropy. But the challenges are so much greater and it’s important the tech community realise the role they need to play.

There’s an unprecedented refugee crisis, political uncertainty in the United States and Europe, a sluggish global economy, growing numbers of terrorist attacks, a backlash against globalisation and fears over technology’s failed promises. In short, there is much to discuss.

Web Summit is coming of age at a unique moment in history, a moment of great advances but also great uncertainty. It’s in these moments of uncertainty that I believe the technology community must become an ever greater listener as to the concerns of all communities. Because together, diverse voices with bright ideas can lead us through any challenge.

With more than 2,000 international media attending Web Summit, I hope the diverse voices and the many conversations that will take place in Lisbon in November will reach a far greater global audience than the 50,000 flying to Portugal.

Web Summit has constantly evolved from it’s earliest days in 2010. From what started as a 400 person startup conference, Web Summit quickly became the “world’s largest and most important technology conference”. But we’re not stopping there. We hope 2016 is the start of yet another stage in Web Summit’s evolution.