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Lessons from Lisbon: Reflections on a week at Web Summit

Russ Shaw, founder and CEO of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, assesses the key takeaways of Web Summit 2021

Neon lights, metro strikes and innovation insights – if we needed confirmation that demand for large in-person international tech events is still alive, then the 2021 Lisbon edition of Web Summit certainly provided it.

As soon as I touched down in the Portuguese capital, the imprint of Web Summit on the city was clear. The main square was illuminated with branded lights and filled with people from all over the world who had gathered for the largest global tech event since the pandemic.

I arrived at the Summit site – a cavernous sprawl of four interconnected pavilions leading to a vast arena at the end – and was greeted by a hubbub of excited attendees scrambling for a seat to hear Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s opening keynote speech.

Haugen warned earnestly of the perils of negligence – or dishonesty – from social media companies in addressing the issues of hate, violence and misinformation on their platforms.

The throng of people meant I could only attend one other session on opening night, and this bustling feel would prove to be a theme throughout the week – on day two, assisted by a strike by Lisbon metro workers, it took more than an hour just to get inside the venue. I was informed by an organiser that the official attendance figure was just over 42,000 – shy of the 70,000 present in 2019, yet it felt just as busy as – if not busier than – two years ago. People were clearly eager to meet up together in person again and it was encouraging to learn that – for the first time in Web Summit history – women outnumbered men, with 50.5% of attendees.

For too long, our industry has failed to do enough to ensure women feel included. It’s crucial that those in senior leadership positions in tech businesses have gender equality and, more broadly, inclusion at the heart of everything they do, implementing D&I strategies which source and retain diverse talent.

In the Building diversity and purpose into the media lens session with Vice Media’s Erika Allen and Teen Vogue’s Versha Sharma, Versha emphasised the need to prioritise inclusivity over diversity to ensure different backgrounds are not just represented but truly accounted for in decision making. Hopefully, the Web Summit attendance figures are a sign of times changing. 

The road to net-zero

On day three, Microsoft president Brad Smith delivered a topical keynote on building a net-zero economy and how we can move from pledges to progress. Smith highlighted the importance of the four Rs for tech companies – recording how much carbon they produce, reporting it, reducing it, and removing it from the ecosystem.

This idea rang true with many of the sentiments shared at our June Global Tech Advocates Investor Showcase, which acknowledged the need for startups and scaleups to do more to measure and track sustainability strategies with reliable data.

By focusing on data, we can create a common language for business sustainability. Only with this will it be possible to set clear targets, implement plans and measure progress. Indeed, we need to accelerate and invest in technology capable of driving sustainability through measurement and observation – doing so will be a vital step on the UK economy’s road to net-zero.

The investor perspective

Builder.ai, Globalisation Partners and KPMG stands all enjoyed impressive engagement, and Europe, Latin America and the Middle East were all strongly represented by the investors in attendance.

Many emphasised the key role played by the pandemic in decoupling location from business and talent – the digital acceleration means investment opportunities are not as restricted by borders, which has led to a rise in Angels and an influx of European investment.

Indeed, it seems clear that investors will have a key role to play in the drive towards net-zero, particularly by pushing ESG agendas in their own organisations.

It was great to see the launch of ESG_VC earlier this year – an initiative led by Beringea and the British Venture Capital Association focused on principles for sustainable investing. Companies like Net Purpose are also putting sustainability at the top table of business, making it easier than ever to be transparent about quantitative performance on sustainability data.

Amidst the buzz of the summit, there was much to be excited about – opportunities in GreenTech are booming and progress is being made on diversity and inclusion.

Now is the time to press on, to invest in the technologies which can tackle the climate crisis, and for the tech sector to take pride in flagship events like Web Summit, where everyone feels their voice is heard. 

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