Web Summit: how cultural framing does not do tech innovation justice

During this year’s edition of the Web Summit, in Dublin, Ireland, there was certainly a great buzz about the place. The carefully orchestrated industrial style décor fitted well with the informal style of the speakers’ presentation. It boasted over 22,000 attendees, which truly came from a very wide and diverse geographical background. The event has been applauded as the most successful and largest technology gathering of its kind in Europe. The press coverage, it appears, cannot do enough to praise its success. But the definition of success is subjective.

Although the tech industry is portrayed as innovative, there were very few novel concepts among exhibitors, which required intense research and featured ground-breaking development likely to meet great societal challenges. The bulk of the tech industry exhibiting during the conference is in a race to translate every aspect of the offline world into online solutions. Sometimes in an over-zealous way. This may be what the digital natives want. And this is what they will get with the advent of the web of things, connecting everyday objects through the internet.

Anybody who is somebody in well-defined technology circles has been invited to the event in the past few years. The event boasts many brand names. And that’s precisely one of the issues here: the event is probably victim of its obsession with Western brands: be it in the tech industry: Dropbox, LinlkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Angry Bird’s creator Rovio. You name it. They all have been represented at the Summit in some shape or form. The same applies to media invited to speak: only large media brands, preferably US-based, appear to matter—be it the New York Times TechCrunch or Vanity Fair; with some appearance by UK media such as the Financial Times, The Guardian.

The cultural framing of the event is its most disappointing aspect: Western tech companies prevail. Nevertheless, most of them have a culturally diverse work force. An example comes to mind is that of the US network equipment company Cisco, whose chief technology and strategy officer, Padmasree Warrior, is originally from India. Or, featuring among this year’s invitees, was the Argentinian-born Ines Sombra, who is lead data engineer at cloud-based industrial applications company Engine Yard, a California-based company.

Yet, this leaves very little room on stage for success stories based in more culturally diverse countries. It also disregards the fact that there is an entire tech revolution happening in Asia. Like at previous event—and with very few exceptions—Asian companies were conspicuously absent. Yet, countries like China have web giants. Such as search engine Baidu. And social media site Weibo, to name only a few. The same applies to India and other territories. If it were only a matter of language, it could easily be solved, by the use of interpreters.

But it is not. In reality, the cultural framework of reference of the event organisers is centred on Anglo-Saxon tech leaders and their media followers. The attendees may be culturally and geographically diverse. But those who take centre stage are not really that diverse alltogether. Or perhaps, one of the few cultural aspects of the conference imported from outside is coming from Russia, back in the era of communism, in the form of the cult of personality—applied right from the top.

It is such a missed opportunity for an event, which otherwise has clear qualities in addressing the many professional segments in the tech industry—be it technology developers, those catering for enterprises, or those developing the internet of things as well as marketers and investors. It also skilfully replaces the events it its local context by showcasing the best of the local Irish culture, including music and food.

In addition to the East-West and North-South geographical divide, the gender divide is also problematic. Women, particularly, those working outside the Anglo-Saxon world, were under represented. The likes of Maelle Gavet, CEO of OZON, Russia’s largest e-commerce company, were the exception. It could well be that not that many women are engaged in the tech industry. Yet, the status quo will remain the same, if such high profile events do not put forward many more women as role models . Limited attempts to counter the trend have led to create the Women in Tech summit. Yet, it is a drop in the ocean. Meanwhile, increasing the number of women speakers by inviting jet-set celebrities such as Hollywood actress Eva Longoria and UK campaigner Jemima Khan, does not really work.

Perhaps, next year’s event will do the global tech industry better justice. Perhaps, it will come of age, and portray technology as more than being about geek culture and selling more through the internet. And show that, sometimes, it can service greater purposes and start attempting to solve societal issues…

Sabine Louët

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