Exploring humanity in all we do.
For me, Web Summit was a mixed bag. With 20-minute sessions scattered throughout four large trade-show-style pavilions and one large arena, and hundreds of vendors competing for precious moments of your time, it seemed targeted to people with short attention spans who liked to network. Most of the sessions I attended reinforced what we already know in our industry: audience comes first, do your homework, have a strategy, choose quality over quantity, and be prepared to quickly pivot and adapt.
But I came looking for two things in particular: to discover things of interest in the worlds of technology and business, and to think about new opportunities for content strategy. Amid all the chaos, I found what I was looking for.
There were certainly things of interest: flying cars, mind-reading technologies, lots about the possibilities (good and bad) around artificial intelligence (AI). What I found even more interesting, though, was the sincere conversation, passionate debate, and superficial lip service about using technology responsibly to help, if not save, humanity. Clearly, it was the theme for this year’s conference, and an important one. The speakers on opening night did a great job framing up the importance and potential positive impact in this area. The speakers that I happened to see on the days following were not as consistent in delivering a strong, aligned message. Keep in mind, I missed far more sessions than I saw, but here are my take-aways from a few that I managed to catch.
Technology for life in the ocean?
Bryan Johnson of Kernel talked about the brain-altering technology he’s developing. He was inspired to start the company to help people who struggle with mental ailments. Very noble. But the entire focus of his research and development is on finding ways to improve human cognitive function to make people smarter and more adaptable to our quickly-changing environment. So that if we ever need to live in the ocean or in outer space, it would be easier for us both mentally and physically. There was talk about us somehow being able to grow gills, but I couldn’t connect the dots on that one. When asked if he felt that improving the cognitive ability of people who could afford it would increase the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” he replied, no. He sees his technology becoming as common as mobile phones and super-human intelligence for the masses as benefitting the world and balancing the risks of AI. As if we all think that lack of smarts is our problem as humans. I think he may be naïve, delusional, or dangerous. It’s entirely probable that the technology being developed could help many people – and I hope it does – but it’s just as probable that it will (also) give power to those with more smarts than kindness, more money than wisdom, more western values than global insights. All in all, this one left me depressed.
International pitch session
One session I really enjoyed was the final investor pitch sessions. It was like a real-life Dragon’s Den. After multiple rounds of competition from hundreds of startups, there were three left standing. They were each given about three minutes to pitch their product idea, followed by a couple minutes of questions from a panel of judges. Man, there are some smart, articulate, motivated people out there! There was a Canadian who started Jauntin’, a business providing on-demand, pay-for-what-you-use insurance through a mobile app; a Brit who developed technology to continually monitor water nutrients and contamination levels in real time; and a French guy who developed the world’s smallest refrigerator so that people who need medication that requires refrigeration can comfortably carry it with them wherever they go. All of them had excellent pitches, but the tiny refrigerator guy walked away with the winning cheque for 50,000 euros. I was happy that all of them had products that contributed in some small way to making the world a better place.
I’m not very political and I’m not from the United States, so I’d never heard Al Gore speak before. I did know about his dedication to spreading the word about climate change and the need for sustainable industries, so I knew what to expect in terms of topic. There was nothing particularly surprising or new to me in what he had to say, but he said it so well! He set out to answer three questions: Is climate change real (yes!)? Can we do something about it (yes!)? And will we do something about it (not sure, but he thinks so)? His speech truly left me inspired and hopeful, but at a complete loss as to what’s going on in the world that the US couldn’t manage to elect someone more like this guy. Honestly, as inspired and hopeful as this left me, I was equally confused and distressed with the world.
Links to content strategy
So, what does all this mean for content strategy? I’m honestly not too sure. Obviously, we need to integrate into AI product teams and figure out the content strategy challenges around that. Product content strategy will increase, while website and marketing content strategy will decrease, but this won’t happen over night and these aren’t new insights. As content strategy integrates into product teams it’s possible that design, user experience, and content roles will continue to merge and “pure” content strategists will become even more rare. But I think, for me, I’m taking away the message of needing to use our influence to better the world, and that’s as relevant to content strategy as to any other industry. How can we make sure that our professional footprint helps to create a stronger, kinder world? That’s a question I’ll keep in front of me over the next year. If I come up with any great ideas, I’ll let you know!