Thought leadership at this year’s Web Summit explored virtual reality, on-demand services and more.

Defying thick fog, which caused many flights to be delayed and cancelled, the majority of Web Summit’s 40,000 attendees made it to Dublin. The three-day event, first held in 2010, is Europe’s biggest tech conference and is rapidly expanding, nipping at the heels of South by Southwest Interactive and the International CES in Las Vegas for its array of thinkers, tech CEOs and startup attendees, not to mention press coverage.

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Center stage at the Web Summit

The founders have recently launched a plethora of sister brands to the Web Summit. The Surf Summit, a micro adventurist conference, now in its second year, is staged immediately after the Web Summit, with an emphasis on surf, the outdoors and experiences. Collision, described as “America’s fastest growing tech conference,” was launched two years ago and now has over 7,500 attendees from more than 50 countries. It started in Las Vegas and in 2016 will be staged in New Orleans. Rise, a similar event, made its debut in 2015 in Hong Kong. New for 2016, Surge, again along the same lines, will take place in Bengaluru, India, in February.

Web Summit itself is also set to move in 2016. Following ongoing disputes with the Irish government about logistical support for the burgeoning event in Dublin, the founders are moving it to Lisbon, Portugal.

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Color sheep at the Web Summit 2015

What of 2015’s event?

Like many successful conferences, Web Summit suffers from a bloated schedule and the diluting effects of pay for play on content. Tight, 20-minute speaking slots also meant that talks on bigger subjects erred towards the glib.

That said, the sheer volume of tech CEOs and CTOs in one place at one time brought emerging ideas, themes and trends to the forefront—even if each nugget of fascinating inspiration came bookended with rhetoric of “changing the world.”

Key Themes
Big-name speakers included Natalia Vodianova, talking about Elbi, her charitable donation platform; Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell; Ed Catmull, co-founder and president of Pixar; author Dan Brown; and soccer player Rio Ferdinand.

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Natalia Vodianova

Prominent themes included ad blocking (the current specter), user-generated content, privacy, the death (or not) of email at the hands of Slack, the Internet of Things, drones, and innovation in social good.

Marketers were naturally defensive about the potential of ad blocking during “The advertising wars: ad blocking and the consumer experience?” session. “Who will pay for all the creative content?” and “Ad blocking is essentially stealing” were comments raised during the session. But there was also reflection. “Video ads are too long for the length of most clips.” “We need to produce better advertising.” “We need to innovate.”

Ultimately the panel concluded, like many right now, that better native advertising was the future.

On the death of email by 2020, Mood Rowghani, partner at KPCB, in the “Tomorrow’s tech landscape” talk, said: “It will be less relevant. It will exist as a particular format of communication, but messaging will be more fragmented.” Messaging in general is hugely timely, given Facebook’s growing emphasis on it as a channel for direct marketing.

Technology’s growing influence on the world and culture was central to Dan Brown’s talks: “Tech influences human spirituality more than all religious leaders today,” he said.

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Dan Brown

Virtual Reality
This year, virtual reality in all its iterations was the hottest topic on the agenda, with eight talks dedicated to it. The most fascinating by far was “Space & time: The true potential of VR,” featuring Jacki Ford Morie, founder and chief scientist at The Augmented Traveler, and Mary Aiken, producer, professor and research center director at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Ford Morie has been working with Nasa on using VR as a tool to help astronauts remain mentally healthy on missions to Mars by providing them with alternative virtual environments to explore. She also pointed to the uses of VR for therapy; it can be used to allow soldiers with PTSD to virtually engage in mindfulness and complementary treatments via avatars.

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Jacki Ford Morie and Mary Aiken

“We are entering a new dawn with virtual reality. It had to go back into the lab for a while, and was very exclusive and rarified when it first came out. Now, with Oculus Rift and Facebook, the device launching this year, it’s being democratized. Tens of thousands of people are now thinking of how it could be used,” said Ford Morie. “We are going to see some amazing things.”

She added: “There are ways to use it that we can’t even manage right now. VR can isolate you from this world, but also export you from it. It can take you to a place that is safe, or mystical. Smell is an area that’s very interesting. There are still things in the world we don’t know how to digitize—atmosphere, the spiritual, essences—intangible things that are very meaningful to us as human beings that could be incorporated into VR.”

Are there any red flags? Ford Morie warned about the unknown impact of heavy use on children. “We don’t know how it will effect their eyesight or physiology. It could have an impact from a developmental perspective.”

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Long Duration Space Flight Support by Jackie Ford Morie
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Elsewhere speakers were talking about the more immediate benefits of VR. Scott Harrison, founder of Charity:Water, described it as an “empathy machine,” telling the audience how his organization had created an immersive storytelling film using VR to bring the plight of those without water to a wider audience. The film launches next month. Harrison explained that over half of all diseases in the world are caused by water. “(Bad water or lack of) water kills more people than war,” said Harrison. “We wanted to innovate in our storytelling to make this seem more real and to be more effective as a call to action.”

On Demand Service Boom
Uber headlines now pop up seemingly weekly. “On demand in demand” explored the future of on-demand service apps. The speakers were William Shu, CEO of Deliveroo, which offers premium restaurant takeaway; Kevin Gibbon, founder of Shyp, a frictionless shipping service; Oisin Hanrahan, founder of cleaning and handyman app platform Handy; and Neil Rimer, co-founder and partner of Index Ventures venture capital. The first three, who work in sectors that cover food delivery, shipping, and everything from cleaning services to home maintenance, are disrupting big sectors. “We want people to be able to solve any problem with the press of a button,” said Hanrahan.

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William Shu. Photography by Stephen McCarthy
2015 WebSummit Day 2 - Centre Stage
Ankur Jain. Photography by Stephen McCarthy
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Kevin Gibbon, Oisin Hanrahan, Neil Rimer. Photography by Stephen McCarthy

“These guys are going after big segments, leveraging the mobile phone and the fact that everyone now has a universal remote control for their lives in their pocket,” said Rimer. “If they can scale and fulfill a need through this channel, they can grow in a big way.”

The question of employment practice inevitably came up. Sharing economy companies such as Uber rely on casual, flexible contractor models rather than full-time employees for the bulk of their worker base, and have come under scrutiny in the press lately due to this. Gibbon has gone for a more traditional model for Shyp. “We are in a line where there are no high peaks and low valleys, there’s a pattern, so we need reliability,” he explained. “You also cannot train contract workers. If we train people, we know that customers will have a great experience.”

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Shyp employees. Image courtesy of Shyp

Handy, like Uber, relies on the flexible model. “Services have different operating metrics,” Rimer noted. “What works for shipping demands wouldn’t work for other businesses. You can’t be in a scenario where you go bankrupt when there’s less demand.” He also observed that many tech companies are disruptive new businesses that may require the rethinking of existing systems and regulations. “We’re used to investing in businesses where the regulatory environment still needs to be worked out,” he said.

The talk moved on to automation. Tech is rapidly replacing jobs in the labor market, very rapidly in some sectors. The next wave will be service drones. What should be the response to this?

“Tech has empowered people more than not,” said Rimer.

“We’re entering an enabling new landscape,” said Hanrahan. “By making it easier to buy services, people buy more. People use more. If it’s easier to get more cabs, people get more. It’s creating more economic activity.”

This was a point raised at SXSW Interactive earlier this year, when Benchmark’s Bill Gurley was interviewed by award-winning journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell. Gurley and his partners at Benchmark led the early venture investments in OpenTable, Snapchat, Twitter, Uber, Yelp and more. Gurley pointed out that the growth of Uber is disproportionate to the amount of market share taken from traditional taxis. It has, he says, unlocked an untapped market for transportation.

Cannabis in 2016
Cannabis is featured in our forthcoming Future 100 as a segment to watch, due to its huge growth since multiple states in the US legalized it for medical use (recreational use is also permitted in four states). Public opinion on cannabis is reaching a tipping point: 74% of US millennials surveyed by SONAR™, J. Walter Thompson’s proprietary research unit, say they believe that within a decade, marijuana will be as socially acceptable as alcohol. Arcview Market Research reports that the legal cannabis business grew 74% from 2013 to 2014, reaching an estimated $2.7 billion, and could reach $36.8 billion if marijuana were to be legalized nationwide.

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Brendan Kennedy

“Europe: the next cannabis battleground?” zeroed in on this shift with Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Privateer Holdings. The firm is betting big on the expansion of cannabis as a mass-market product akin to alcohol, investing in cannabis platforms and the cannabis industry. The company has raised $80 million for its endeavors and has already partnered with Bob Marley’s family (who already produced coffee) on Marley Natural, a line of cannabis products. The company has also hired professionals from Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“Our view is that it’s a mainstream product used by mainstream people so will soon be made legal,” said Kennedy. “70% of Americans live in a state where they can get cannabis legally through medical channels or retail.”

He added that in the US, regardless of which party is being elected, he foresaw total legalization within the next three years for full use; and the same within seven years in Europe.

Kennedy thinks that branded cannabis is the next untapped market globally. “Cannabis is the only product that we put into our bodies that isn’t branded or professionally packaged,” he said. “It will eventually be more of a branded landscape.”

Artist Willie Nelson recently launched a crusade to stop the “Big Pot” phenomenon, but Kennedy’s firm, among others, is already zeroing in on the potentially lucrative space. Colorado-based consultancy Cannabrand was launched specifically to elevate the status of pot to that of connoisseur product.

Kennedy added that dreadlock-based clichés are no longer relevant. “We’ve found that people over 65 are the most interested in this product.”

Hyperloop: Transport of the Future
Another of our Future 100 trends looks at Silicon Valley’s move into infrastructure. Shervin Pishevar, co-founder and MD of Sherpa Capital, and Rob Lloyd, CEO of Hyperloop, took to the stage to discuss the forthcoming Hyperloop supertrain—announcing during their talk “Next stop: the future” that they’d received $26 million in convertible note financing.

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Hyperloop

Lloyd recently took over Hyperloop to realize Elon Musk’s original vision of a high-speed supertrain that moves at the speed of sound. Hyperloop works faster than normal trains due to its railgun design, which uses magnetic levitation to keep friction to a minimum. It would make the 400-mile journey between San Francisco and Los Angeles possible in just 30 minutes and is already well into the development stages. The company is already planning test sites and the duo on stage said that three projects will be in place between 2017 and 2020.

“We’ve been held back by infrastructure put in place a century ago,” said Pishevar. “We should be moving faster.”

Lloyd added that Hyperloop could potentially “transform real estate and ports. It will make world a village again, it will compress space and time. You’ll be able to cover huge distances in a matter of minutes and not waste time. It will make the world greener too—we’ll be transporting cargo as well as people. The 15 largest cargo ships pollute the world more than all its cars. The global economy will change—we can deliver at the speed of thought. You can order, manufacture and deliver within 72 hours.” And, he added, Hyperloop could signal the demise of warehouses filled with depreciating assets.

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Shervin Pishevar and Rob Lloyd

Generation Z
Buzz around generation Z made a welcome relief to millennial-focused talks. Following the Innovation Group’s deep-dive report into the group, I was asked to take part in a panel alongside Rahul Chopra, CEO of Storyful, Blathnaid Healy, the editor of Mashable UK, and Alick Varma, founder of Osper, a banking platform for children and teenagers which teaches young people to save and manage their money in innovative ways. We assessed the key take-outs from this rising group, discussing their heroes, how to market to them, their huge social conscience, and how their sophisticated, earnest approach breaks with typical teen norms.

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Alick Varma

Fortresses and Villages
Dan Khabie, CEO of Mirum, J. Walter Thompson’s digital global agency, also gave a talk on a topic significant in every big agency’s world: how to adapt and change in landscape where smaller, nimble, agile companies seem to be at an advantage. His talk focused on the concept of fortresses versus villages as structures for agencies. Fortresses, fixed and isolated, ultimately cannot evolve, whereas villages can adapt, join with other villages, grow, and change.

“Do you have a flat structure? The flatter you are the better. I roam the world with a backpack,” he said. Khabie said that companies should give innovative employees a voice and support their entrepreneurial spirit. He also recommended collaborating with companies that may seem like rivals, and constantly scrutinizing yourself and competitors for change and innovation. “GE has been very successful doing this. They are big, but they are constantly looking at how they can change and adapt. As a result, despite their size, they’re a hugely innovative company,” he said.

Dating app wars: Tinder and beyond
Tinder CEO Sean Rad took to the stage to talk dating apps and single culture. He noted that Tinder is currently conducting an anthropological study of singles and their behavior and interaction. He said that, contrary to popular belief, 80% of users on Tinder are actually in search of a long-term relationship. As such, Tinder is building in lots more emotive features that improve the chances of meaningful connections, including Tinder Plus. He also announced a new algorithm that will increase matches by 30%.

“There are 1.5 million dates stemming from Tinder a week, meeting in the physical world,” said Rad, adding that, from over a million first dates each week, over half go on to a second date. The market has recently been flooded with a wave of Tinder competitors, from Bumble to Hinge to Happn. Is he worried? “Everybody’s trying to be the next Tinder. It’s a bad business model to want to be another company. We’re just competing against ourselves.”

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Sean Rad