As a host of startups demonstrated, tech still has the power to inspire wonder.

At this year’s Web Summit in Lisbon, the annual gathering for startups, investors and excited onlookers, there was a glimpse of a renewed sense of optimism. Even as Big Tech continues to mend its reputation after a tough year, there’s a sense that the industry can play a decisive role in fixing some of humanity’s biggest problems.

Here are some of the key themes and trends we spotted at this year’s edition.

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Christopher Wylie speaking about digital rights

New digital rights

What a difference a year makes. Last year Alexander Nix, former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, took to the Centre Stage to outline how his company would transform marketing as it had transformed the political sphere.

This year, his seat was taken by the whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who delivered a harsh critique of his former employer as well as Facebook’s “colonization” of the web. Wylie, previously director of research at Cambridge Analytica, was not the first to call for tougher digital restrictions, but was perhaps the most passionate, demanding, “If we can regulate nuclear power, why can’t we regulate some f***ing code?”

Former British prime minister Tony Blair backed Wylie’s views, noting that we “need a very specific form of regulation and a regulator for these big tech companies” although he cautioned against anything which might constitute a “tech backlash.”

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Tim Berners-Lee

In recent years, Europe has seemed the most likely to put the brakes on tech’s unfettered powers and EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager underlined her commitment to regulation, saying “by making technology safe we make it trusted and accepted” and that “the right rules can help us fix the problem.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is taking the matter into his own hands. Over the past three decades, he has watched as his greatest invention was tarnished by clickbait, disinformation, data abuses and political interference. He’s not taking it lying down. In his opening night keynote, Berners-Lee outlined his Web Foundation’s plan for a “contract for the web.”

Described as a Magna Carta for the internet, Berners-Lee’s contract, set to launch in 2019, calls for a space that is “safe, diverse, open and accessible.” Initially formed of nine core principles for governments, companies and citizens, it will be developed into a full contract. The charter is already gaining traction; signatories so far number around 60 and include the French government, Google and Facebook.

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There’s No Silicon Valley, Only China panel

From Silicon Valley to the Silicon Delta

As Big Tech faces up to the need to start tackling some of its problems, it also faces a challenge of a different nature. For decades, Silicon Valley has been the undisputed epicentre of the tech universe, but could we be nearing the end of an era?

China’s growing potency in technology is making some a little nervous. In a conversation on digital human rights, Brett Solomon, executive director of advocacy group Access Now, referred to the “Chinafication” of the internet, pointing out that “a quarter of the world’s internet is in China.”

The country’s growing influence in e-commerce, artificial intelligence and 5G was evident in the conference scheduling, with talksexploring the China startup boom and the power struggle between the United States and China. One panel was bluntly titled: There’s No Silicon Valley, Only China.

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Tony Blair

British politician Tony Blair encouraged Europe and the United States to work together if they are to tackle the potent competitive threat: “Both of them have to be clever enough in order to take on what will be a very aggressive and big push from China to gain domination.”

In fact, China could represent just one new front in the battle for tech dominance. As investor Sonny Vu explained during the DeepTech Money panel, the nature and complexity of the world’s challenges means that these days, “solutions can come from literally just about anywhere” as scientists pursue “wild” breakthroughs. The more established, with reputations to protect, might deliver more incremental progress.

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Ananya Chadha (left), Ben Nashman (center), Sabarish Gnanamoorthy (right)

Generation Z’s tech optimists

Tech may be facing some tough challenges, but at a panel named This is the Future, the new generation of tech entrepreneurs delivered an uplifting vision of the future.

Ananya Chadha (16), a brain computer interface developer building virtual reality (VR) games, spoke of her fascination with brain-to-brain communication technology and is optimistic that advances in encryption technology will mean we don’t need to worry about brain hacking. Chadha, who is also proficient in genomics and blockchain technology, explained that her motivation for learning about these technologies was “to create the best future for all of us.”

Ben Nashman, the 18-year-old founder of Synex Medical, shared his work on non-invasive blood metabolite monitoring technology that will help people with diabetes and heart disease better manage their condition. Synex Medical is currently working on miniaturising the technology so it can be integrated into a wearable device. “I wake up every single day super-excited to work on this problem,” said Nashman.

Fifteen-year-old Sabarish Gnanamoorthy is the founder of WaypointAR, a startup developing indoor navigation technology using augmented reality (AR) and computer vision—at least, for now. Gnanamoorthy’s grander vision involves using AR and VR to create a utopia and solve human problems like cost of housing or education, distance and issues of identity.

All three entrepreneurs are students or graduates of Toronto’s Knowledge Society, a human accelerator which mentors future leaders aged 13 to 17.

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Oros Apparel demonstrating Solacore

Material innovation

Revolutionary technologies were the key focus on the DeepTech stage, which considers the innovations set to change our world. Materials science is in a hot phase right now. So hot, in fact, that firefighters were on hand in case one dramatic demonstration should go awry.

At a session hosted by Ohio-based Oros Apparel, a volunteer was liberally sprayed with liquid nitrogen to highlight the insulating properties of a coat made with Solarcore, an innovative insulating material. Solarcore is inspired by NASA’s aerogel technology, which was used to insulate the Mars Rover and can withstand temperatures as low as minus 455F. Aerogel is extremely brittle, but Solarcore has been engineered to be flexible enough to use in clothing. It delivers on warmth, with none of the bulk.

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Oros Apparel

CEO and cofounder of Oros Michael Markesbery explained to JWTIntelligence that “impactful materials science isn’t about making something incrementally better. It’s about making something demonstrably different. For Oros, it’s not making goose down 10% warmer, it’s approaching the problem of warmth and mobility with a completely different lens and using materials science to bring a completely novel solution to the market.”

The urgent need for non-extractive materials is driving more innovation in this space. On the Planet:tech stage, Daphna Nissenbaum, the cofounder and CEO of Israeli startup Tipa, talked up the company’s flexible, fully compostable bioplastics. And over at the Modum fashion stage, Aquafil’s Giulio Bonazzi discussed Econyl, a novel material derived from recycled fishing nets, used by Stella McCartney, among others.

See our upcoming “Future 100 2019” report for more on material innovation.

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Magic Leap's VR glasses

Entertainment futures

Entertainment is another category seeing dramatic disruption, as technology powers inspiring and emotional experiences that seek to engage us more deeply.

San Francisco startup Penrose Studios has been described by Techcrunch as “the Pixar of VR.” The company promises to deliver what it calls “spatial storytelling, combining advanced technologies like AI, VR and AR that leverage data and space to “redefine the way we connect with characters.” Founder and CEO Eugene Chung gave the audience a glimpse of this future, introducing Arden, star of the company’s latest story Arden’s Wake. In a live Q&A session, audience members could interact in real-time with the onscreen character.

Film-maker Darren Aronofsky also told a Centre Stage audience about his excitement for the potential of immersive VR. He collaborated with creator Eliza McNitt and European VR studio Atlas V to produce the VR series Spheres: Songs of Spacetime, which explores unreachable locations in the cosmos, delving into black holes and recreating the sounds of space. The series premiered at the 2018 Sundance Festival, securing an unprecedented seven-figure deal, and had a startling impact on veteran actor Robert Redford, who apparently fell over upon seeing it.

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The Arcade at Two Bit Circus

Mixed reality startup and hype magnet Magic Leap was at Web Summit too, having finally launched its hardware after years of development. CMO Brenda Freeman described Magic Leap’s tech as “the next disruptive computing platform” with the potential to go way beyond entertainment to infiltrate virtually every category. “If you aren’t thinking about how to disrupt your respective industry,” warned Freeman, “then you’re behind.”

In the short term, the company is looking to use location-based entertainment (LBE) to build awareness and engagement with the technology. LBE is a fast-growing category with some forecasts suggesting a global market of $12 billion by 2023. Looking to drive some of that growth is a fun new immersive concept called Two Bit Circus, “the world’s first micro-amusement park.”

This urban theme-park experience has a carnival feel, powered by technology. Based in downtown Los Angeles, the Circus boasts 10 different entertainment zones including the Story Rooms, the Arcade, and Club01, which hosts interactive game shows. A quarter of the offer is VR-based. Chief creative officer Nancy Bennett told the ContentMakers audience that the company’s aim is to make experiences with emotional resonance and “build dreams and memories.”

Until next year!

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Web Summit 2018