On the 9th and 10th of May, technology specialists, generalists, and enthusiasts from around the European continent (and globe) gathered in Amsterdam to partake in the 14th edition of the The Next Web (TNW) conference – aptly labelled “the heart of tech”.
Based on my own experience, as well as the feedback I’ve seen so far, this year’s conference was another success for the The Next Web, which was recently acquired by The Financial Times.
This article asks a simple question: What made this year’s TNW successful?
A full house
The conference kicked off on Thursday with a flashy opening ceremony that mirrored the headlining of an electronic music festival – bright lights, digital screens, loud bass-synth build ups, and smoke machines. After curiously dancing onto the stage with faces hidden behind live-emoji screens, The Next Web’s founders, Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Patrick de Laive, welcomed attendees to their festival with open arms and warm, Dutch smiles.
With no time to spare Boom Chicago’s Pep Rosenfeld, who served as TNW’s mainstage host, introduced the festival’s keynote speaker, Guy Kawasaki. Sharing insights from his latest book, Wise Guy: Lessons from a Life (in tech), Guy elaborated on some of his personal maxims that underpin success in life: keeping your friends close, associating yourself with greatness, putting in the grind, and embracing nepotism.
A tech frenzy
After the opening ceremony and Kawasaki’s inspirational presentation, the tech conference opened up into a scattered multiverse of keynote presentations, pitching contests, workshops, matchmaking sessions, product exhibitions, fireside chats, panel discussions, networking drinks, and simulated Ted-talks.
Although the TNW app helped me along the way in planning my daily schedule of talks and meetings, I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed. At any given moment, I knew that there were at least five interesting and attention-worthy things that I was missing out on.
Eventually, I settled on a half-and-half approach: following my pre-planned schedule wherever possible, but committing myself to the spontaneity of the universe for the rest of the time. Often, the latter turned out to be the best approach. I’d walk into a session, keynote, or person that captured my interest, and I’d walk out thirty minutes later with new insights, a fresh perspective, or an inspired mind in some or other form.
Something for everyone
A few hours into the conference, I began to realise how best to tackle the problem of too much choice. Instead of being overwhelmed by the multitude of ways that I could have experienced the festival, I began to curate my own experience based on themes that truly interested me, as opposed to going where the crowds were going or worrying about what my friends and colleagues were up to.
With a newfound sense of focus, I listened in awe to speakers like James Bridle discuss his phenomenon of the ‘New Dark Age’ of tech, or Kaspar Korjus discuss the movement towards ‘tech-driven’ states.
Throughout these talks, I learnt specific things, like how data science can help to combat human trafficking, or how contemporary artists are applying AI to create new artworks that sell for more than 40 000 Euros a piece.
I also learnt general things, like what ‘inclusive’ digitization could look like, what role governments should play in facilitating digital innovation, what the future of customer experience might look like, and why it’s important to contextualise our human presence within the grand cosmos of the universe.
Overall, the diversity of available knowledge was astounding, from deep technical insights in the world of product development, to accessible human anthropology, and everything in between.
But also, something else
All things considered, any tech conference of this scale is theoretically able to bring together an interesting line-up of speakers, thinkers, and innovators, and in the process provide people with a feeling of getting their money’s worth. That, I suppose, is my point: The Next Web didn’t feel much like a tech conference.
Instead, TNW went beyond being a tech conference, offering its attendees the combined experience of a music festival, innovation expo, Ted Talk summit, EDM club, Blockchain meetup, AI strategy session, and beer garden, all meshed into one.
This, in combination with the post-apocalyptic, dreamscape setting of the NDSM Wharf, right alongside the River Ij, made for something quite unique.
Tech in Amsterdam: Glory days
Perhaps TNW’s success has something to do with the juxtaposition between the conference’s theme of focus – our technological future – and its host city, Amsterdam. There’s something almost surreal about discussing the future of our technological world in a city that was founded in 1275, making it one of the most historically rich cities in the world.
Between 1585 and 1672, Amsterdam’s Golden Age, the city formed the base of a worldwide trading network, harboring merchant ships that sailed between North America, Indonesia, Brazil and Africa. This was the century of Rembrandt, of Amsterdam’s canal expansion, and the time in which the city became a central point for the transshipment of goods across Europe. Most importantly, the 17th century witnessed Amsterdam take center stage as the leading financial hub of the world (a position later taken over by London).
Today, Amsterdam is a leading global hub for technological development. Whether in the form of academic research, innovation-through-startups, corporate R&D, or government support, Amsterdam (and, to be fair, the Netherlands) is arguably experiencing a new Golden Era of tech. Startups and scaleups are popping up on every canal, whilst valuations and acquisitions are occurring at prices that are high, but that don’t match the problematically high valuations of silicon valley unicorns.
Business in Amsterdam is booming, and The Next Web conference helped to consolidate the many players in Amsterdam’s tightly-knit ecosystem, bringing them together to illustrate the sheer scale and volume of innovation taking place, and reinforcing the city’s status as a global force to be reckoned with.
A critical turn: what’s next in tech?
Arguably, the greatest strength portrayed by this year’s TNW conference was its display of philosophical awareness around the critical questions that the (tech) world needs to urgently ask itself.
Yes, there was a lot of celebrating tech: keynotes by garage-tinkerers-turned-unicorns, product evangelising, pitching competitions and, of course, actual celebrating – pre-parties, opening parties, after parties, private parties, Porsche parties, and lots of free beer.
Despite a general celebration of tech, however, The Next Web remained consistently critical of where we now stand in terms of technological development, with the conference upholding a thread of ethical inquiry throughout the conference.
We’ve reached an inflection point within the grand narrative of technological disruption, as pointed out by many of the conference’s speakers and “thought leaders”. Specifically, we’ve reached a point in which it’s no longer acceptable to simply “move fast and break things” in the name of innovation.
On the one hand, there’s the ever-looming threat of Artificial Intelligence and big data, along with the potential that they bring for an overly-automated world of human obsoletion and general dystopia. On the other hand, as pointed out by physicist James Beacham in his presentation about space, there’s the perhaps even worse threat of existential pointlessness – building more and more email software, chat bot tools, Chrome extensions, and mobile apps that nobody will use until we’ve dug ourselves into a hole of profound, meaningless futility.
On top of these threats, there’s of course the glaring issue of climate change and environmental degradation – probably the biggest existential threat of them all, and one which was at least touched upon in some discussions during TNW, but perhaps not enough.
Nevertheless, by curating speakers that were open to discuss these deeper questions, rather than simply praise technology in it’s siloed form, TNW not only proved its own capacity for self-awareness and metaphysical reflection, but encouraged its audience to adopt the same critical thinking style.
Keeping the above points in mind, many of us left the conference feeling not only inspired by the enormous world of opportunity that exists within technology, but also feeling conscious of the many questions of meaning that were brought up throughout the conference.
Overall, I hope I speak on behalf of many attendees when I say that this year’s TNW conference provided me with a lot of professional and personal value.
Apart from the insights I gained from the speaker lineup, or the connections I added on Linkedin, or the meaningful conversations I engaged in with interesting people, I left the conference with a profound sense that the world really is at a critical turning point, not just in terms of technology but in terms of humanity’s existence, purpose and meaning.
By attending The Next Web, I felt as if I could join this crucial conversation, even if only in the form of a raised hand at the back of the crowd.
Stay tuned to Silicon Canals for more updates in the tech startup world.