Written by Julie Vens - De Vos

On May 18th Amsterdam welcomed 12,500 geeks, nerds or #becomeageek-ers for the 2017 edition of ‘The Next Web’. A delegation of nexxworkers exchanged the first 30°C day in Belgium for chilly Amsterdam for some top-notch, techie inspiration. Unexpectedly to yours truly, the conference proved to be a pledge to creativity and humanity rather than a tech fest.  

What I learnt at ‘The Next Web’ and why they need a new name

Back to reality

The Next Web started with Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, CEO and co-founder of TNW, holding up a mirror. He framed that beyond the enormous power of technology, ultimately it’s up to humans to act. Technology is just the surface. The real power to do something remarkable still lies within us, as individuals.  Yes, we live in a world where the fashion industry dictates what the hipsters in the street wear. Yes, Spotify influences our music consumption. So, we need to realize that technology is just a tool, a thing we got used to. You just feel naked when it’s not around anymore.

People disagree on whether technology is addictive or just a strong influencer. Whatever the tone might be, society shows that it’s starting to master the tech tsunami of the last two decades. Pokémon Go was a huge success not because it was powered by augmented reality but because it brought people and kids back to reality. Away from their coach and computer screen, into the open – real – world. The trend is now set and Mike Quicgley, CMO of Niantic, announced that the next version of the app will interface yet more with the real world. Collaboration will become a dominating game dynamic.

I expected Kodi Foster from Viacom to be the first tech geek to contend that reality is an illusion. What he gave in return was a true reality check. The SVP of Data accused technologies of enabling a true war on reality. We’re no longer marketing to people. We’re just mastering machines. He popped the reflection of who we’re marketing to, if 15% of the accounts we base profiles on, are actually bots. The more effective sources today are actual behaviour, retail data or, yes, even surveys. If marketers don’t pay attention, they’ll end up delivering baby supplies to couples with fertility issues. 

Creativity is the new literacy

The Next Web was not about a new disruptive wave of technology. It was not about the current giants like Facebook, Google, Tencent or Snap. The conference was about creativity. Chase Jarvis, co-founder of CreativeLive and expert photographer, pledged – yes, it’s getting too romantic – how creative people will assure that new jobs arise and that art will prevail. He sent his message strongly as it’s our diligent duty, as look-ahead marketers.

Good old Mad Men-like marketers stepped up as being just as valuable as geeky data engineers. They strived for colour. For creative chaos and non-informed choice. In the age of data science, the mighty gut feeling still stands a chance. Brian Collins from Creative Agency Collins wonderfully unhyped ‘the minimal viable product’ mantra and reminisced about the age of Steve Jobs in which we strived for ‘Maximum Fucking Love’ for a product. 

Back to the future

Analogous to the history of art, a few speakers (luckily) took us back to the Realism era. As did Chris Skinner, who painted an unnerving image of the ‘bank of the future’. He pointed out that we live in the age of the semantic web. A web that knows more about us than we do ourselves. If we combine that with new disruptive technologies like blockchain, it’s not unimaginable that a bank will simply disappear. As Google is no longer a search answer but an answer service, a bank won’t be a bank but an advisor. Chris left the stage with a sense of dark humour: ‘Won’t that be fun’, giving the audience a silent warning.

We might almost think that technology and innovation are NOT fun at all. So what? Do we all need to become farmers again? Not quite. We also saw a few shining bright stars at the Next Web, showing us the extremely exciting future that lies ahead. Hardt is developing hyperloop technology that will whisk us from Amsterdam to Paris in just 30 minutes. The really awesome thing about it, is that they want to do that within no less than 4 years! Blippar highlighted how our search behaviour will change, using AI to unlock information with only your camera. Hardwell outlined why you need to be the first to use new technologies and promised a lot of exciting content using augmented reality. So, it was as much about opportunities as it was about challenges, and even warnings come to that.

Conclusion.

The Next Web needs to reflect on its name. The web, as such, is becoming old-school and so were some of the messages that the conference brought to the table. I’d be more interested in Jack Ma setting up a parallel conference. His 30-30-30 vision, which he shared with the world at the WEF Forum in Davos early 2017 was full of hope of how, within the 30 years, little shrimps like Hardt will beat big blue whales like Snap. Let’s focus on how we’ll make our lives easier AND richer in the future with technology and innovation as our ally.  I can’t be more excited about that and hope to see equal passion at the Next ‘Whatever’ 2018.