By Anders Lorenzen
The Web Summit, which takes place annually in Lisbon, Portugal, is memorable for me for two quite different reasons, It was during my first Summit, in 2016, that Donald Trump was elected as US President, much to the profound disbelief and sadness of the majority of the + 50,000 attendees most of whom are liberal-leaning tech and innovation folks. The second-year I was there, in 2017, I managed to get a front-row seat at the former US Vice President and climate advocate Al Gore’s speech. During his speech, Gore emphatically pleaded with the global tech industry to focus their energy on climate solutions. Gore’s event was so popular that big screens were put up across the conference centre to livestream his speech and most people stopped whatever they were doing to watch him talk. He was inspiring, he was statesman-like and every time he mentioned action on climate change the crowd cheered.
Despite the enthusiasm of the crowd and organisers in 2017, by 2018 this seemed to have faded. While the Web Summit continued to have a dedicated ‘planet: tech’ stage to discuss sustainability, the excitement, enthusiasm and urgency of the previous year was missing; no new initiatives or products were launched, just old discussions and issues were recycled.
Will this year be different? This remains to be seen. It’s certainly true that the sense of urgency around climate change has not gone away and has only intensified. The climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion (XR) activities and the ‘Greta Thunberg effect’ means that climate change has been one of the hottest topics of 2019. And the tech world is not isolated from that. Amazon has faced a bombardment of criticism about how they power their data centres, resulting in mass staff protest walkouts. Climate denialism keeps appearing high on social media platforms, Twitter, Facebook and in Google search rankings. Perhaps this is why Kate Brandt, Google’s chief sustainability officer, has been named as one of the many speakers at this year’s Web Summit. As usual we can expect her to talk about Google’s various sustainability efforts, however, do not expect her to be held to account for the fact that the company is not tackling climate denialism on its platforms. These are the discussions that should be held at the centre stage of the Web Summit. The discussions will be had, but unfortunately only in Lisbon’s pubs, bars and restaurants when the more than 70,000 Web Summit participants go to debrief in the evenings.
In the years I have been attending the Web Summit I have spoken to many people involved in the tech world and many are passionate about tackling climate change. In fact, many have entered this industry precisely because they want to help innovate solutions for the climate crisis. They have shared my frustrations that the Web Summit shirks its responsibility of talking about these really big issues concerning the future of the tech world and climate change, and the discussions which should be taking place on the big stages at the event only happen during social and networking sessions.
It is not too late for the Web Summit to genuinely join the climate fight and hold Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter to account.
Other steps they can take to prove their commitment to sustainability include decoupling themselves from Uber and instead promoting Lisbon’s fantastic public transport system, encouraging visitors to use Europe’s fantastic rail networks to reach Lisbon instead of flying, prioritising speakers who are willing to travel by train instead of flying, and prioritising sustainable caterers and other suppliers at the event. These are the kind of decisions that any big event organisers must make in this current climate; truly tackling climate change will often mean taking difficult decisions.
Despite feeling disillusioned about the event’s shortcomings last year I have decided to attend the Web Summit again this year as it has been a big year for the climate and what is happening in tech in the coming years is going to be so crucial; let’s see if this year’s organisers and participants can match that.