5 Highlights From WebSummit 2023

Julian Koßmann

Have you ever been to WebSummit? Last week was the first time I attended one in Lisbon, Portugal and it was a whirlwind of excitement, novelty, curiosity and a lot of walking. Known for being one of the largest tech conferences in the world, it was still impressive to actually experience the fifteen stages, 5 enormous pavilions, and be a part of the roughly 75.000 attendees. Tech professionals and enthusiasts from dozens of industries, seniorities, and all walks of life came togehter to meet, network, share, engage, hire, invest, and honestly, eat a deeply unhealthy amount of Pastel de Nata together.

Coming out of this whirlwind of a conference, I took a moment to reflect on the parts that stood out to me: my five personal and very diverse highlights, that I would love to share with you!

Highlight #5 – RAG

Generative AI and ChatGPT have become the centerpiece of any conversation about tech trends for at least a year now. The rapid popularization of this powerful model – the Generative Pre-trained Transformer – has everyone actively looking at integrating this breakthrough into their products and operations, lest they be left behind. No different, of course, at WebSummit, where some of the best minds in GenAI came to offer up their approaches.

Something we’ve looked into at TheVentury this past year has been how to use the massive general intelligence of a GPT as a foundation while extending its knowledge base deeper into a niche, perhaps proprietary set of information. This combination creates a superior user experience in automating customer service or internal documentation. It turns out you can feed the GPT this specific information using the same methods it learned and everything else it knows – but it’s expensive, both in terms of time and cost. So what if we instead built a layer between an incoming request and what is given to the GPT Model? A layer that can add some factual information into the mix. Until this WebSummit, I didn’t have a name for this approach. Now I know: it’s called RAG!

Retrieval Augmented Generation

In talks from experts like Emil Eifrem or Douwe Kiela, I learned how RAG opens up a lot of use cases for GPT that would otherwise not be possible. The gist of the approach is that the user request is fed first and converted to a request, and a more traditional knowledge base is queried for the information, which it can reliably and explainably provide. This is then converted into fluent and creative English by the GPT, a field in which it also reliably excels. By dividing the problem into two parts and allowing each part to play on its strengths, we end up with more substantial, more robust results.

Highlight #4 – Open Internet

Another talk that stood out to me came from Simon Wistow. He made a strong point that has long been an opinion of mine and that now resonates with me more than ever: he looked back nostalgically to the nascency of the internet. To a time when the digital world felt more like a huge, untamed frontier rather than the neatly packaged, algorithm-driven experience it is today.

Back then, the internet was a melting pot of diverse voices, where individual websites flourished, each with unique flavour and character, unlike the homogenized, algorithmic platforms that now dominate our screens. Personal blogs, forums, and chat rooms were the beating heart of online communities, where genuine connections were formed over shared interests, unfettered by commercial interests or intrusive advertisements.

Today’s internet, Wistow argued, demands a far steeper learning curve to do anything custom, making it exclusive and cost-prohibitive to many. He believes that especially in the current economic climate, we need this democratic, maker-style internet back to ensure grassroots entrepreneurship and, at the end of the day, innovation.

Looking at our work, the talk inspired me to keep openness, on a technological and human level, in the back of my mind on every project. As the internet has become more and more central to everything we do, change has been inevitable. Still, if we can contribute even a droplet of openness to the web with the digital products we build, then I genuinely believe that’s worth it. Wistow declared toward the end of his talk: “We need to make sure that the most people possible can contribute to the web … not just twenty-something tech bros. That is the only way we’re going to get proper innovation.”

Highlight #3 – Keynotes at Booths

On a different note, another big highlight were the booths with their own keynotes. Through integrated seating and audio solutions – including wireless headphones you could borrow to hear the speaker over the noise of the other stages and booths. This way, corporates and countries could present themselves independently to an eager WebSummit crowd. One of the strongest examples I recall comes from Shell, who gave the crowd a hugely insightful rundown of how they deal with the complex challenge of digital innovation in their global organization.

It made me reflect on how vital it is for brands to participate in these events, not only to participate but also to really make an impression. At an event like WebSummit, corporates can scout talent, be inspired by ideas, or find promising startups to acquire. But in building their own experiences, they can hope to make a lasting impression on anyone who passes by and truly control and enhance the brand experiences they seek to create. Particularly in a post-pandemic world, I genuinely believe this 360º in-person interaction is invaluable.

Highlight #2 – Austria @ WebSummit

This brings me to the Austria booth at WebSummit this year, which was a big (positive) surprise. Through the collaboration of a number of entities, the Austrian booth was built to stand out magnificently amongst the sea of other booths this year. A two-story cube with attractions like a Red Bull Formula 1 car, a ski lift gondola for having meetings, and a “Spin the Wheel” giveaway with tons of Austria merch, the stand was built to catch eyes and draw attention toward the business ecosystem of Austria. And stand out it did!

There was not an afternoon where the happy hour didn’t attract huge crowds to Pavilion 4, and although the attractions were more fun than intellectual or transformational, there were plenty of exciting engagements about the entrepreneurship and tech scene in Austria. I’m very confident that hundreds of people left the booth a little more aware of what Austria has to offer.

The booth also allowed me to network with other enthusiastic businesses from Austria and beyond and even to have a few meetings on the top floor of the booth. My kudos go out to Advantage Austria, the WKO, BOLD Community, Wirtschaftsagentur Wien and anyone else involved in making the Austria experience memorable this year.

Highlight #1 – The Product Stage

As an innovation manager with a software development background, growth marketing experience, and specialization in product development, I felt stretched a little thin in terms of which of the fifteen stages I wanted to spend my time at. There was no lack of exciting content at any stage, but looking back, I think the product talks provided me with the most „aha“ moments of all.

Those were the talks about what role we, as “product people”, can and should take in the generative AI revolution, which has really only just begun. Furthermore, I saw panels of experts discuss how privacy can be baked into AI-supported apps from the get-go. Or a talk about the lessons we can learn from market research into Gen en Z in building next-generation digital products. These talks inspired and challenged me to really broaden my understanding of what it means to be a product manager and emboldened me in my belief that the product vertical in a modern tech company has a massive impact in how successful and innovative the company turns out to be.

Conclusion

As the last keynotes wrapped up on day 4 and the hundreds of stalls started to pack up their things, I mentally tried to count all the powerful experiences I had gone through over the past days, and I can confidently say I wasn’t able. It was a behemoth of a conference experience, sometimes moving so fast I could barely keep track. But there was also so much value, so many interesting talks and panels and ideas and people – really in any direction I chose to look. I really appreciate everything I’ve learned and I doubt this was my last time at WebSummit. Hopefully, you could take something away from this as well.

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