For a week, I was a citizen living in the "City of Web Summit"

Here are the experiences I had, companies I met, and takeaways I’m still musing over as one resident in a population of 71,033.

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Here I go repeating myself. Last week, the luckiest staff writer in the world once again found himself eye-to-eye with a European body of water. This time, it was the Tagus: a heavy-duty river that starts in central Spain and pours into the Atlantic near the Portuguese city of Lisbon. It's a beautiful spot that just so happens to host “the world’s premier tech conference” – or, in other words, Web Summit. My choose-your-own-adventure-style whirlwind week at the event was a far cry from the regimented and organized Swiss Tech Experience. Join me as I wade through the mayhem with my key takeaways.

A mini-municipality

Photo credit: @WebSummit on Twitter

Any Web Summit recap must touch on the enormous amount of people that attended. The four-day forum is the marquee gathering of a suite of worldwide events. The North American stop, Toronto-hosted Collision, saw a sell-out crowd of 35,000 last summer. Web Summit also sold out this year to the tune of 71,033. It’s a staggering amount of people that is felt at every talk, in the entry line every morning, and navigating the campus-like event space.

The centre of that campus is Altice Arena, a multi-purpose indoor stadium that Lisbon built when it was set to host Expo ‘98 but forgot that it didn’t have a multi-purpose indoor stadium. It has a capacity of 21,000: slightly bigger than Rogers Arena’s max-out of 19,700. Inside, outside, and around Altice, I kept calling what I was attending a “conference.” But upon reflecting on that moniker, I found that it was too quaint. For a few days, I was a resident living in the City of Web Summit.

The place for space v2

Photo credit: @WebSummit on Twitter

Here I go repeating myself once more. Web Summit offered a nightcap every evening with the appropriately-named Night Summit. Attendees were invited to take to the streets of Lisbon and explore the city (the one that neighbours call the City of Web Summit). Opening night was held in Hub Criativo do Beato, dubbed Lisbon's vibrant answer to London's East End or New York's Meatpacking District. But I couldn’t help but think of another New York landmark: Newlab. Similar to its Brooklyn-based doppelganger, Hub Criativo do Beato is a place for innovators to collaborate in a shared setting.

In 2016, the local governments collaborated on the transformation of a former army industrial facility into a focal point for the promotion of entrepreneurship and creativity. Startup Lisboa, a business incubator, designed and executed the project. The lack of a similar space here in Vancouver is something that I’ve pondered myself or discussed with local leaders. Now, we can all add Hub Criativo do Beato to the dream board.

Good things come to those who scroll

Mahsoo Salimi, co-founder and CEO of Sentire. Photo credit: Web Summit

Among the 71,033 inhabitants at Web Summit were over 2,000 startups. I made it my mission to find any B.C.-based companies that had also made the trip. The organizers made it (fairly) easy, proudly displaying “featured startups” on its site. Yet, the list was sortable only by country, not by city. With every Montreal and Richmond Hill and Ottawa, I grew disheartened. That was until I found a pair of local startups in Sentire and Usermost. The former is an AI outfit working to make robots smarter, so they can quickly learn a new task or react to complex environments (a new type of crop, for example). The latter is a martech startup that uses automation to craft contextual and personalized campaigns through push notifications, in-app messages, SMS, emails, and more. While the pair weren’t the only Vancouverites in attendance — were handing out steeped-in-Canadiana toques while unicorn chairman Anna Sainsbury was speaking centre stage — it was a joy to meet them. Even if I do acknowledge that it is a little funny to go halfway around the world to find innovators from your backyard.

From Kyiv (and Lviv and Kryvyi Rih) with love

Zelenska delivering her keynote. Photo credit: @WebSummit on Twitter

Part of the reason why it took so long to scroll through the list of featured startups was the impressive delegation of Ukrainian innovators. The largest number of attendees and startups in Web Summit history, in fact, as proclaimed by co-founder Paddy Cosgrove. The cohort was highlighted by the country’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, in her keynote speech. “I believe that technology should be used to create, and to save and help people, not to destroy. I believe that such technology is the future,” she told the sold-out crowd.

Her presence made security vastly different from anything I had experienced at previous gatherings. As I left an interview room, I made my way down a narrow hallway towards the exit only to find it blocked by a pair of armed guards complete with AK-47s. I was told, despite my trepidation, that it was in fact okay to breach the barricade. Yet, the guards were standing together so I had to poke them on the shoulder: “oopsie — just need to scooch right past ya here,” as if I were trying to get to the milk at a grocery store. It was comical, sure, but also a grave reminder of what Ukraine innovators are building so rapidly to support, or are flourishing in spite of.

Comparing the corridors

Costa Silva addressing the crowd. Photo credit: @GlobalEnergyMEX on Twitter

As the background lights switched to the patriotic red and green, Portugal’s Minister of the Economy and Maritime Affairs António Costa Silva (not to be confused with António Costa, Portugal’s prime minister) took to the stage to spread the good word of his country’s approach to funding innovation and green energy. A supplementary Google search turned up this: In October, Portugal, Spain, and France agreed on the creation of a Green Energy Corridor. The project seeks to speed up the energy transition of the three nations.That word – corridor – led me to think of our own neighbours. At the recent Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference, clean energy was a key topic. Vancouver Tech Journal managing editor Kate Wilson revealed as much through her in-depth chat with Microsoft president Brad Smith earlier this year. Smith, who also spoke at Web Summit, highlighted the immense potential of B.C., Washington, and Oregon that’s just waiting to be unleashed. Sure, the E.U. has a big lead on Cascadia when it comes to connectivity and clout. But the momentum is there and we’re knocking on the door. Now it’s time to swing it open.

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