Web Summit 2020, Europe’s largest tech conference, is set to start on December 2. Paddy Cosgrave—entrepreneur, co-founder and CEO of the company behind Web Summit, Collision, and RISE, among other events—told KrASIA about his expectations for the online event, and shared his view about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the global tech ecosystem.
Along with Daire Hickey and David Kelly, Cosgrave launched Web Summit in 2010 in Dublin, drawing about 400 participants for the event’s first iteration. This year, the organizers expect to see about 100,000 attendees online, with hundreds of speakers on the company’s own conference platform.
Recently, Cosgrave said on Twitter that Web Summit will expand to Latin America, with a new event to be held in Brazil in 2022. He also said to Reuters that Web Summit will return as a massive in-person event in Lisbon in 2021, with about 70,000 attendees plus 80,000 online participants.
“I think the future of the event business is hybrid,” he said to KrASIA in a recent interview. He also highlighted the importance of networking in tech conferences, both online and in physical venues. “Speakers are just the excuse to go to conferences.”
The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): What can we expect from Web Summit 2020, which for the first time will be completely online? You wrote on Twitter that “online conferences should be focused on making networking better and faster.” What are you doing in this direction?
Paddy Cosgrave (PC): Our thesis from the start was to build software to make conferences better. For us, making conferences better was focused on networking. We want to help people find, among 10,000 people, the 100 people they should meet, making it really easy to message and interact with them. When events switched to being online, with Collision in the US as the first activity, we built some additional features for web and mobile apps for conference to go online. We spent a lot of time developing a machine curator, a kind of algorithm that tries to probabilistically connect you with useful people. At Collision, that worked, and we received good feedback.
I think the big mistake of a lot of conferences is that they think what matters is the speaker, but speakers are just the excuse to go to conferences. Attendees are there to network with each other, startups, and other people there. The purpose of going to an event in Tokyo, Beijing, or Lisbon is all about networking.
Now with online events, people are meeting far more people. However, although it is easier and more efficient to meet people online, the quality of those interactions is not the same. Online meetings are nothing compared to meeting in physical places. Quantity goes up, but the quality just isn’t as good—yet in a world where you can’t meet, it’s an okay substitute.
Kr: The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing a new normal to many facets of life. Do you see online conferences or hybrid events becoming the new standard?
PC: I talk to many people, including many folks from China, and offline events in are back China. When we will all be allowed to meet again, maybe if the vaccines arrive next year, there will be an explosion, where everybody will be like, “I need to get away from Zoom, I have to get out of my house, I want to meet other human beings.” However, I think the future of the event business is hybrid.
In an online event, geography no longer matters. The cost of participating online is lower, so I think people in faraway places will continue to participate in online conferences. Yet if you live within 100 to 500 kilometers of a big global event, I think people would still prefer to attend in person.
In short, I don’t think virtual conferences have a massive future. What was the obstacle of online conferences before COVID? Nothing really, because the technology already existed. Online conferences are a great solution during this global crisis, but I don’t think they are a panacea for the future. It’s just a short-term solution.
Kr: What is one of the best uses of tech throughout the viral outbreak, and which was the worst?
PC: I think it is amazing that virtual reality still hasn’t taken off. If it couldn’t take off during the pandemic, then when? There is no mass adoption yet.
I think videoconferencing has been both the best and worst thing in the world. Sometimes you just get videoconferencing fatigue, yet it has been the savior in this time. I don’t know what will happen, for instance, to Zoom’s share price once the vaccine arrives. I think a lot of people want to meet in person again. Zoom has been the best thing ever, but the volume of time you have to spend on it can be punishing.
Kr: Based on your tweets, you care a lot about general social well being. Yet, there is a sense that tech companies’ operations often lead to what could be described as dystopian situations. In your view, what are a few fundamental changes that need to happen for tech companies to be ethically sustainable?
PC: At Web Summit, from the start, we’ve had voices that answer those questions. Leaders of the biggest trade unions of the world try to tackle issues around the gig economy, and those voices were previously ignored when they said some of these companies may be monopolistic in their behaviors. We live in a new age, and we need new rules for this new age.
Those voices have gotten louder, and if you look back through the history of Web Summit, we’ve been putting those people on stage. There was a lot of criticism from the industry for having these voices that were considered radicals on stage seven years ago. However, I think it has been like this for hundreds of years. When a new technology comes along, you just need new rules. When cars arrived, there were no road markings, licensing, safety regulations—nothing, but we invented thousands of rules for cars. It is foreseeable that we are going to create new rules to live with all these new technologies and reduce the downsides.
I am not an expert on the gig economy or tech monopolies, but other people are, and they come to speak at our events. I think they have very good arguments. Now, it is up to our legislators and governments to listen to those voices and decide which new rules are best for the new age. Rules will come.
Kr: The pandemic has persisted for nearly one year. What is the role of tech in this new reality?
PC: There is an argument right now in Silicon Valley: companies don’t have any responsibility besides maximizing their mission, which is usually profit-driven. But I think that companies are legal structures that exist within a social structure known as society, and have obligations besides the maximization of profits.
It is quite easy for tech companies to adapt to the current environment and have a strong remote work culture. But I think that tech companies and governments have a responsibility to do everything they can to help less digitally native companies, like small to medium-size firms, which are not necessarily ready. Big companies could help, for example, small retailers to sell online.
Kr: Do you think we might see some of your events go back offline next year?
PC: Yes, I hope so. Sometimes, you read the news reports, saying that there will be three vaccines fully approved by the end of this year. Others say that it will be in Q1 2021. But do I think live events will be back by the end of Q1? I don’t think so. Q2? Maybe. I am, however, quite optimistic that by Q3 or Q4 next year, even if there is still not a vaccine, most of the world will realize that there is an approach that works. China, in particular, is a large country that shows this is the case, and people and the economy will benefit.
I’m optimistic that events will be back, with or without a vaccine, by the end of 2021.
KrASIA is a media partner of Web Summit.