Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Impressions from the Web Summit. How tech start-ups can be more useful in creating social good.



When I learned that Web Summit 2016, a.k.a Davos for Geeks, anticipated more than 50,000 participants, I didn't know what to expect. I wished I could clone myself during my time in Lisbon in order to partake in other exciting sessions on fintech, healthtech, AI, IoT, SaaS, UX, etc. This year there was also a constellation of star speakers from all walks of life, such as actor Joseph Gordon Levitt (hitRECord), José Manuel Barroso (former president of the European Commission), Gary Vaynerchuk (VaynerMedia) and Salil Shetty (Secretary General of Amnesty International). As someone who is working on the nexus of technology and fundraising, I decided to focus my time on VR/AR and philanthropy and social good tracks. Here are some of my thoughts, questions and inspirations from the 'tech Glastonbury':

Tech bubble?
After the first four minutes inside a massive expo arena showcasing all sorts of innovations and start-ups I realized that the future has arrived...it is just not evenly distributed. After four days at the summit I understood why. 

For example, let's take tech community's desire to get involved with humanitarian issues, which makes sense given the scale of the refugee crisis and the perils of climate change. However, instead of thinking which app to invent or start-up to start, it would have been more effective if entrepreneurs went to the "field" and first understood what are the needs of refugees, NGOs, individual donors or beneficiaries. 

While talking to many different social impact start-ups at the summit I encountered that they began with the technology in mind and without an in-depth understanding how the end-user living in a conflict zone would use it. Although relationship and trust building may be perceived by developers as a cost-center, but it does pay off to be user-centered. Therefore, I think better linkages and even co-creation opportunities should be forged between local NGOs and start-uppers who wish to solve certain problems, as they could complement each other with their skills and experience. 

In addition, start-ups working on promoting online giving to non-profits should also make donations to a cause they care about, learn from experienced fundraisers about the art and science of fundraising and understand how NGOs work. I have yet to meet a donor who wakes up in the morning and thinks "I need to donate my hard-earned cash today, because I really liked that new shiny online platform with a long list of NGOs changing our world" :)


A real virtuality
One of the tech giants present at the Web Summit that can certainly speed up the proliferation of 'future' is Facebook,  whose CTO, Mike Schroepfer, pronounced his pledge to make VR accessible to everyone asap. Facebook, which invested heavily in Oculus and other platforms, is working hard to deliver social VR and a new wireless product, currently called "Standalone". This is a much welcome move, as VR products and platforms, which don't provide high resolution, six degrees of freedom, interactivity and are too expensive won't help to advance the VR market in 2017.




We are only starting to build a true sense of immersion in VR, but there are already some curious examples creating positive change. Mike showed a demo of a virtual world to some volunteers, where they had to walk up to the end of the building in VR...and they refused to step forward. Although in their rational brain they knew they were not on the rooftop but in the conference room, VR has become powerful enough to give them a sense of presence in another place. This is why 'Clouds Over Sidra' and 'You Are There: On the Road to Making Polio History' are such great examples of how UNICEF's donors can see the impact of their support as if they are present ‘in the field’. I too believe that ability to connect people who are far away, promote empathy and tolerance will help us to build a more inclusive and generous future. 


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