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The Next Web Europe 2016: Growth, Opportunities and Challenges

Last week saw the biggest ever TNW Europe conference which was held in Amsterdam. MOBGEN was present and business analyst Guy has written a recap of this great event.

As in previous editions, this year’s TNW brought together some of the leading innovators in diverse digital fields, from whom we could learn first hand about internal processes and future developments. Of the various topics throughout the conference, special focus was given to artificial intelligence, supporting growth in Europe, and discussions of ethics and protection of rights.

AI and Machine Learning
AI and Machine Learning in everyday life were clear trends this year. The message delivered by motivating speakers such as Aparna Chennapragada (head of Google Now) and Werner Vogels (CTO of Amazon) is that artificial intelligence is well within the reach of those who build digital products and services right now. Amazon’s Machine Learning tool makes computing power and expertise accessible to an audience far beyond the field’s few specialists. Aparna shared Google’s formula (AI+UI+I) for bringing AI-powered products into the service of regular consumers, rather than just large organisations. Indeed, the ever-important focus on user’s needs was illustrated by many other speakers. For example, Julie Zhuo (VP of Product Design at Facebook) explained that their design process serves first and foremost to effectively solve real problems for real users.

Although these exciting technologies are now in the hands of a growing number of people, their effective implementation still relies on considerable expertise, careful planning and accurate measurement. This was highlighted by Pete Koomen (co-founder of A/B testing tool Optimizely). In his talk, Pete explained that even though tools such as Optimizely simplify complex technical and theoretical processes, some knowledge is still required to avoid drawing false conclusions or making mistakes in critical business decisions. Optimizely addressed this concern by maintaining open and transparent communication with its clients after some experienced significant difficulties due to this knowledge gap.

Ethics and citizens’ rights
This example of corporate responsibility relates to another important thread running through TNW Europe: the discussion of ethics and protection of citizens’ rights. One of the conference spaces was devoted entirely to the collaborative economy, while other stages welcomed speakers such as Peter Sunde (founder of The Pirate Bay), Bill Buxton (leading researcher at Microsoft), Emma Holton (human rights activist) and more. Their inspiring talks included warnings about censorship and surveillance, but also positive calls to action to ensure that we use technology to enhance our interconnectedness, human values and democratic freedoms.

Finally, while Europe’s tech scene undoubtedly looks promising, the ecosystem, especially the world of startups, still faces significant obstacles (this concern was also expressed the same week in Amsterdam, by Eric Schmidt at Startup Fest). The continent’s fledgling startup field was evident in the relatively small number of companies exhibiting at this important event. Many of these startups focus on solving specialised problems and are in the very early stages of development. Projects on show included apps to ease travel bookings, alternative messaging tools, workflow organisers, games, and other incremental, rather than revolutionary, concepts. While these products and services do offer tangible value, many of them (and their accompanying pitches) lack the polish of their counterparts from Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, as, the Boost pitching contest showed, all the elements are in place to keep learning and growing.

In summary, TNW 2016 has given us a thorough overview of the European tech landscape: a mix of innovations and challenges, thought leaders and startups, geeks and idealists, all in a dynamic, connected and rapidly evolving environment.