We managed to get to a lot of sessions during day three of this year’s Web Summit in Lisbon.

Here's just a small sample of the vast array of interesting viewpoints we heard.

EU and US should join forces, says Blair

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair joined US Democratic congressman Ro Khanna to debate ‘inclusive’ tech. 

Both spoke of technology’s upside but also agreed that its power needs to be controlled. 

Mr Blair stressed the need for careful regulation, saying that, in the main, 'what politicians don’t understand they don’t like, and what they don't like they'll regulate – often badly'. 

He also urged politicians to spread technology jobs across countries, rather than letting them cluster in silos and argued the EU and USshould co-operate in the tech sphere and adopt a common position towards China. Mr Blair feared transatlantic relations had become ‘to transactional’ rather than being based on ‘shared Western values’. 

Mr Khanna said he would like to see Washington implement its own data privacy and antitrust framework to engage with Europe and define these shared interests.

Where’s best for innovators?

The EU/US divide also featured in a discussion between Politico’stechnology editor Nicholas Vinocur and Emmanuel Schalit, CEO and co-founder of the password management app Dashlane. Schalit described how GDPR has shaped Dashlane’s thinking, saying that, despite the company being headquartered in the US, it chose to host its data in EU ‘as we suspected that over time this would give our users better protection’. However, he also pointed to developments such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act as a sign that the US is on a similar path, at least at the state level.

Dashlane stores its customers’ data but does not have access to it – something he thinks will become more common in the future. ‘Big tech is built on the premise of collecting data from users and monetising it, he said. ‘I think we’ll see a shift in that model, with tech companies providing services to customers without an exchange of data'.

On which side of the Atlantic is better for an innovator, he opted for the US. ‘It’s bigger and it feels like one market,’ he said. ‘The EU from lots of perspectives is not. There are different regulatory frameworks, different languages and different cultures. Having access to the US is the best way to accelerate growth.’ 

What are companies for?

The corporate purpose has been a recurring theme at Web Summit, with Blackrock CMO Frank Cooper the latest to pick up the baton. 

Cooper spoke about the benefits of purpose, from improving employee morale to sustaining innovation and profit. In his view, the purpose is more than a mission statement, a set of principles or corporate social responsibility – ‘it’s about minimising the bad things that come from your operations and maximising the good’. For Cooper, ‘top-down’ purpose doesn’t work, but giving people the freedom to work out what it means to them does.

One of our own, partner Natasha Good, provided a legal perspective on the topic when she joined the panel debate ‘Shareholders and society –finding the right balance’. Sparked by the recent statement from the Business Roundtable (an influential group of corporate power-brokers) that companies should be accountable to a range of stakeholders rather than just investors, the discussion touched on everything from fiduciary duties to the practical implications of the announcement.

Natasha discussed the apparent tension between the Roundtable’s position and current interpretation of the law in Delaware (where many US corporates are incorporated), which places maximising shareholder value at the heart of directors’ fiduciary duties. 

Those directors have leeway to exercise their discretion under a business judgement rule and, while the statement ‘doesn’t change this legal position’, it is likely to ‘encourage further disclosure about how companies are addressing the stakeholder issues it sets out and how their operations affect society at large’, as businesses seek to preserve their reputation with customers, employees and suppliers.

Franz Heukamp, dean of the IESE Business School, agreed, saying that it showed that leaders of some of the world’s biggest businesses ‘have recognised what needs to be done’. 

Peter Mühlmann, the founder of Trustpilot, added that companies ‘need to realise the customer is the most important stakeholder’ not least because they now have multiple channels through which they can share their opinions with the world.

Alicia Tillman, CMO of SAP, argued that purpose is vital in attracting young talent, as ‘every worker cares’ but holding companies accountable to multiple stakeholders can make it difficult to resolve conflicting interests between the various groups and to measure performance.  

In another session, PR heavyweight Richard Edelman argued that sales could be an appropriate metric – ‘because consumers only buy brands that stand for something’.

Revolutionising retail…

On the CIS stage, Jamie Iannone, CEO of Sam’s Club (Walmart’s members-only chain) described how technology is transforming the retail giant. Iannone is driving a revolution in the customer experience from Silicon Valley, with new tech trialled through an innovation lab in Dallas.

Visitors to the ‘Sam’s Club Now’ store are met with augmented reality software that suggests recipes for their purchases. They can also use an app to order prescription drugs and book services like tyre changes. 

The company recently filed a patent that would take checkout automation to the next level by using visual recognition rather than barcodes to scan goods. 

And in a market where speed and convenience is an essential driver of loyalty, it is exploring the use of micro-warehouses and autonomous vehicles to get orders to the door more quickly

.… and logistics

With such a huge array of (literal) moving parts across the globe, it’s no surprise that the logistics industry is ripe for digitisation. But yesterdays session with Kühne+Nagel CIO Martin Kolbe revealed the startling breadth of technologies the company is deploying.

From predictive analytics that forecasts customer demand to blockchain-enabled documentation, payment and cargo insurance systems, the company's technology stack is vast. 

Not only do these systems enable K+N to manage its assets and costs in real-time, but they also help it (and its customers) to reduce their carbon footprint. 

And there’s more to come. K+N is working to further automate its operations, improve its customer communications, shift its sales platform online and harness IoT to improve the quality of its data.

Another perspective on the future of transport was provided by XiaodiHou, co-founder and CTO of autonomous truck unicorn TuSimple. Its vehicles are already hauling cargo for UPS in Arizona (which has one of the most permissive regulatory frameworks in the US), albeit on a single route.

Self-driving trucks present different technological challenges to cars, not least because they take longer to stop due to their size. LiDAR, the laser-based technology deployed in most autonomous cars, cannot see far enough to be effective, requiring trucks to rely on cameras to guide their way.

Bumps in the road for self-driving cars

While self-driving cars may be easier to stop than trucks, full autonomy is still some way off. 

Thanks to data, they are getting smarter every day. But as ChristopherHeiser (co-founder and CEO of Renovo Auto), Dieter May (CEO of Osram Opto Semiconductors) and AID’s chief executive Karlheinz Wurmagreed, the cost of sensors and the sophistication of software systems are still barriers on the road to technological control.

The fact that hardware, software and sensors need to develop in parallel is leading to greater industry collaboration. But OEMs face a huge financial challenge as they invest in software development at the same time as they are driven towards battery power by regulation. 

Managing scarce resources will be key in realising the auto industry’s 'brave new world’.

The robots are coming (but we shouldn’t be worried)

Vargha Moayed, chief strategy officer of robotic process automation (RPA) developer UiPath, took to the stage on day three to share his thoughts on how the technology will change the world of work. (UiPath’s deputy general counsel Vasile Tiple joined our roundtable session on day one.)

UiPath’s the aim is to inject artificial intelligence (AI) into legacy systems, developing ‘robots for every employee’ that augment their work and free them from repeatable, rules-based tasks. ‘Robots give you your time back,’ he said. ‘What you do with that time is your decision. We're here to take the robot out of you!’

A day in the life of a cybersecurity specialist

Siemens is hit by around 1,000 cyber attacks every month, each one with the capacity to cause ‘catastrophic’ damage. That level of threat adds up to a lot of sleepless nights for Natalia Oropeza, the company chief cybersecurity officer.

In response, Siemens advocates a ‘holistic’ approach to cyber security across all areas of its business. Every product it develops has to include'security by design' and must be secured by default rather than leaving the configuration to users. 'We cannot connect digital devices without proper security,' she said. 'We have to understand the whole environment, from infrastructure to product'.

High on her worry list is the need for cybersecurity protections to be sustainable over the long term. 'How do we protect the data we encrypt today years from now when computing will have changed and we have entered a password-less age?'

Tech and the fight against climate change

Katie Brandt, Google’s chief sustainability officer, joined Christiana Figueres of Global Optimism to discuss tech’s role in the fight against climate change. 

Ms Brandt highlighted Google’s environmental insights explorer tool, which harnesses data to help city governments reduce emissions. She also pointed to the efforts of large corporates to buy clean energy, which in turn supports infrastructure development and helps drive down costs. 

On another stage, Boston Consulting Group managing director and senior partner Philipp Gerbert spoke about the potential of quantum computing in the space, arguing that the sheer complexity of modelling necessary to understand the catalysts that drive global warming requires the sort of computing power that only quantum technology can deliver.

Patenting the future

Is patent law still the best tool to advance scientific progress? 

That was the question posed at a roundtable featuring AntonioCampinos of the European Patent Office, Kaigham Gabriel of DraperLabs, an MIT spin-off engineering solutions company, and Carmela Troncoso of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the Swiss research institution.

While Mr Campinos stressed patent law’s importance in maintaining the creative ecosystem, the panellists also agreed that the current system has downsides. 

For many, it's too expensive and slow-moving for the fast-paced world of tech and in the opinion of Mr Gabriel ‘only a small proportion of patents create value exceeding their costs’.

AI and blockchain could make the patenting process more efficient, but the technology is still in its experimental phase. 

After debating the merits of patents as a ‘currency’ to protect investors, the panellists eventually agreed that the system should be improved rather than abolished. 

The technology could provide the answer, as could a ‘use it or lose it’ rule to battle potential patent trolls.

Fact of the day

High-level clouds 

Total market capitalisation of the:

  • c.12 cloud companies that did IPOs in 2015-17: around $30bn
  • c.28 cloud companies that did IPOs in 2017-19: around $150bn

Quotes of the day

'Robots give you your time back. What you do with that time is your decision.’  Vargha Moayed, Chief Strategy Officer, UiPath

'Although the Business Roundtable statement does not change the legal position on directors’ duties, it’s likely to prompt more disclosure on broader stakeholder matters'. Natasha Good, Partner, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer