Data consciousness as savior for the next web

Last week I attended the 7th edition of The Next Web conference. Just like the last years, the conference puts a strong focus on the startup culture, hotter than ever. This year however the startup competition was not mixed up with the conference track, a separate room was dedicated to the vibrant world of entrepreneurs. The best ones were presented at the conference stage. This concept has good and bad aspects. The level of presentations of startups does not always meet the expectations of the conference audience, on the other hand is it part of the whole atmosphere and vibe of The Next Web. When you only follow the main track you miss a bit the startup roots.

That said let me focus on the main learnings of the conference. The speakers offered a mix of stories, as always with different quality and impact. Overall some important themes can be detected. As the first keynote speaker – Alexis Ohanian – showed in a graph: the digital and the real are highly connected nowadays. That together with the sense of data going mainstream were the main themes of the conference.

On the first day the talk of Hilary Mason stood out. She clearly showed the way data from – the twitter link shortener – tells stories. How humans can be defined from the clicks. She started by pinpointing to the special position of a data scientist. Interesting to see that people are already manipulating the data exhaust to tell the stories they want.

Andrew Keen focused on the role data and the way our social internet use is infiltrating in our real life. His rhetorics are not mine and he was borrowing a lot from others, like the data oil, and you as a product, but the developments he sees are true of course. Robert Scoble at the end of the day was also pointing to the freaky that is crossed. I refer to this with ‘the uncanny valley of relevancy’ where we reach a state of personalised services that are too far from reality, to shiney. As ever Scoble did a presentation with a heap of examples, from a tabbed browser. It was his scenario for 2030. It will be sooner, and definitely develop not with a sunny path scenario as he sketched. For me the attention he and Keen gave, made me realize we are entering soon a state of data consciousness.

Another important theme are always the learnings from and for startups. The talks of AirBnB founder Joe Gebbia and Phil Libin of Evernote both did a good job there. Joe underlines the fact you should be working for your own passion and not starting with a an idea that should conquered the world. In short: solve what’s right in front of you, design at the beginning. Do things that don’t scale. 100 lovers are more important than 1 million likes. And iterate. He did not go deep in the success factors of his service, besides that it foremost an open platform that enables the entrepreneurship of others. I think the importance of focusing on all the aspects of making that entrepreneurship hassle free is the success, including the trust factor. His story proves again that the idea is just a small part of the success; execution is the defining factor.

Libin from Evernote gave a lecture on the business models of a modern online company. Freemium as leading model, where working on people to stay using the platform is the best guarantee to turn them in paying customers. Do that with a sharp focus on what your product is solving, how it changes the world. We are in the end now in a geek meritocracy.

Business models are also the central story of Mark Randall from Adobe, he showed a nice strategic tool to go beyond of strategies. Go for the magic, the emotion, the meaning. Combining different functions describes a product.

A different set of tools was presented by Gabe Zicherman; a preacher of gamification, often seen as ‘evil genius’ in the game design world. He started his talk with underlining that gamification is more than a trick, game design is a serious craftsmanship. Nevertheless he put it is quite simple: go for feedback, friends and fun. After that a bunch of examples did the trick for inspiring the audience to do the opposite from craftsmanship.

It was one of the more superficial talks of the conference, part of other power haleluya that also Keil and Dawson provided. It is the mix that The Next Web offers. Balanced luckily by talks like the one from Susan Crawford, pleading for consciousness in protecting access to the Internet infrastructure.

In a sense Jonathan Macdonald connects both themes nicely in his talk. He shows us what could be the consequence of the growing data consciousness, if we are realizing that companies are in need for our data, we will have privacy as a service. Build meaningful stuff. Treat privacy as a precious metals and build only the future you want. The future is what we design it to be. A nice mantra to connect to this The Next Web conference.

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I am a design director at Structural. I curate and organize ThingsCon Netherlands and I am chairman of the Cities of Things Foundation. Before I was innovation and strategy director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting researcher and lab director at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab.

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