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Web Summit 2021: Europe’s biggest tech conference returns with masks, vaccine passports and Covid testing

·2-min read
Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal (Sportsfile/Web Summit)
Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal (Sportsfile/Web Summit)

LISBON, PORTUGAL -- Around 40,000 people have descended on the Portuguese capital this week for Web Summit: the digital answer to Davos (or the geeks’ Glastonbury).

Movers-and-shakers from the world’s biggest web companies are rubbing shoulders with venture capitalists, speakers and founders of a bewildering array of start-ups during the four day conference.

Attendees have flocked in from around the globe seeking inspiration, networking and investment. Many are armed with little more than an Instagram account and unshakeable confidence that theirs is the next big thing: if not Facebook, then at least a Wise or Cazoo.

Attendees at the Doglabs start up booth during day one of Web Summit 2021 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal (Sportsfile/Web Summit)
Attendees at the Doglabs start up booth during day one of Web Summit 2021 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal (Sportsfile/Web Summit)

A mile-long stretch of Lisbon’s seafront has been sealed off behind police roadblocks and high fences, with events taking place inside four giant pavilions centred around the country’s biggest arena.

Despite Portugal’s status among the world’s most fully vaccinated nations, security is tight and lines long as every delegate’s vaccination passport is checked. One-way systems flow around the venues, mask-wearing is mandatory in the main halls and attendance has been slashed from 2019’s 70,000 to ensure more space.

Makeshift labs dot the surrounding streets, with queues stretched outside for those needing last-minute tests to get past the ranks of security.

Makeshift Covid testing labs near the Web Summit site (Simon Freeman/Evening Standard)
Makeshift Covid testing labs near the Web Summit site (Simon Freeman/Evening Standard)

But even in a sector that has benefited perhaps more than any other from the shift to digital working and living accelerated by the pandemic, there’s an undeniable excitement to be back.

Web Summit’s co-founder and CEO Paddy Cosgrave said: “So many people from so many places around the world have come together. Everyone has been in lockdown for two years, very few of us have been able to connect and people were hungry to get out and go to a conference. That sense of excitement is palpable.”

Attendees on Centre Stage during the opening night of Web Summit 2021 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal (Sportsfile/Web Summit)
Attendees on Centre Stage during the opening night of Web Summit 2021 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal (Sportsfile/Web Summit)

Very few of the 1000 speakers - which include Microsoft Vice Chairman Brad Smith and Apple software boss Craig Federighi - will be appearing by Zoom.Amy Poehler, Thierry Henry, Reddit’s COO Jen Wong and founder of the web Tim Berners-Lee are also due to speak. Tickets, which start from €850, have sold out.

Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower who has become one of the most high profile women in tech, opened the conference on Monday evening. Nick Clegg, Britain’s former deputy prime minister turned Facebook VP of public affairs, appeared via video link on Tuesday.

Thierry Henry, Assistant Coach, Belgium National Team, on Centre Stage during day one of Web Summit 2021 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon (Sportsfile)
Thierry Henry, Assistant Coach, Belgium National Team, on Centre Stage during day one of Web Summit 2021 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon (Sportsfile)

The two big C’s - crypto and climate - are the dominant themes. As world leaders 2,000 miles north attempt to thrash out guidelines to regulate global warming at COP26, many of the founders are pitching ideas to make industries - from yacht-building to funerals - cleaner and greener.

Launched in Dublin in 2010 with just 400 participants, Web Summit is now Europe’s larges technology conference. It has been held in Lisbon since 2016.

Cosgrave said: “We’ve defied all odds. We didn’t think we’d even get to 10,000 attendees.”

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