Glimpses of a New Era: The In-Person DLD Conference

Determination to face genuine crises may be rising as the pandemic slowly wanes. At DLD I found a new spirit of both concern and tech-centric optimism.

I broke out. I went to a conference in person, and a great one, too. I’ve just returned to my hotel from a full day at DLD Summer, a slimmed-down but still superb version of the famous DLD, normally in January here in Munich. Yes- I even flew to Europe. Totally worth it.

Steffi Czerny, the ever-ebullient and gracious impresario and host of DLD, summarized the day in her inimitable way tonight at the elegant speakers’ dinner. “Digitalization is very nice,” she said, “but what is coming next is big.”

I’ve always considered DLD a close partner and model for Techonomy. One reason I wanted to come was to sample the zeitgeist in this sort-of-post-Covid moment. And yes I found a lot that was new. There is a widespread determination to take the learnings about rapid action, collective action, and socially-conscious action that defined much of the last 16 months and apply it to continuing challenges. As the European Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius, told the audience in a virtual session (the conference was a successful hybrid), “The pandemic has completely rearranged our economies–and there are even bigger changes on the horizon. Climate change means the destruction of the natural world. It’s us–we are using resources in a way that can’t be sustained.”  

But maybe there is hope. Many speakers carried on with a familiar DLD spirit of radical optimism, even acknowledging the climate crisis as a real emergency. Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton almost brimmed over with optimism about what tech and science is about to make possible. (He too was virtual, but so compelling it hardly mattered to the 70 people in the Munich hall.) Dijkgraaf said that even before the pandemic hit, global society was beginning to digest a vast range of discoveries and innovations that have the potential to completely rearrange society. “It’s hard to overestimate how important this moment of transition is,” he said. “The question is how, as a society, are we prepping our minds and our children to venture forth and go into this vast ocean. I feel like we’ve been traveling on a narrow river…It’s a new scientific revolution with unlimited possibilities. Like in the 19th century with electricity and telephones—but this will be much bigger.”

We heard from pragmatic European companies that are doing substantial things in keeping with today’s substantial challenges. Konux, for example, a fast-growing Munich startup, “optimizes maintenance regimes” for railroads. If you want to ensure your rail line’s switches don’t fail, this company’s software is for you. While you may not find it that sexy, it’s necessary, says Max Hasler, co-CEO, because rail usage globally will double by 2050 even as building new tracks in many countries is almost impossible. So trains must increase capacity and efficiency, even while operating cleanly and safely.

There was extensive talk about how Europe is doing, and a lot of disagreement. Several speakers cited stats showing that European innovation is not only no longer short of funding, but that the VCs investing here now are almost all European themselves. DLD’s Czerny announced a new initiative called the New European Bauhaus, with partners including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and entrepreneurs and investors from Belgium and Italy. It aims to bring together creative, business, and science leaders to stimulate and promote further Euro-innovation. There was much talk of the “European Green Deal,” a set of initiatives spearheaded by the EU Commission aiming to make the entire continent carbon-neutral by 2050. “I see a new European optimism,” said Martin Weiss, a senior executive at Hubert Burda Media, the publishing and digital innovation company that owns DLD.

Belgium’s Bart Becks, a serial entrepreneur and incubator creator, spoke about what he sees as a catalytic new spirit. He noted that two leading Belgian universities, one that operates in French and the other in Flemish, are working together on a major innovation initiative, with all its work being conducted in English. Considering Belgium’s ethnic tensions, that’s deeply significant.

But when veteran digital seer and author Andy McAfee joined Czerny on stage, she asked him “So is Europe as good as we think it is when it comes to the second machine age?” And he answered, “Frankly, no.” He cited Europe’s striking decline in its percentage of the aggregate market capitalization of global public companies–a figure that went from 30 percent in 2000 to just 7 percent in 2020. (In the same period the U.S. share rose from 60 percent to 75 percent.) He also said, focusing in on what is to many Europeans a point of pride, “More upstream governance will make the situation worse.” He cited proposed EU legislation to govern artificial intelligence which in his view is so finicky as to almost guarantee innovation would be impaired on the continent if it were enacted.

Then Alex Voss, a member of the European Parliament, stuck the knife in further. “We are behind,” he said. “The opportunities of AI outweigh its risks.” And he said that the EU’s digital regulatory pride and joy, the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, “is in some respects over-regulation. We shouldn’t put the right of privacy over other fundamental rights.” Then Czerny called up Viviane Redding from the audience. She was, from 2004 to 2010, European Commissioner for Information Society and Media and played a major role in creating GDPR. Even she admitted the legislation needed to be “adjusted” for today’s “algorithmic world.”

But for all the challenges that the conference underscored, there was a powerful underlying feeling of determination to move forward. We have to, said the conference’s final speaker, American Rod Beckstrom, an entrepreneur, cybersecurity expert and former president of ICANN (the group that maintains the internet’s addressing system). He said a recent dinner he organized of some of the most senior American government cybersecurity leaders concluded we are in “the most dangerous time since World War II.” They were referring to a range of dangers, from cybersecurity to Chinese threats to Taiwan to global warming.

“It’s a collective road to recovery for the planet,” said EU Environment Minister Sinkevičius. “If we fail to act on climate and environment then disaster will be very real. We can’t afford not to invest in the green transition.”

Determination to face genuine crises, yes, but this group’s thinking is founded in optimism. I hope, and think it’s representative, and that we may be entering a new era.

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