TNW 2019 Showed Us How The Future of Tech Is About Solving Global Challenges

The Next Web is one of the leading tech festivals in the world. However, this year's festival moved beyond tech and focused on the human side of technology.

Keeping up with the times and peering into the future is part of our DNA, and one of our favorite ways to do that is to visit the annual TNW festival in Amsterdam.

TNW founder Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten has been featured by us before, and his knack for finding the trends of tomorrow has turned TNW into a tech festival juggernaut – this year attracting an impressive 17,500 visitors. Last year, we spotted five major tech trends at TNW, including the growing importance of data, blockchain, and China – but this year, there was only one trend and it acted as the common theme for the entire festival: society and its challenges.

For the first time, TNW felt truly holistic in its approach. The speakers, seminars and roundtable discussions ventured far beyond “just tech” to include tech’s larger role in shaping society and humanity’s global challenges. There was less buzz about trends and new hot apps, and instead more talk about solving real challenges, finding synergies between different fields, seeking deeper purpose and bringing more “humanity” into technology. 

This shift to a more holistic focus was obvious already in the tracks and topics set for the main stages. In addition to last year’s stage conversations about the changing media landscape, blockchain and artificial intelligence, this year also offered talks around equality, sustainability, privacy and future generations. TNW 2019 was not only bigger, but also more diverse in its content, mirroring the increasing complexity of modern society. 

Speakers focused a great deal on global challenges including climate change, automation and tribalism – all of which were themes that came up repeatedly on many stages. One example was the problem of how YouTube’s and Facebook’s algorithms are biased towards spreading extreme and radicalised content (simply because it makes people spend more time on the platforms). Another was that data privacy is now such a growing public concern that #deletefacebook has been more widely used than #metoo. A third example pointed out how our lazy human brains are already blindly trusting AI so much that the number of “deaths by GPS” are growing fast (i.e. people losing their lives as a result of following GPS directions leading them into rivers, ravines or hot deserts). Overall, the tech industry and society as a whole is waking up to the challenges and actively starting to seek solutions. Even the food stands seemed to be more conscious this year, offering oat milk latte’s and vegan burgers.

Furthermore, TNW 2019 showed how technology is playing an increasingly important role in all aspects of modern society. For the first time, there was a stage focused on the intersection between technology, culture and art, and multiple talks showed us how tech has moved beyond just digitizing tools, individuals, teams and organisations to now also digitize whole nations (with Estonia being the frontrunner).

Beyond the increased focus on societal challenges and macro-use of technology, TNW left us with the realization that the heart of technology is the humanity behind it. To solve our current and future challenges, we will surely need technology but we cannot rely on only tech to bring us the answers. Humans and computers must collaborate, and our underlying humanity must shape our innovations if we are to thrive on this planet in the future.