Web Summit Lisbon shines a harsh light on Dublin’s rickety infrastructure

14 Nov 2016

The Web Summit made its presence felt on the streets of Lisbon. Image: John Kennedy

The Web Summit had to leave Dublin because it simply outgrew what was available in terms of infrastructure. It needn’t have been personal, writes John Kennedy.

“C’mon, wear the green jersey,” was usual refrain that emerged in the Irish business and political world as the 2008 financial storm raged and seeped onwards to the present day.

It was usually uttered by people whose pay grade I could never aspire to and it meant getting on side and being ‘Guaranteed Irish’. To be otherwise would have been disloyal and unpatriotic.

‘Surely it is unforgivable, unbelievable and hard to fathom that in 2016, Dublin Airport still has no rail line that connects passengers with the city centre’

It always felt hollow, however, when you consider it was usually uttered by those inside a round tower with a ladder pulled up high, while the real storm raged outside and hurt ordinary people on ordinary wages with no pensions or health cover.

Last year, there was a suggestion that the Web Summit – a tech conference created in Dublin by young graduates in the midst of the economic storm – had discarded its green jersey.

The Web Summit began shambolically with a few hundred people in a room – “a red-haired freckled child”, as founder Paddy Cosgrave put it to journalists in Lisbon last week. Within five years, it had become a 40,000-people event, dwarfing rival events like TechCrunch Disrupt and Le Web.

The tawdry war of words between Paddy and Irish state officials last year was unnecessary and I will always believe that the Summit’s exit could have been a little more dignified.

“Meh” was my reaction at the time. Because I knew the Summit would go on and endure in its new home and so too would the Irish tech industry, which existed decades before and will exist decades into the future, with or without the Web Summit for one calendar week of the year.

But still, the Web Summit brought prestige and the eyes and interest of entrepreneurs who were going places.

I attended all the early Web Summit events, even before it was known as the Web Summit. It was apparent in the final two years, with traffic jams and hotels and taxis gouging visitors, that what Cosgrave and his co-founders Daire Hickey and David Kelly were trying to build would struggle to match the manicured, well-resourced global events like Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Fresh eyes on a new city

When I arrive in any city around the world, if I have time, one of the first things I try to suss out is the local metro or underground. Lisbon, a city with roughly the same population as Dublin, has an underground metro with three or four lines that can take you to anywhere in the city in under an hour.

I paid €18 for a week-long ticket and as I crossed one line with two stops and a further five or six more, I wondered why on earth doesn’t something like this exist in Dublin? Yes, we have a Luas tram system that goes to a number of places, and there is and always will be Dublin Bus.

But surely it is unforgivable, unbelievable and hard to fathom that in 2016, Dublin Airport still has no rail line that connects passengers with the city centre. I have been to smaller cities all over Europe that have this one fundamental resource.

I raged as I changed station. Why on earth after decades of paying ministers, politicians and councillors handsome salaries, we end up with no 21st century, joined-up rail infrastructure in our capital or secondary cities? Why, in recent years, did we finally see widening exercises for the M50 and the final removal of an inconvenient toll booth?

The MEO Arena, where the Web Summit was held this year and will be for the next three years, is only three rail stops from Lisbon’s airport.

For public transport, I would give Lisbon top marks. Not only that, but the taxis were plentiful and affordable.

I’m a veteran of various global tech conferences from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, CeBIT in Hanover, Oracle World, to Microsoft Build in San Francisco and countless others in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Bordeaux and God knows where else.

It was always a wonder to me that in the financial boom, countless get-rich-quick developers would build thousands of houses and apartments, and yet no schools or hospitals were built. And Dublin still doesn’t have a flagship event venue to host thousands upon thousands of delegates.

The Convention Centre is an exceptionally shiny jewel on the Liffey waterfront, but small by comparison with Lisbon’s MEO or the Fira in Barcelona. It is also built on one of the hardest parts of Dublin city for any suburban or rural commuter to reach, unless you are travelling by rail.

The RDS in Dublin occupies a venerable place in the Irish psyche, but it is located inconveniently in the heart of the south inner city – leading to ensuing traffic jams, from which there is no escape but patience.

The MEO in Lisbon wins on scale. Picture the Simmonscourt pavilion multiplied by three pavilions side by side with 100-metre sun traps separating them. And at the end of the three giant pavilions, a stadium capable of holding 15,000 people.

And just three stops from the airport, remember that.

Dublin charm v Lisbon charm

Both Dublin and Lisbon are charming, ancient cities with lots of history. One of the keys to the Web Summit experience has been the Dublin craic.

While this cannot be entirely replicated – I noticed waiters rudely shooing punters away from their restaurant fronts during the Night Summit – Lisbon certainly has plenty of restaurants with excellent food and affordable prices. Pints of beer, for example, cost only a mouth-watering €2.50.

Hotels were plentiful and the prices stayed level. Actually, a lot of the delegates I spoke to stayed in Airbnb villas and apartments.

There are no direct flights from some US cities to Lisbon, but US travellers are used to making connections so that is not actually a big deal.

But one thing that Lisbon will never replicate will be the convenience for executives – from companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others – to time their visit to the Summit to include visits to their respective European HQs in Dublin and be extra productive.

Another factor worth noting is security. At last year’s Summit in Dublin, the Gardai presence was barely noticeable, except for key junctions approaching the RDS carparks.

In Lisbon, armed police were everywhere to be seen, perhaps due to the close involvement of the Portuguese government with the event. Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa used the occasion to launch a €200m fund to boost local start-ups and attract international ones to locate in the country.

In terms of Wi-Fi, Cosgrave suffered an embarrassing tech hitch on the opening night as he tried to record a Facebook Live video on his phone. His rages against the RDS during previous Wi-Fi meltdowns in Dublin were legendary. This just felt ironic.

But providing Wi-Fi to thousands of people – in this case 50,000 people – is a feat in itself. From my experience, the Wi-Fi began pretty robustly on the first day before getting considerably more and more sluggish as the days wore on. On the final day, Thursday, Cosgrave even asked the crowd would it be okay if he turned the Wi-Fi off for an hour. He eventually rejected the idea after getting counsel that roaming rates wouldn’t be agreeable to delegates.

Until 5G comes along or other new standards emerge, struggles with Wi-Fi will be a constant bugbear if the Summit continues to grow.

On the whole, the content of the various talks at Web Summit felt more curated and intellectual, instead of the ‘how I got rich’ bro-talk of recent years.

Also, likely due to 10,000 free tickets, there were more women evidently present.

And of course,there was the weather. Dublin in November just can’t compete with Lisbon’s warm sun and cool breezes. But we’ll always have the craic, and you can’t beat that.

The heart of the matter

If people expected the Summit in Lisbon to be a failure, they were certainly disappointed. As one writer in The Irish Times had put it, it was probably like meeting an ex and finding out he or she is doing really well without you.

The Web Summit may never return to Ireland – at least not in its entirety. The company has become a slick conference business with offshoots like Collision in New Orleans and Rise in Hong Kong.

Headquartered in Dublin with around 150 people, Cosgrave insists it will always be an Irish company and suggested last year that a return to Dublin might be possible some day. I doubt it.

The Web Summit has opened an office in Lisbon and if any conference is held in Dublin, it is likely to be an offshoot, like its MoneyConf fintech event.

The heart of the matter is that Dublin’s infrastructure failed to keep step with the Web Summit’s founders’ grand ambitions.

The Web Summit is likely to stay in Lisbon for five more years before moving on to new pastures. When it does, let’s hope the manner of its leaving will be more graceful than that of its departure from Dublin.

In five years’ time – if the arse doesn’t fall out of the tech economy, that is – the Web Summit is likely to leave Lisbon for Barcelona’s Fira (imagine eight or nine Simmonscourt pavilions joined together with state-of-the-art travelators).

My suspicion is that Paddy Cosgrave’s rages against the Irish Government last year were informed by the enticements and cooperation he was being offered elsewhere, by cities like Lisbon and Amsterdam, and the willingness of their senior leaders to get to know young entrepreneurs from the Valley.

Those rages were also most likely informed by the growth culture at the Web Summit. Having studied the founders over the years, the modus operandi of the Web Summit and the generation it represents is “Think Big” at all costs.

Every idea is considered but only those that will scale massively are entertained. It’s the same guiding principle at companies like Facebook, Google and Airbnb.

This jars with the blinkered and conservative “sure, we are too small” mindset that occupies Irish establishment thinking; the same thinking that gave us a two-lane M50, and the same thinking that has turned a property crisis with too many homes into a property crisis with too few homes. And let’s not get started on the health system.

The fact of the matter is that when it comes to infrastructure, Ireland doesn’t think big and it doesn’t plan ahead. That needs to change.

And this doesn’t sit well with a generation of entrepreneurs who grew up fast in a crisis caused by small-town thinking, a gravy train buddy-buddy system involving local politics, developers and planners, and the Byzantine nature of pay agreements between unions and civil servants.

The Web Summit had to go. And it’s not coming back. It served its purpose. It is a fantastic achievement by a group of Irish entrepreneurs and we should respect that and feel proud of it.

It shone a light on Dublin when it needed it most. But now it is gone.

As I switched platforms after five stops, I seethed: ‘We need to think bigger’.

And that’s what wearing the green jersey should really mean.

Updated, 1.14pm, 14 November 2016: This article was amended to clarify that Lisbon has around the same population as Dublin, not half.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years