By Frans Joakim Titulaer
The phenomenon of the tech convention is pulling an ever wider range of industries into its swirl. Tech is no longer simply the computer industry; rather, it claims to be the driver of the next industrial revolution. I visited Slush, the largest tech convention in Northern Europe, and was astounded. What we saw was something that currently lacks a name or a description. It was simply called Slush.
Arriving in Helsinki, I was surprised to find that my cheap and rather lousy hostel was fully booked. Every hostel, airbnb and hotel in town was packed. Slush gathers 17,000 techies from around the world in the Finnish capital each year, and is now also establishing itself in Tokyo and Beijing. I had won my ticket at a so-called ‘hackathon’. Before attending the hackathon, I didn’t know what Slush or a hackathon was. In their attempts to stimulate a new high-tech economy, Innovation Norway and its equivalents across Scandinavia are investing heavily in teaching potential entrepreneurs about new ways of building businesses. One of the strategies for engaging and teaching young entrepreneurs is the hackathon which is a pitching competition where one has about 24 hours to prepare a demonstration of an business idea that can convince judges or investors of its viability.
After having undergone a day of pitch coaching at Slush, we arrived at the convention hall, passing under a sea of neon glowing dream catchers. A hanging mist across the hall and lasers moving overhead recreated the aura of a bass pumping rave festival, only without the bass. The entire thing was designed
to attract attention. It was like a reality show in which the idea of reality had been replaced with a strange idea of the future. The viability of the ideas on display were not in question, because as opposed to the small hackathon I entered in Norway, these companies had already established themselves in the market and were here seeking investors and partners.
There were eight stages, the largest of which was surrounded by a fire-spewing moat, accompanied by lights and visual effects that could compete with any music festival. And like at a music festival, there are stands selling t-shirts to young people from all over the world who are lining up to document the experience. The walls are clad in black, and all the decorations are custom made. Food stall tables are covered with sheets of old Nokia dial boards and lamps filled with electric cables. In an effort to stay hot and provocative, Helsinki have left itself looking like a Nokia graveyard. And did it well. Slush is itself only possible because of the information technologies that Nokia once made, which today make it possible for people to travel with a sense of ease. This technology allows hundred of thousands of ‘kids’ to gather at festivals each year. These are logistical wonders.
At my hostel, my new friends told me that being successful at Slush is all about leveraging your contacts on social media to expand your network. From your own office or living room, you figure out who’s who and how to approach them at the right moment. Instead of building local businesses, one seeks a network of professionals to ‘be’ global, not to go global. One conversation about the future of venture capitalism described this trend well. It is clear, it was claimed, that corporations no longer innovate. Since every firm must compete to incorporate the best ‘venture mechanisms’ and to test out startup products in their corporate sale ventures, capitalists are becoming their own media houses and competing independently to reach wider audiences.
This year the Crown Prince of Norway was one of the Norwegian representatives at the conference. The Crown Prince, and countless government institutions present, were actively promoting a new kind of ethics. One independent speaker presented it as an ethics in which data should be open, just because it could. Further, it is an ethics in which a service should be extended because products in the digital age are reproduced at zero marginal cost. Like venture capitalists, governments are beginning to show their presence on the stage of new media, and not only in the world of politics.
On a systemic level, governments are fighting to stay attractive in the hyper-capitalistic sphere of tech. For sure, government has always played a major part in economic and socio-technical development, but new technological solutions under the banner of Big Data and Arti cial Intelligence are bringing solutions down from the population to the individual level. Systems that help make management decisions about humans relations (HR), that analyse agile team performance, and that adapt knowledge management systems to the learning behavior of individuals, will transform not only business but organizational work and learning.
These are technologies of mass education at a completely different level, and a festival like Slush represents a new form of regulated freedom. The technologies that create this hybrid between a festival and a market seem to be the same as those sought in government and large business. These skills and resources are what makes Slush the newest and hottest event in the world of tech, and each and every one of us contribute to it, with our minds, our networks and our convictions to these technologies.