A glimpse into the tech and tensions of tomorrow at Hamburg's answer to SXSW
Scientists from CERN, AI artists, lawyers dissecting the implications of big data and automation, games developers, and quantum computing experts during the day. Sleaford Mods, the Foals, solo drummers and post punk moshing along a grungy avenue at night. Soak it all up with street food and ill-advised, alcohol-driven art purchases before heading for a couple of hours kip.
No, it wasn’t Austin, Texas, but the notorious Reeperbahn in Hamburg. Though the organisers don’t just welcome the comparison, they’re actively courting it.
NEXT Conference is a German tech festival that coincides and partners with the wild Reeperbahn Festival to bring cutting edge innovation and perspective-shifting pioneers to Hamburg’s dockside red light district. It’s been going since 2006, organised by leading German digital agency Sinnerschrader, which joined Accenture Interactive in 2017. Popular with marketers, agencies and start-ups in Germany, the invite-only gathering is still something of an undiscovered gem in wider Europe and globally – still navigable, not plastered with painful brand sponsorships and with a carefully curated programme that’s relatively light on the creds decks and heavy on heavyweight thinking.
Last week, the two-day NEXT19 event explored the theme of ‘Parallelwelten’ – ‘parallel worlds’ – and allowed speakers to pull the phrase in all sorts of directions. The parallel worlds inhabited by different generations, the generation of virtual worlds and an exploration of the multiverse to name a few. LBB's Laura Swinton took in bratwurst, music and lots and lots of ideas of insight and shares her take-homes here.
The Impossible is Probable
You couldn’t move for physicists at NEXT19 and every one of them wanted to talk multiverses – and what that means on a practical and psychological level. James Beacham of CERN and Duke University kicked off the conference by giving us a crash course on the big bang and the Higgs Boson particle. The talk title woke up the crowd – What’s Outside the Universe? Not without my caffeine mate – but as he walked us through the physical challenges of finding definitive proof of the existence of multiverses (colliders the circumference of the moon), he led us to the one known. The only known universe is this one, and if it’s all we’ve got, are we making the most of it? ‘It seems we can do anything, yet are we doing the right things?’
Meanwhile, if your interest in physics is more practical, César A. Rodriguez-Rosario, physicist and Chief Science Officer at strangeworks gave us an elaborate analogy about drunk maze-goers to illustrate just how significant quantum computing is going to be.
Do It with Purpose
“I’m calling me out. I’m calling out my team, the broader industry. We have to lead with clarity.”
Accenture Interactive's Global CEO Brian Whipple took the topic of possibility to a more grounded level with his argument that purpose beats marketing. Highlighting the very real, very solvable problems that plague the planet – such as logistical gnarl-ups and lack of digital infrastructures getting in the way of emergency aid relief – he asked why investors, brands and businesses seemed preoccupied with frivolous novelty when it came to business decisions. Social and commercial progress, he argued, comes from a solid underpinning of purpose and he identified uncertainty, risk aversion, self-preservation and the psychological ‘permission barrier’ as cognitive barriers that business leaders need to overcome.
When it comes to automation, AI and data, the hype may be real – but the unplanned for consequences of technological advances will be (and are) just as real. Barrister and author Jamie Susskind used a forensic, legal lens to dissect the impact of technology on the law, democracy and freedom. Today, we might be able to use our judgement to break the speed limit in order to get to hospital quicker in an emergency, for example, as the law allows us to be ‘a little bit naughty’, but the rigid future mapped out by self-driving cars and facial recognition may put paid to that very human flexibility. When algorithms can make cleaner, faster decisions than elected representatives, we may soon be faced with profound, constitutional questions about what democracy is and why it’s important. Inbuilt biases in technology will likely disenfranchise minority groups. “The digital is political,” he said. “Software engineers are increasingly social engineers, whether they like it or not.”
Focus on Future Generations
As crowds around the world took to the street to pressure governments to act on the climate crisis, at NEXT19, speakers were showing the ways that governments could and should take responsibility to build a better world for future generations. And there were practical solutions and case studies packed with solid solutions. ‘Changeist’ Scott Smith outlined how he’s been working with the authorities in Dubai to set up the Dubai Future Foundation, to help scientists and civil servants map out ‘probable’, ‘plausible’, and ‘possible’ solutions.
Meanwhile, Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales outlined how the Welsh Assembly has worked with communities to determine what a prosperous, healthy and happy future looks like. It’s her job – etched into law – to hold politicians to account on behalf of the unborn Welsh people of tomorrow. Automation, obesity and climate have been identified as key areas of focus – while social shifts of the recent past such as the banking crisis, the smoking ban and Me Too provide both blueprints and hope. “No one can predict the future – in fact there isn’t ‘a’ future, there are futures,” said Sophie. “What are you going to do to ensure that you are the generation that acts to ensure not their fate, but to ensure the future?”
Art and Understanding
There were a host of creatives on stage, from a variety of discipline, who really demonstrated how art and creativity can help us as individuals contextualise current and coming change. Whether it was Mackevision’s Söhnke Christiansen showing how VR and collaboration with underwater filmmaker and photographer Daniel Opitz on Ocean Mind 3D experience The Humpbacks of Hawaii can use technology to bring us closer to an endangered natural environment or Arcadia Spectacular co-founder Bertie Cole tapping into our enduring need for communal, transcendent experiences with his giant, festival installations.
Christian Mio Loclair of design studio Waltz Binaire took the audience on a philosophical ride through the self with a next-level keynote that rigorously questioned the nature of the self and the place creativity occupies in our understanding of our humanity – and what the rapidly evolving design work created by AI means for all of that. He argued that, in the always-on, information age, we’d become too responsive, too efficient, too machine-like and were losing that which differentiates us from the computers. He showed how the same GAN (generative adversarial networks) technology behind the so-called ‘deep fake’ images and videos can be used to generate everything from photoreal fashion designs to car concepts, posing a real threat to many creative industries. However, one surprising source of hope and magic arose from an unexpected source – while GAN AIs can learn to create all sorts of designs, one things the Waltz Binaire could not teach them is children’s paintings. Too wild, too playful, too unpredictable. “It means that it does not necessarily outperform humans… it outperforms adults.”
Photo credit: photo of artist Carlo Vivary's stall and artowrk at Reeperbahn Festival's Flatstock gig poster market. Check out Carlo's work here.