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When worlds collide in New Orleans

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For three sunny days, a motley crew of venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs, coders, musicians, journalists, marketers, NFL football players and even a former US Vice President collided in New Orleans for three days of panels, speeches and workshops to discuss the latest and greatest in the world of tech.

An offshoot of Europe-based Web Summit billed as “Coachella for Geeks”, Collision Conference is a three-day conference focused on bringing together the globe’s brightest tech minds to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. With a dizzying array of speakers and mini-conferences covering start-ups, big data, robotics, advertising/marketing and SaaS, three key themes appeared throughout the conference:

1. Greed is good…is not good

With hundreds of budding entrepreneurs seeking advice (and capital!) from investors, naturally many conversations turned to: ‘How can I get noticed?’

Resoundingly, investors had an answer: have a purpose other than simply making money. On a panel titled Where I’m putting my money this year, both Floodgate’s Mike Maples and 500 Startups’ Christine Tsai agreed that companies with a strong purpose and a laser-focus on the problem they’re setting out to solve get the attention of investors – and that purpose can’t just be to make money and attract funding. Having a good USP, the ability to navigate tricky issues and an awareness of when to strike while the iron’s hot will make the investors stick around – but they’ll notice you for your purpose-first approach.

Indeed, as Intel Capital’s Christine Herron said on the closing day: “Investors want to write a check to someone who gets up, thinks about a problem and focuses on solving it. If they do that, the value will follow.”

2. Tech has a vital role to play in making the world a better place

From fighting climate change to defending civil liberties to expanding access to digital skills and broadband, business and political leaders implored the tech community to use their knowledge to solve the world’s ills.

This was a far cry from the cool robots and flashy gadgets one might expect to see at a tech conference. With a myriad of challenges facing the world, tech entrepreneurs need to think about how they can use their expertise to solve these problems argued Al Gore and Microsoft President Brad Smith.

Indeed, new technologies have already helped in ways we may not recognise. Transgender Olympian and activist Chris Mosier noted how finding information and supportive communities online were vital in helping him understand who he was and help him through his transition. And actress Sophia Bush and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Susan Herman pointed to new organisations and movements like BetterBrave, AllVoices and #MeToo which are not only helping women report sexual harassment and providing them with helpful resources, but also connecting supportive communities online.

3. Restoring humanity to the heart of technology

Call it a backlash against the fears of robot armies taking over the world, but again and again, we heard references to the human side of technological advances.

Some of the key discussions were around the very real concern people have about the privacy of their personal data and the steps companies are taking to allay these fears.

However many other conversations were around success stories that rely on human creativity, community and ingenuity. Minted founder Mariam Naficy talked about how her company hosts crowdsourced design challenges which allow individual artists and designers to create, upload, and, ultimately, monetise their creations – helping create a new cadre of freelance entrepreneurs. And musicians Wyclef Jean and Jillionaire pointed out that young artists’ careers are being boosted both by social media which puts them in conversation directly with fans and other artists and by platforms like Spotify that help their music reach new audiences and communities.

In the TalkRobot mini-conference, we met Kuri the Home Robot, built by Mayfield Robotics to become a ‘part of the family’, capturing photography and video of families’ daily lives. Kuri is designed to be friendly, approachable and humble, design traits meant to elicit emotions from her human owners, fostering trust and respect. This isn’t just so that they will be enticed to buy her and welcome her into their homes, but also so that they will like her so much that they will forgive her when she makes mistakes – a reminder that human feelings are still central to tech design.

So what does the future hold?

If Collision Conference is a harbinger of things to come, we’ll see tech continuing to break down barriers and move society forward, but only if we focus on ingenuity instead of greed, understand the impact on humanity of what we are creating and try our best to ensure technology is a force for good.

Further reading / viewing:

  • Collision is leaving New Orleans and moving to Toronto: find out why

  • Al Gore: Investing in the transition to a sustainable economy