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The tech/start-up industry has grown up quickly and is now big business in Stockholm. Mundus already frequents the monthly STHLM Tech Meetup, which we find insightful and entertaining. We wondered if it was possible to add anything more, but decided to attend the STHLM Techfest 2017 to find out.
As this blog is written for the beginner, starting out on the tech journey, I’ll begin with a little context. The Tech Meetup and Techfest were begun about 5 years ago, when the Stockholm Business Development Region decided that it wanted to do more to promote what it saw as Stockholm’s natural successes as a tech hub, but inability to convert this into recognition abroad, when compared with other hubs such as London and Berlin. Stockholm Business Development Region employed Tyler Crowley, an American, from LA, to help sell the story. Each month Crowley packs out the Hilton auditorium with 300-400 people, about half of them are there for the first time. Crowley personifies the LA stereotype; loud, assertive, friendly, brash and unafraid to criticise anything that he sees as being off the mark. Nonetheless, he gives criticism from the perspective of doing his best to help. Crowley is the front man with the personality and industry relationships pulling the show together, and generally the monthly Meetups are highly entertaining and informative.
The STHLM Techfest, as its name suggests, aims to deliver more than can be achieved in two hours. This year the program expanded into a third day, with invite only parties preceding the main events. Mundus attended the plenary session on the Monday morning, and then several of the smaller seminars that afternoon and on Tuesday.
On arriving at the Waterfront Congress building, the immediate impression given is that this is big business. The Congress building is a large venue, and Techfest occupied most of it, flowing over several floors. The scale became more pointed on entering the main auditorium – the organisers say that 5,000 people attended, and every one of them appeared to be listening in to Crowley interviewing a stream of guests. The panel guests themselves reinforced the point that tech was no longer the world of geeks. NASDAQ was present for an opening bell ringing ceremony. The CEO of Swedbank participated in an hour-long session about the future of finance, and Poland sent along an Undersecretary of State to make Poland’s pitch to steal a little of Sweden’s success.
What we learned
Mundus follows the future of “tech”, and so while some of the cool things were no longer a shock, its impossible to go to such an event and neither learn or be inspired, and there were still a number of stories with shock value. Here are some of our insights;
- No city or country can afford to be complacent about its tech industry
Well, perhaps Silicon Valley can, but with the exception of the Valley, everywhere else needs to fight to both grow its tech industry and retain market share. It was only a year ago that Stockholm was fighting to establish its brand as the “Unicorn Factory”. According to Crowley, that has attracted many competitors to see what bits they can poach. The Polish undersecretary is just one example.
Tech is a glamorous new age industry. Its ability to create jobs and wealth and project a leadership image for host cities makes it desirable. Tech also requires special talent, both in the sense that really top technical people have a capacity to create far more than dozens of average technicians, and because the skills are often specialised, even niche. No city anywhere in the world has enough of these people, even the Valley, and hence they move in search of the right jobs and best package.
- Finance is being shaken up, and Stockholm is a centre for this transformation
The fact that the CEO of one of the Big 4 banks came attests to the importance that Sweden’s banking industry places on Fintech. She made it equally plain with her words “The industry is changing. Banks need to accept this.” According to CBInsights, Sweden is benefiting from Brexit, and is now second in the league table of deals getting financed, neck and neck with France. The UK has seen its share fall from 45% in 2014 to 34% today, which underlines the point above that no country can be complacent.
- The transport industry will (probably) change completely
If Finance is being shaken, the future of transport is being completely reimagined. That doesn’t guarantee that the changes will happen, but a lot of money is being invested in the belief that it will. Northvolt, which was founded by one of Elon Musk’s ex-lieutenants, is seeking to build a battery Gigafactory expected to cost €4 billion. The batteries are not only intended for cars. They could also be used for grid applications and elsewhere in industry. They might also be used to power aircraft, which is what the German company, Lilium is doing. Mundus confesses to being seriously impressed by this effort, which is designed to allow commuters to take off vertically from a city, avoiding traffic congestion and fly economically to smaller regional centres. The first prototype has flown (see website), so it is already a technical success. Whether you will shortly be seeing these parked on your neighbour’s lawn is now down to economics. (Note: subsequently EasyJet has announced that it is partnering with an American start-up, looking at passenger aircraft to fly eg London-Paris).
It is not just the transport hardware that is changing. Mundus met with the CEO of Greater Than, which has already developed a solution where careful drivers can pay less auto insurance by driving in ways that reduces their risk. It is now selling insurance using a pay-per-trip-km model, utilising diagnostic trackers mounted in the car.
- AI will be here soon
Mundus was excited to use the Artificial Intelligence session we attended to finally resolve the question of how AI was distinguished from its close relative, Machine Learning (or ML). We can now share that with any of you who are wondering. ML is the term used to describe the algorithms that computers run. A human is required to code the computer, but the computer can then do all sorts of calculations far more quickly and economically than any human could. When applied to the vast quantities of data that are now stored it means that computers can produces business and social insights previously unimaginable. But where that becomes AI is in the interface of ML back to humans. Various technologies are being deployed, such as Siri (the voice assistant on Apple), facial recognition and linguistics (what words mean, and what the humans using them are actually saying).
Mundus listened as an expert from IBM’s Watson venture explained that while AI may have been overhyped in the beginning, that real progress was being made, thanks to improvements in computer power, the cloud, the availability of data and falling hardware costs. Hence, as an example, in a couple of years the “bots” that respond to your help online will be providing a vastly improved experience. The expert view was that this was going to be a “jobs killer”. But, this wasn’t necessarily bad or to be resisted, as new jobs and careers will emerge. In the expert’s world machines will be there to work tirelessly, efficiently and without making mistakes, but humans were going to be needed to apply common sense, empathy and morality.
There are a mind blowing array of technologies out there, many of which will be changing your future in ways that you haven’t imagined. For those interested in what’s coming, Stockholm is a great city to be living in, as there are a number of ways to learn and participate. Definitely worth going to STHLM Techfest 2018, but if you don’t want to wait a year, or cant afford the entry fee, head down to the STHLM Tech Meetups, on at the Hilton each month. They’re free!